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  • Louisa Willcox

"Brandy" Brandborg: Keeper of the Flame for Wilderness

I was 14 when I first saw the impossible soaring backbone of the Northern Rockies. As a kid from fenced-in farm country in eastern Pennsylvania, I was not prepared for the immensity of the wild country I found in the West. I never would have predicted how Wilderness, and the fierce elder statesmen who championed its preservation, would forever change me. These include the last living architect of the 1964 Wilderness Act, Stewart “Brandy” Brandborg.

Into the Wild

My first Wilderness immersion took place in Wyoming’s Absaroka Mountains. Never before had I seen a landscape without a road running through it. I was, at first, totally unprepared for snow in July and for roiling, glacially-fed rivers that tumbled me and stole my breath.

In the Absarokas and other Wilderness areas I have since explored, I found a sense of freedom, adventure, of being in touch with part of myself I did not know existed, of breaking the strict codes that came with a Quaker upbringing. Here, I could not remain absorbed by the angst that plagues every teenager. For these were real mountains—nothing like the diminutive Poconos of Pennsylvania—and they demanded my full attention.

I will never forget my first sight of elk as they grazed in an alpine meadow, fat from a summer on lush grass. The peaceful scene was interrupted by the unearthly sound of bugling and the arrival of a frantic bull with enormous antlers. The sound of elk bugling has become, for me, a signature call of the wild.

Meeting the Grand Old Man Behind The Wilderness Act

With my growing love affair with the wild, it was only a matter of time before I met Brandy. My first meeting occurred at the historic Baxter Hotel in Bozeman during 1986, at a gathering of activists who were campaigning for a Montana-wide Wilderness bill. I had just moved to Montana from Wyoming, where I had played a small role in a successful push to protect roughly a million acres of National Forest as Wilderness in 1982. I had just been hired as program director of the newly formed Greater Yellowstone Coalition—my first environmental job. This meeting was my first exposure to like-minded Montanans who would come to be, for a time, family.

With a twinkle in his grey eyes, Brandy not only made me feel welcome, but needed. A legendary leader of the wilderness movement, Brandy knew the ins and outs of Congress, federal land managing agencies, and grassroots organizing. He had, in fact, been on the inside of the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which codified our nation’s commitment to preserving its wild heritage. As Executive Director of The Wilderness Society for more than a decade, Brandy had been midwife to one of the nation’s strongest environmental laws.

Brandy’s zeal set the tone of that meeting, and many since. Over the years, I have met many advocates, but very few with the purity of Brandy’s passion or the power of his vision. With an uncanny ability to nurture strengths in other people, Brandy often left each of us with a daunting “to do” list.

Brandy: At Home in the Bitterroot

Brandy reminded me of his talents all over again just a few weeks ago. My husband David Mattson and I visited him in his cozy home in the Bitterroot Valley, where rime festooned the trees with white icy feathers. On the wall were pictures of Brandy seated at a table next to President Nixon, and Brandy with other environmental heroes, such as Olaus Murie.

These days Brandy looks a bit like Santa Claus, and his voice sounds jolly even when the topics he discusses are not. He held forth as he always does, on the need for citizen action and vigilance to protect the wild. Jealously guarded by his feisty Pomeranian, Teddy, Brandy asked my husband, David Mattson, what he was doing to leave the world a better place – which of course meant more protected landscapes and wildlife. It was quintessential Brandy – still organizing at 92.

It turned out that Brandy and David had a lot in common, especially the study of wildlife that live in remote wild country. David got his PhD on grizzly bear ecology at the University of Idaho, while years earlier, at the same university Brandy got his Masters with the first monograph about mountain goats. Among other firsts, Brandy saw a golden eagle snatch and carry off a 7 pound mountain goat kid from a cliff ledge along the Rocky Mountain Front.

After an eight year stint studying big game species for Montana and Idaho, Brandy moved to D.C. in 1954 to serve as Assistant Conservation Director for the National Wildlife Federation. Back then, the idea of setting aside vast tracts of public land as Wilderness was novel if not revolutionary. But the time was ripe to consider new land protections as more people were exploring the backcountry in the wake of World War 2—and threats were mounting in the form of clearcutting, roadbuilding, oil and gas drilling, and proposals to dam the country’s last great free-flowing rivers.

The Brandborgs of the Bitterroot, and their Guests

Growing up in the Bitterroot Valley, Brandy had seen firsthand how quickly and completely the natural world could be wrecked. And he watched his father, also known as “Brandy,” do something about it.

Brandy Senior was a forester whose last stint in government service was as Supervisor of the Bitterroot National Forest. During his two decades in this post, Brandy Senior had been careful to limit logging to sustainable levels—which meant mostly selective harvest rather than clearcutting.

But over time, pressure grew to increase the cut, and the practice of clearcutting escalated. The long-held philosophy of managing resources sustainably for future generations was replaced by the goal of maximizing short-term corporate profits. When he retired, Brandy Senior had no choice but to create and lead opposition to the change in Forest Service management. This meant building a grassroots campaign that could change minds in Washington, D.C. The campaign culminated in Congress passing the National Forest Management Act in 1976, the year before Brandy Senior died.

Brandy Junior learned much from his dad, not just about the forests and ecology, but also about generating and sustaining a citizen response to rein in an agency captured by the industries it was supposed to regulate.

As soon as Brandy Junior was old enough to walk, he ventured with his family by car, and later on horseback and on foot, into the wilds of Montana and Idaho. This from young Brandy about a trip into Salmon River country: “I recall very distinctly the long rides up that road with our dog Bob, the Model T boiling, and the very, very narrow circuitous route on those bald hills where you knew that if the car rolled, it wouldn’t stop for a thousand or two thousand feet.”

Through his dad, Brandy Junior also met the giants of conservation at the time. Among them was Gifford Pinchot, the Forest Service’s first professionally trained Chief. Pinchot was horrified to see large corporations enriching themselves on the Bitterroot and other Forests at the expense of the broader public trust. A Jeffersonian at heart, Pinchot believed that National Forests should be managed to sustain local enterprise, and limited, small-scale logging.

Bob Marshall, one of the early leaders of the Wilderness movement, also paid the Brandborg family a visit after one of his epic hikes. Brandy Junior, who was then 12 years old, remarked that: “Marshall’s face was red as a beet. He was sunburned to the point of having cooked himself.”

From his dad, Brandy learned communication and networking skills, and the ability to charm people, whether they were political bigwigs or local shop keepers. Both men shared a near superhuman commitment to a positive vision of change. As told in a delightful book, The Bitterroot and Mr. Brandborg, even while he was dying in a hospital in Missoula, Brandy Senior set up an office to continue his conservation work in his room, laid out his notes on hospital carts, and enlisted the nurses to dial his phone calls.

Importantly, Brandy inherited from his dad a firm belief in democracy and the ability of citizens to change the direction of government. In our recent conversation, Brandy again reminded us that a democratic government must serve the American people, not special interests—and that National Forests belong to all of us. I was struck by how rarely I hear invocations of the public trust or democracy by conservationists these days…

Wilderness: “Where Man is a Visitor Who Does Not Remain”

Brandy’s people skills stood him in good stead during the battle to pass a national Wilderness bill. Elected to the Council of The Wilderness Society (TWS) in 1956, Brandy worked closely with TWS director Howard Zahniser to develop the needed support.

In the language of the Act, “Wilderness is an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” There is little ambiguity in the Act’s statement of purpose: “In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.”

Needless to say, special interests pressed their allies in Congress, including Colorado Congressman Wayne Aspinall, Chair of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, to block the bill. The multi-year logjam only broke after a personal phone call from President John Kennedy persuaded Aspinall to let the bill through his committee.

In 1964, as the bill was making its final journey through Congress, Zahniser died suddenly of a heart attack. Brandy was immediately catapulted into the position of Executive Director of TWS. Just a few months later, the bill passed the House with only one dissenting vote.

On September 3, the Wilderness Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, who remarked: “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them something more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning.”

Brandy later reflected: “I had to shepherd the bill through House committee… It took a ‘great groundswell’ of public support” from all over the country to overcome resistance the bill met since its introduction in 1956.” But public support came through, “from across the country, from the remote reaches of Alaska to the Florida Keys, as Congress received more letters of support than any other of its time.”

Growing the Wilderness System and Grassroots Activists

Always humble, Brandy is quick to give credit to others for the passage of the Act. “Had we not had John Kennedy the few weeks before his passing, had we not had Zahniser, we would not have the law we have today,” he said. But Brandy too deserves considerable credit, not just with passage of the law, but with the subsequent expansion of the Wilderness system from 9.1 million acres in 1964 to 110 million acres today.

For years, Brandy crisscrossed the country to cultivate and train citizen activists, teaching them to carry out field studies on prospective Wilderness; to work with the agencies charged with managing the areas; to testify effectively; and to carry out grassroots publicity and lobbying campaigns to win Congressional designation of the areas. Under Brandy’s leadership, the membership of TWS grew fourfold, and so did the acres designated as Wilderness.

After TWS, Brandy went on to work for the Assistant Secretary of the Department of Interior and the National Park Service, teaching staff how to work more effectively with citizen activists in building support for the National Park system.

If that were not enough, Brandy is credited with one of the earliest environmental justice initiatives, bringing the United Auto Workers and the Urban League together with environmental organizations to explore common ground. “Whether it’s wilderness issues or planning, bringing together people of different viewpoints is key,” Brandy says.

And Brandy somehow found the time to help his friends John and Frank Craighead secure passage of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which they authored. Enlisting the help of Congressman John P. Saylor of Pennsylvania, the original House of Representatives sponsor of the Wilderness Act, Brandy ensured that the bill would sail smoothly through Congress.

A Wild Legacy

Many of us who are or have been leaders in the environmental movement have been inspired and encouraged by Brandy somewhere along the way. His fire and stubborn optimism are contagious.

To his protegees, these will be familiar words: “Your roles as leaders…in maintaining the wild is essential. If I had one admonishment, I would say go forth and enlist citizens who care about the wilderness, who will spend time and energy in seeing that it’s preserved in a wild state. … you are the emissaries.” Who can resist such a directive?

Brandy’s admonition is particularly powerful as threats to Wilderness have continued to mount over the years. In a speech given during the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Act, Brandy offered this: “Only fifty years ago, when I helped organize the uniquely American popular movement to pass the Wilderness Act, we did not dream of the pace of change and rapid exploitation of natural resources that we face today. In this age of climate change, species extinction and all too widespread unraveling of the natural world that we all depend on, it is more critical than ever to preserve what wilderness we have left.”

You can add recreation to Brandy’s list of threats. World War 2 left us with the Willie’s jeep and an appetite to drive anywhere it can take you. Jeep and offroad vehicle use is now recognized by the Forest Service as a primary threat to public lands and Wilderness. And, today, mountain bikers are emerging as vigorous opponents of further Wilderness expansion in many parts of the West.

Making matters worse, new toys are steadily being manufactured that can access the most remote recesses, including paragliders, snowmobiles capable of climbing near vertical slopes, and portable “packrafts.” A hunger to play with such toys anywhere is now splitting the wilderness movement.

Brandy notes that “commodification of the natural world is…often based on resource extraction. Now we see… the expanding self-interests of recreation. Humility is too often replaced by a sense of entitlement and selfishness. We are seeing accelerated loss of wilderness as well as the erosion of selfless values and actions that set the stage for Wilderness designation.”

Keepers of the Flame

Our elders, who fought selflessly and courageously to protect Wilderness for future generations, are leaving us. I regret that I never got to meet some of the luminaries who were Brandy’s contemporaries in the battle for the Wilderness Act. Bob Marshall died tragically young, at 38, in 1939. Aldo Leopold passed away the year before. Scientist and conservationist Olaus Murie died just two years before The Wilderness Act passed, and his twin brother Adolphe, also a scientist, died in 1974.

Of other heroes who I was blessed to know, most have passed on: the indomitable Mardy Murie, Olaus’ wife and long-time wilderness champion; Frank and John Craighead, preeminent scientists and advocates who brought grizzly bears into our living rooms on TV (link); Chuck Jonkel, biologist, rebel and educator (link); Luna Leopold, who helped compile and publish his father Aldo’s classic work, Sand County Almanac; Clif Merritt, who helped found the Montana Wilderness Association and worked as Western Representative for TWS during the critical decade following passage of the Act; and my mentor, geologist David Love, who, speaking of the threat of a proposed gold mine on the doorstep of Yellowstone Park, coined the phrase “Yellowstone is more valuable than gold,” which President Clinton later made famous when he stopped the mine permanently.

Brandy and these champions are different in some fundamental ways from many at the helm of today’s conservation groups. They have a certain fierceness and purity of heart that you don’t see anymore.

I am reminded of something Mardy Murie often said, quoting from Tennyson’s poem Sir Galahad: “Go with the strength of ten, because your heart is pure.” That is how I felt after a visit with Mardy or the others—that somehow, because of their blessing, confidence in me, and the force of their personalities, I had the strength to prevail no matter the odds. I look at these visionaries as true “keepers of the flame.”

Unlike many of today’s environmentalists, Brandy and his contemporaries are (or were) also rooted firmly in the land, with a rich knowledge of the natural and human history of the Western landscape. Indeed, they are (or were) Renaissance people who brought their understanding of philosophy, history, science, economics, law and politics to bear to solve complex conservation challenges. In their writings, they often invoke higher principles of democracy and the public trust. In this way, they are a fundamentally different breed than the technocratic bureaucrats who today lead most large environmental groups.

But importantly, technical solutions alone don’t work for complex environmental problems. And demands to raise more and more money tend to turn environmental executives into bean counters, rather than visionaries. Removed from the land in huge offices in the Beltway, and lacking a conservation ethic, today’s leaders are often easily duped into trading wild lands for paper victories that look good in the press, but ultimately harm wilderness.

On Collaboration and Special Interests

Brandy is not alone in challenging organizations for their reliance on big donors such as the Pew Foundation, which is underwritten by Big Oil. Increasingly, such foundations are directing organizations to pursue behind-the-scenes collaborations with industry.

As Brandy observes, “a damaging trend is the increasingly popular Trojan horse of so-called ‘collaboration’. Industry and recreation interests sit down at a table sanctified by politicians beholden to industry campaign money, and divide up America’s shared natural legacy. They are the self-selected deciders for all Americans and serve to displace meaningful participation by other Americans who live further away or cannot afford the time to sit unpaid at the table. The way ‘collaboration’ is being used amounts to collusion by a small club divvying up valuable American public assets.”

Sound familiar?

Whither Wilderness?

Like Brandy, I too have gone grey and bear the scars of decades battling for our public lands. Never did I imagine that anyone would be talking about selling them off to the highest bidder—as are the rabid ideologues who currently control Congress. There is no returning if we go down that path. The wild places that I love—that so many of us love— would be tamed and degraded forever.

As Brandy reminded us a few weeks ago, “Americans need to be vigilant, and constantly active in protecting America's natural wilderness.”

The fight for the Wild is now, as always, a fight for the human spirit and our freedom. As Brandy knows so well, winning will take all of us.

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