Lay of the land 

As the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act approaches, advocates are already facing the next half-century's challenges

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That might be even more rare in another 50 years.

Smoke: Really, yeah, think about it. How many of you do you think push a computer button every day? I never do. I just don’t do that, and pretty near everybody does. “I want to know how to bake a chocolate cake.” [clicks his fingers like on a keyboard] There it is. “I want to know how to fix my car. The starter’s not working.” [clicks again] There it is. “I want to know what Paris looks like in the spring.” [more clicking] There it is.

This is what scares me the worst: “I want to know more about wilderness.” So what do they do? [more clicking] “Oh, I’m in the Absaroka Wilderness. Oh, I’m in the Bob Marshall. Oh, I’m in the Selway-Bitterroot. Now I’ve seen it. I don’t need to go there. I’ve already experienced the wilderness.” They haven’t begun to experience the wilderness.

Smoke, I just got a peek at the film the Forest Service produced for the 50th anniversary (see sidebar). In it one of the high school students from Missoula says he never even realized the Bob Marshall Wilderness existed. How familiar do you think most Montanans are with wilderness?

Smoke: I don’t think they are. There are lots of people in Montana who have lived here all their lives—for instance, Bob Ward and Sons, you heard of that store? Well, Wayne Ward went the first time ever into the Bob Marshall with me, and he was 76 years old. Had never been in the wilderness, ever. And from that time until his death, he went every year … I know of ranchers that live right on the boundary of the Bob Marshall that have never been into the wilderness. Never, never. Same with [former Sen.] Max Baucus. Here his family owns that big ranch right over there, and he’d never been in the wilderness until we called him up … He said, “Well, I’ve got two days. Can we do it in two days?” We said we could do it in three, and by golly we took him in on a three-day trip. Max became aware that wilderness was really valuable. In my opinion, I think that’s what did it. When he got a chance to get his feet on the ground, he said, “I think it is valuable.”

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness

How long ago was that?

Smoke: Oh, golly, that was about 1975, ’73, something like that. We took him on a saddle horse.

And another guy I took in the hills—well, I didn’t really take him in the hills, we actually took him on a ride in the valley here—to his dying day he didn’t understand wilderness at all. That was Ted Kennedy.

You’ve done a lot for wilderness over the years yourself, taking all these folks into the backcountry.

Smoke: Not as much as needed.

Well, what do you hope for in the next 50 years for wilderness? More designations? Increased exposure?

Smoke: I hope people find its value. I think we need some additions to make it more valuable and easier to get at. When you have to drive in the Spotted Bear and go all the way the whole length of the lake before you can get to the wilderness, that’s a long drive, 40 miles. I’m just hoping that with this celebration, in the next five or six months, that we can touch as many individuals as we possibly can and try to get them to at least think about it. If they think about it, most of them will recognize its value. And those who don’t think about it, we’ll probably never get their support. They’ll live their computer life and their cellphone life and call it good.

JW: Eventually, we will get through this congressional dysfunction and bills will move again. I have no doubt of that. We don’t have a crystal ball, we don’t know how many years that’ll take. Maybe it’ll be this year, maybe it’ll be next year, where Montana’s congressional delegation is finally able to reward the hard work that Montanans are putting into these efforts. That’s part of it, getting through Congress.

Although there are two pieces of legislation before Congress, there are six, seven, eight grassroots campaigns around the state that are all looking at their piece of the pie or their backyard. There’s a lineup of these bills that will probably be ready after these other ones are through, so this is going to be a long voyage. There’s more where these came from, and they’ll continue to probably be picked up as long as they’re able to build local support and come up with reasonable recommendations and hit the middle ground. Common sense designations are out there.

The other thing that Smoke was talking about was that importance of the next generation. I think more and more will probably discover this resource that he’s been guiding through for the last 50 years. The Big Sky state has been put on the map, and I think people are moving here because of big, open country, these beautiful lakes, these mountains. That means there’s going to be more of a constituency for wild country as people start linking it to their amenity-based recreation or the reason they’re moving their businesses to Montana. I see a good future, a bright future, once we’re able to finally break through this logjam.

Smoke, you’ve stressed passing the baton a couple times.

Smoke: Yeah, we’ve gotta get it moved on, forward.

JW: We just need 25 more Smoke Elsers out there, taking folks into the wilderness.

Smoke: Ha, no we don’t. We need a lot more of everybody, that’s who we need. Because wilderness is, once it gets into your core, it’s a fundamental part of your being. There’s just no doubt about it. I go to bed at night in the winter, I don’t think about snow drifts and all that stuff. I think about, “Boy, this year I’m going to hit the northern end of the Bob Marshall. I’m going to go down the Middle Fork, across that river, probably in July. I want to see what it looks like around Trilobite Peak.” I dream about all those things. That’s what keeps me alive, keeps me going, even though someday I know I’m not going to be able to get on that horse anymore and ride into the backcountry. The wilderness, it’s always something that’s been there for me. And I hope the younger generations can understand that it’s something they need to experience.

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