Like an oak 

The stubborn Brandborgs and the fight for wilderness

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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.

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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."

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