Like an oak 

The stubborn Brandborgs and the fight for wilderness

Page 3 of 4

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.

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