Like an oak 

The stubborn Brandborgs and the fight for wilderness

It's easy to spot Stewart Brandborg's influence on the landscape. It's visible in what's not here.

Brandborg's most notable accomplishments have come through his work with the Wilderness Society, which he led for 13 years. He helped create the National Wilderness Preservation System, which now protects 109 million acres from Alaska to New Mexico and South Carolina to New York. Montana's share is 3.4 million acres that roll across the Lincoln-Scapegoat, Bob Marshall, and Selway-Bitterroot wildernesses. Brandborg's efforts also opened the door to preservation of the sprawling Rattlesnake Wilderness, in Missoula's back yard.

On a recent rainy Saturday morning in Hamilton, Brandborg, who is 86, white-haired, and plagued by a bad back and wracking cough, is gearing up for another fight. "I've actually got to put my running pants on and get back to work," he says. He's trying to stop a new subdivision that's planned in his neighborhood.

Brandborg—his friends call him Brandy—is a fighter with a contagious cackle of a laugh. He gets around with a walker these days, but his zeal seems undiminished. He's from fighting stock, especially when it comes to saving wilderness, which is almost the Brandborg family business. His father, Guy Brandborg, was one of the early leaders of the conservation movement.

"You can't continue to pollute the air, the water," Brandy says. "You can't continue to raid the public lands. You can't continue destructive mining, logging."

This has been his unceasing cry. And for the Brandborgs, it's always five minutes to midnight:

"I do feel that we are at a critical juncture," he continues. "If people don't show more involvement, the corporate world as we know it will cause the loss of much of what we have."

He's not a man who necessarily looks for compromises, and, as he says, it's led some to label him "the extremist fringe," a "wild-eyed advocate." He wears those badges proudly, but he's prouder still that he's convinced others to follow his lead. "That is the grand elixir," he says. "They get the light of activism in their eye."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

That doesn't mean Brandy is satisfied.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 gave average citizens the tools to fight to keep wild places pristine. In succeeding decades, Montana was in the forefront of that fight. But then it stalled.

"Beginning about 30 years ago, corporate forces, combined with hard-right politics in both Idaho and Montana, exerted a significant amount of anti-wilderness pressure on our two states' delegations and other members of Congress," says Pat Williams, who served nine terms in Congress for Montana between 1979 and 1997. "Ever since then, it has been particularly difficult, particularly for western states, to overcome those forces."

Often the issue is framed as jobs and money versus the intangible value of land left as it is. It's one that's likely to stay before Montanans, at least for the time being. Last week, Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, introduced his most recent draft of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which was first introduced in 2009. It's an effort at compromise that would designate 650,000 Montana acres for wilderness—acreage that western conservationists have long coveted. At the same time, it would set aside nearly 370,000 acres for mixed-use recreation, release portions of wilderness study areas for motorized use, and mandate logging of 100,000 acres of national forest in Montana over 15 years. Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Republican who is challenging Tester for his Senate seat in 2012, has been a severe critic of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, and likely will campaign against it, presumably in part because it creates new wilderness in Montana.

Brandy doesn't like it either. Rehberg has said his opposition to Tester's bill stems partly from the way it was put together. So does Brandborg's: He decries a lack of grassroots input. "What we see here is a usurpation of national forest management," he says. "If this goes through as written, it means that this particular senator has dictated what's going to happen to those acreages."

click to enlarge “They try to always say this is the extremist fringe, you are the wild-eyed advocate,” says Stewart Brandborg. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MONTANA ENVIRONMENTAL INFORMATION CENTER
  • Photo courtesy of Montana Environmental Information Center
  • “They try to always say this is the extremist fringe, you are the wild-eyed advocate,” says Stewart Brandborg.

Opposition like Rehberg's has gathered steam and force lately. Brandy, meanwhile, is where he's always been, and where his father was before him: arguing for the people's right to wilderness, and not yielding an inch.

'They took the Bitterroot'

It can sometimes seem these days as though the preservation of wilderness is a timeless American value. It wasn't always that way. Europeans came to the New World and found dark forests where they were sure man-eating animals and dangerous Native Americans lurked. So they cleared them, and went on clearing them as they moved west. Even before the timber was needed, the United States government encouraged clear-cutting in the name of dominion, just as it urged its citizens to drain swamps that they would one day seek to restore as wetlands.

Gifford Pinchot would become the nation's chief forester. When he was coming of age in the 1880s, he wrote in his autobiography, "the greatest, swiftest, the most efficient, and the most appalling wave of forest destruction in human history was then swelling to its climax in the United States. Nobody knew how much timberland we had left, and hardly anybody cared."

Roughly half of the nation's wooded areas were in private hands. Businesses devoured old-growth trees. "What talk there was about forest protection was no more than the buzzing of a mosquito," Pinchot wrote, "and just about as irritating."

When President Theodore Roosevelt took office, in 1901, the nation's consciousness began a slow shift. Roosevelt had discovered the redeeming power of wild places in the West as a young man. He became president as a consensus formed that the continent was fully settled. On the heels of that realization came alarm in some quarters that the natural world was disappearing.

click to enlarge news_feature-3.jpg

Roosevelt appointed the populist Pinchot to lead the newly formed Forest Service in 1905, and saw the federal government's land inventory grow from 40 million acres to nearly 200 million by 1910. Early acquisitions included Montana's Beaverhead and Deerlodge national forests. Under Pinchot's leadership, there was controlled logging on federal lands, but the idea was also to preserve them for future generations.

Pinchot's writings enraptured Guy Brandborg. Born in 1893, the elder Brandborg came to believe in the Forest Service's mission, to manage forests as a way to sustain the economy for the long haul, by living off the interest while leaving the woody principal untouched. When he was named Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor in 1935, he felt like he'd arrived at the right place at the right time to do great things.

"He was consumed—that's the word—by his desire to have people know what the national forests are: that they belong to the public," Brandy says of his father, who died in 1977. "That was his principal motivating conviction...If they understood that the forests were to serve the public, they would focus and be supportive of the agency, supportive of programs."

Guy resisted pressure by superiors and industry to increase logging on public lands. It wasn't long after that, says Brandy, "with his espousal of that fine stuff, that he was recognized by the corporate world as the source of too much enlightenment."

Guy was an advocate of social forestry—loosely, the doctrine that all citizens should have a voice in how forests are managed. In 1949, the Department of Agriculture accused him of disloyalty to the United States. He was ordered to prove he wasn't a communist.

"No evidence for these accusations was given," writes Frederick H. Swanson in his new biography of Guy, The Bitterroot & Mr. Brandborg. "Brandborg was allowed 15 days to answer the charges in writing and was given the right to request a hearing. His reply was earnest, heartfelt, and reasonable, indicating he still did not fully understand the nature of the game he was in."

Guy was an amiable man who had made a lot of friends, including some among Montana's elite who vouched for him. He was cleared of the charges in six months. After he retired from the Forest Service in 1955, he watched in growing horror as machines cut terraces in the Bitterroot Forest's hillsides and new roads sprawled throughout it to accommodate more logging trucks with bigger loads of old-growth timber. Wildlife was displaced. Sediments, the result of erosion from clear cutting, washed into valleys, wiping out irrigation ditches.

"By God, they came in, three major logging companies and great big mills, to take the Bitterroot," Brandy says. "And they did take the Bitterroot."

When Guy supervised the forest, he'd directed that no more than 7.5 million board feet of ponderosa pine be cut per year, a quantity that he thought was sustainable. In 1969, the Forest Service says, it allowed 71.6 million board feet of timber to be harvested.

In ostensible retirement, Guy led a coalition of farmers, loggers, and other citizens who fought to save the forest, arguing their case with Congress, the Forest Service, and the press. In 1969, he approached Dale Burk, a young Missoulian reporter.

Burk was a third-generation Montanan, the son and brother of loggers. Guy invited Burk to dinner at his two-story home on the west side of Hamilton, and told him that the Forest Service was harvesting an unsustainable amount of timber in the Bitterroot Forest without the public's consent.

click to enlarge The Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

Soon Burk was on the story. "I really resented the fact that these people were lying when I came to realize what they were doing," he recalls. "I grew up in the wood products industry. I believed it was being done on a sustained-yield basis. And it was not. And when we sought answers, we got lied to."

Burk wrote a series of articles detailing his findings. "It was the first time anybody had publicly challenged the Forest Service," he says.

In 1976, Congress passed the National Forest Management Act, seeking to better balance the interests of conservationists and recreational users with those of the timber industry, by enacting guidance for timber harvesting and requiring public involvement in forest plans. All of that, says Burk, began with Guy Brandborg.

Nature unfettered

Mid-way through Guy's tenure at the Bitterroot National Forest, his son Stewart, then 18, got a Forest Service summer job as a fire lookout at Ward Mountain, in the Bitterroots. He had food, a bedroll, and a few books. The wind blew incessantly, he recalls. Golden-mantled squirrels scurried through the brush, mountain goats scaled the granite range, and Brandy got indoctrinated in the family business. It was the doctrine of wilderness.

"For me, it's unspoiled nature," he says now, "the natural world, the combination of flowing streams in the Bitterroot or even in the desert—the isolation; what you see, what you feel, and the fact that it is unspoiled, not impacted by human beings...You have the epitome of natural forces working unchallenged, unfettered."

That appreciation carried Brandy through a master's degree in forestry from the University of Idaho and more than a decade of work as a wildlife biologist for state and federal agencies in Idaho and Montana. And then he met Howard Zahniser, who took his zeal to a new level.

Zahniser, the son of a Pennsylvania minister, was the executive secretary of the Wilderness Society. The conservation group was founded in 1935, the same year Guy started work in the Bitterroot Forest, by the naturalist Aldo Leopold and influential forester Bob Marshall, among others. "All we desire to save from invasion," they proclaimed, "is that extremely minor fraction of outdoor America which yet remains free from mechanical sights and sounds and smells."

Zahniser, a prolific writer and a powerful speaker, was intent on creating a new national wilderness system. Unlike federal forests, these lands would remain off-limits to commerce such as logging and to mechanized activities. "Our noblest, happiest character develops with the influence of wilderness," he wrote. "Away from it we tend to degenerate into the squalor of slums or the frustration of clinical couches. With the wilderness we are at home."

click to enlarge Veteran forester Guy Brandborg fought to preserve public forests for the next generation. - PHOTO COURTESY OF STEWART BRANDBORG
  • Photo courtesy of Stewart Brandborg
  • Veteran forester Guy Brandborg fought to preserve public forests for the next generation.

Zahniser was a kind and gentle man, Brandy recalls. "He was smooth. I was persuaded, seduced, by this wonderful character." Brandy had found a mentor. Zahniser had found a protégé.

In 1960, Brandy became the Wilderness Society's associate executive director, serving under Zahniser in Washington, D.C.

From 1956 to 1964, Zahniser wrote 66 drafts of a federal wilderness bill that would realize his vision, penning some at his living room table, searching for the right language to move the gears of government. Congress vetted the bill through 18 hearings. Industry lobbies were no happier than they had been when Teddy Roosevelt created the Forest Service.

"All the commodity outfits—gas, oil, timber—landed on the wilderness bill," Brandy says. "Total opposition—'It will never go anywhere.' And they owned a lot of members of Congress."

Both houses of Congress finally passed the Wilderness Act in 1963. Zahniser died in 1964, four months before President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law.

The Act permanently closed 9.1 million acres of federal land to most forms of development, including roads, dams, buildings, motorized activity, and resource extraction. It ordered the Forest Service, the National Park Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service to survey other roadless lands for possible wilderness designations. Its advocates said it democratized the process whereby wilderness areas could be set aside for protection. It also whetted Brandy's appetite: "I was looking up at the ceiling saying, 'Oh my God, we got only nine million acres, and there's all this stuff in the parks, and the refuges, and the forest.'"

Each new candidate for a wilderness designation would have to be mapped, its pristine qualities quantified. The proposal would then be vetted through a public hearing, and by Congress and then the president, before it could be placed in the national preservation system.

Brandy built a grassroots wilderness movement. In communities across the nation, he tracked down people with a demonstrated love of nature, such as birders. "I'd smell around...I'd call and say, 'Can I come over for breakfast, lunch, or dinner?'"

click to enlarge Stewart Brandborg likes to sit on his deck outside Hamilton overlooking the Bitterroot Mountains. It’s a good place to think about all of the things he still has to do. - PHOTO BY ELIZABETH COSTIGAN
  • Photo by Elizabeth Costigan
  • Stewart Brandborg likes to sit on his deck outside Hamilton overlooking the Bitterroot Mountains. It’s a good place to think about all of the things he still has to do.

He took Zahniser's place at the head of the Wilderness Society, serving there until 1977, as the environmental movement grew and groups such as his helped strengthen protections for public lands.

Brandy came back to Montana in 1986. He served as the first president of Friends of the Bitterroot, which sought to ensure that the Forest Service in Montana adhered to federal environmental laws. And he took on a variety of other local environmental issues.

Depending on how you look at it, he was either saving wilderness or locking up public lands. Brandy would say the public was saving the lands. But there was also a growing backlash.

'This has been a hard thing'

On a Friday morning at the end of May, Craig Thomas is gassing up his truck. The 63-year-old was just laid off at another job, this time in Lakeview, Ore., where he was a welder. Now he has a 12-hour trip home to the Bitterroot Valley.

Thomas's father was a coal miner in Illinois who told his son to make his living some other way—any other way. So Craig moved west, to Montana, where he hoped to find more space and opportunity as well as the wilderness he loves. He first thought of becoming a forester when he saw the way a logging outfit botched a job on his family's farm: "It was just all of the dastardly things you hear. You know, when you look at a logger you think of an evil, Darth Vader-kind of guy, and that's what happened to us...We had this mess that took about 40 years to get where it's okay now."

So Thomas went to forestry school. He invested in logging equipment and worked steadily for decades.

There was a time when Thomas made a decent living in Montana, he says, but that's over. Now, logging in the Bitterroots has become cumbersome and unprofitable, he says, due to the flipside of zealous conservation: excessive regulation. His last Forest Service contract was seven inches thick, he says; he knows because he measured it with his carpenter's rule. Complying with all its mitigation mandates, such as ceasing work if the soil is too wet, eats into any profit, he says. He'd planned on 180 days of work for himself and a crew under that last contract, he says, but he was forced to shut the job down after 57 days. "My guys were crying at me, saying 'Craig, we're only working two days out of three, I can't feed my family.'"

The last time Thomas logged in Montana was almost three years ago, a job on private land. In the meantime, he's worked in Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Minnesota, California, and Nevada. More nights than he cares to count, he misses dinner with his wife. "Poor soul, she got tangled up with me. She should have found some other fellow...this has been a hard thing."

Who's keeping him from working in Montana? To Thomas it's clear: folks like the Brandborgs and their allies, who have fought to protect forests and wilderness areas. The restrictions in his last contract, he says, "are directly the result" of litigation "that developed these mitigation factors." Conservationists talk a lot about battling industry, he says, but what about the loggers? Many of the restrictions that hamper his vocation are devised during administrative hearings, he says, which many working folks can't attend. "We're busy trying to make a living."

click to enlarge Nearly 50 years ago, Stewart Brandborg helped form a grassroots movement that ensured 109 million acres of wilderness would stay pristine in perpetuity. - PHOTO COURTESY OF STEWART BRANDBORG
  • Photo courtesy of Stewart Brandborg
  • Nearly 50 years ago, Stewart Brandborg helped form a grassroots movement that ensured 109 million acres of wilderness would stay pristine in perpetuity.

Gordy Sanders is the resource manager at Pyramid Mountain Lumber, the oldest family-owned and –operated lumber mill in Montana. Sanders has been in the wood-products business for 40 years. At least 30 mills in Montana have closed in the last two decades, he says, largely because the federal government is an undependable partner.

The Bitterroot Forest yielded 3.5 million board feet of lumber last year, less than 5 percent of its 1969 level.

"We're seeing a significant reduction in the amount of logs on trucks," Sanders says. "It takes years and years and years for the agencies to offer a sale."

Thomas says all of this doesn't make him angry so much as jealous. From where he sits, it looks like Brandy has won. "I have great respect for the individual, even the stuff he did to eliminate me," he says. "I wish I had done half as well."

No surrender

At 53, Dan Brandborg, one of Brandy's five children, says he doesn't have the same will to organize the masses shared by his father and grandfather, whom he affectionately describes as "bossy." When it comes to being the child of a zealot, he says, he and his siblings joke that "if dad had gone into Christianity, we would all have really been in trouble."

As it is, they've felt the heat generated by Brandy's and Guy's ardor. In 1988, their family cabin in Tin Cup Canyon burned. The family suspected it was arson. "It was pretty darn suspicious," says Dan, a renewable-energy consultant. "The cabin was a real blow, but it's just part of it."

The fire was perhaps emblematic of the passion behind the continuing debate about how best to manage Montana's miles and miles of hills, mineral deposits, and forests. Land is no abstraction in Montana, says Pat Williams: "It's real. We work, live, and play on it. And so it's not entirely unusual that we'd be willing to fight over it as well. And we do."

Lately, Sen. Tester, with his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, has put himself forward as a referee. "Montanans put down their fists and, with great humility, worked together to create something big," he said of his bill last week. "Everyone gave a little and will get a lot."

No, Brandy says. The bill would set a dangerous precedent. No lawmaker in D.C. should tell a forester how to do her job or tell citizens how to manage their lands. "It just opens the door to shoot-from-the-hip management."

More specifically, some conservationists balk at Tester's compromise because it would remove wilderness study areas from protection, including land in the Sapphire and west Pioneer mountains.

click to enlarge The University of Montana College of Forestry and Conservation awards Brandborg an honorary doctorate degree last year. - PHOTO COURTESY OF STEWART BRANDBORG

Meanwhile, multiple-use proponents such as the Gallatin Valley-based Citizens for Balanced Use, which advocates for motorized recreation on public lands, contend that wilderness designations tend "to privilege some parts of social culture and nature at the expense of others." Putting more land in Montana out of bounds for resource extraction will further hinder job growth in the state, says CBU board member Kerry White. "We're kind of in the fight of our life here," he says.

Echoing Rep. Rehberg's opposition, White says he's afraid that if Tester's bill passes, its only concession to industry, the logging mandate, will be tied up in years of litigation. The only guarantee in the bill is hundreds of thousands of additional acres of wilderness, he says. It's "totally bogus."

Sanders, of Pyramid Mountain Lumber, disagrees. Tester's bill could bring a needed boost to the Montana timber industry, Sanders says, and break a 30-year impasse over the state's public lands.

As the debate over Tester's bill intensifies, Brandy looks through his living room window, to the Bitterroot Mountains, and gets ready for another day. "The war will go on," he says.

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