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  • Louisa Willcox

Wild Thoughts About the Wild Gallatin

by Louisa Willcox

For the last 30 years a view of the stunning Gallatin Range in southwestern Montana has greeted me nearly every morning. Our window looks out on three dark green hogbacks that link the broad belly of Paradise Valley to the spine of the Gallatin Mountains. Her expression shapes my day, sometimes glowering, radiant, or showing off a new white cap. Her moods are quicksilver and sometimes terrifying, as in August 2001, when high winds bellowed the Gallatin’s Fridley fire and etched the night horizon with a curled lip of angry orange.

Today, white and grey clouds roll in from the north like the mane on a galloping horse, presaging a squall. But the Gallatin Range – the largest unprotected roadless expanse in the Greater Yellowstone -- knows nothing about the raging political storm that will soon shape her fate.

I did not foresee -- but should have – that warming temperatures would disfigure even her most remote ridge tops. Or that so many people would so crowd her flanks as every day, Bozeman more closely resembles Boulder, Colorado. What will happen to the Gallatin’s wild heart?

To keep it beating we need to save more wilderness, a buffer against the ravages of humanity, now including a climate turned to broil. I learned that mantra at the start of my conservation career, first as a volunteer advocate in Wyoming; then over 30 years ago as Program Director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC). The message was conveyed differently by different teachers: with a twinkle in his eye by geologist David Love, my mentor; with a ferocious gleam by Luna Leopold, son of iconic conservationist Aldo Leopold; with gentle encouragement by Mardy Murie, wilderness champion and wife of Olaus Murie, scientist and president of The Wilderness Society.

These giants are gone but their voices are not, reminding me of the job still before us. As the Custer-Gallatin National Forest revises its Forest Plan during the next year, we have the chance to steer a new course for a Forest that has long been hostile to designating more Wilderness. Oddly, the resistance of the Forest Service has solidified over the years, even though its appetite for clearcutting and roading every drainage has lessened. Disputes over logging and roads still happen, but the big battles now are over snowmobiles and off-road vehicles, and increasingly mountain bikes, as new toys spawn new ways to enjoy -- and exploit -- the natural world.

But the battles have been fundamentally the same for decades: a debate over what values should prevail in decisions over public lands – transcendence or selfishness, short-term profit or long-term benefit. As I reflect, ghost warriors for wilderness, proponents of the long view and a higher path, parade before my eyes. I found inspiration and wisdom in the company of Stewart “Brandy” Brandborg, John and Phoebe Montagne, and Doris Milner -- all gone now – even as they had previously found inspiration in Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Perhaps more precisely, I slept on some of their couches. When I arrived in Bozeman in 1985, still giddy from my first taste of success with passage of the Wyoming Wilderness Act, Joan Montagne and her husband Cliff, John and Phoebe’s son, fed me and let me camp in their home as I set roots in my new home town. Leaders of the Montana Wilderness Association, the Montagnes introduced me to other veterans of the movement from across the state. I tagged along on lobbying trips to Washington DC, and before too long, led my own. I never succeeded in emulating the graciousness of Mardy Murie, or the quiet dignity of John Montagne, and instead found myself following more in the footsteps of Brandy, perhaps too often breaking china and stepping on toes.

But being an effective advocate for wilderness meant that I first had to know it.

Getting to Know the Gallatin

Forming the northwest arm of the Greater Yellowstone, the 230,000-acre wild spine of the Gallatin Range extends from Yellowstone Park nearly to Bozeman, between the Madison Range to the west and North Absaroka Mountains to the east. It provides a critical link to ecosystems westward to central Idaho, northward to Glacier, and eastward to the Pryor and Bighorn Mountains. Grizzlies and wolves are now finding these connections with their paws.

During my early days at GYC, I made a commitment to myself to traverse on foot each of the 23 mountain ranges in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, as a way of getting to know the country I was trying to protect. It took nearly two decades to realize that dream.

My first trip across the Gallatin Range took me from Tom Miner Basin in the east to Buffalo Horn in farther west, with a long detour north along the Gallatin’s rolling alpine crest. My late summer trek was colored with blue harebells, purple asters, scraggly white yarrow, and golden grass against a mostly blue sky. I saw moose, elk, and a lot of grizzly sign in the still-healthy whitebark pine forests—but no bear in the flesh. There was no hope of spotting wolves, which were not reintroduced to Yellowstone until nearly a decade later. We were only then beginning to reimagine restoring this maligned yet vital predator, the only missing link in the ecological fabric of Greater Yellowstone. Few of us foresaw that the battle would take nearly a decade – and indeed would never end.

I was enchanted by rocks in those days, none more than those in the Gallatin Petrified Forest, which had been born by exploding volcanoes roughly 50 million years ago. One of the largest petrified forests preserved during the Eocene Epoch, the Gallatin boasts stands of redwoods and temperate hardwoods that were buried, regrew, then buried again -- perhaps 27 times -- by ash and lava. Minerals leaked from volcanic debris into the groundwater and were slowly incorporated by the trees, becoming rock but retaining the wood’s ancient grain. On my trek I was startled to see where explosives had been used to dislodge whole trees that had then been hauled away by ATVs – with the Forest Service assiduously looking the other way. Old photos still show the rock forests as they had been in their glory, some trees still in the upright positions where they grew when ash swallowed them whole.

After that trip, I never forgot to speak for the Petrified Forest whenever I testified before Congress in support of preserving the Gallatin Range. Even today, whenever I see intact petrified trees, I still hear the voice of geologist John Montagne, who had first unveiled the magic of their creation.

Time for Wilderness?

During the late 1980s into the 1990s, many of us still believed that a statewide wilderness bill was possible and imminent, one that would protect the Gallatins, Crazies, and Pryors, along with additions to the existing Absaroka-Beartooth and Lee Metcalf Wilderness Areas. But the years drug on, along with unrelenting trips to DC, often during the sweltering summers when alpine wildflowers beckoned.

The fever to congressionally protect wilderness throughout Montana cooled after President Reagan vetoed the 1.4 million-acre Montana Wilderness bill in 1988 – a then unprecedented but, in the end, successful act of political meddling to elect a Republican over a Democrat in Congress. (Republican senatorial candidate Conrad Burns defeated the Democratic incumbent, John Melcher.) After this, the battle shifted closer to home to unrelenting fights against the Forest Service’s invariably destructive timber sales and roads, as well as inane and perverse provisions in the first generation of Forest Plans, including the Gallatin’s.

But, in those days, allies seemed to be everywhere, inside and outside the government. One of the first – and fiercest -- Gallatin wilderness advocates I met was Joe Gutkoski, a retired Forest Service landscape architect. Self-effacing and courteous, Joe hardly comes across as “the toughest man in the West,” as Field & Stream magazine called him. Nonetheless, with disregard for his modest exterior, Joe, at 91 years, is still leading the charge to protect the Gallatin Wilderness.

And Joe was hardly the only Forest Service advocate. Indeed, some of the strongest voices for wildlife and wildlands on the Gallatin were employees of the agency, including the indominable forest biologist Sara Johnson, feisty economist Mike Shaw, and recreation manager Susan Marsh, who laughed at one of my early timber sale appeals, saying: “I could have done a better job than that.”

Consciously or not, Joe, Sara, Mike, and Susan were following in the footsteps of other wilderness champions who also chafed inside a hostile Forest Service. And fortunately, they have successors today, who are best left unnamed.

Killing the Thing You Love

It seemed almost an accident that our National Forests were ever created in the first place. In 1891, with little fanfare, the otherwise unmemorable President Benjamin Harrison set aside about 13 million acres of the public domain as National Forest Preserves, including lands around Yellowstone Park.

During the next decade President Teddy Roosevelt added over 5 million acres of Forest Reserves around Yellowstone Park. Determined to prevent obscenely rich timber and railroad Barons from pillaging the last intact forests, Teddy enlisted the help of his boxing and skinning-dipping pal, Forest Service Chief Gifford “Giff” Pinchot.

The Chief inspired an army of twenty-something proteges, “Little Giffs,” who fanned out across the West to survey the tracts that would become today’s National Forests. Among these was Elers Koch of Bozeman who surveyed the boundaries of the Gallatin, and, after surviving the terrifying blazes of 1910, became an early advocate for wilderness as well as an opponent of throwing millions of dollars into unsuccessful attempts to suppress back-country fires.

Gifford himself crisscrossed the country numerous times, exploring the wilds and checking on the progress of his Little Giffs. The elk-rich southern portion of the Gallatin caught his eye, which Pinchot recommended be a wildlife refuge in 1910.

Other voices for preservation soon followed, including Aldo Leopold (who I have written about here and here and here), Bob Marshall, and Arthur Carhart -- men who had gone to work with high hopes for the Forest Service, but were shocked at what they saw: liquidation of forests, bulldozing of roads, damming of rivers, and industrial-scale recreation. Something had to be done – fast. The idea of legislating Wilderness was born out of the ashes of its destruction.

Writing nearly 80 years ago, Aldo Leopold presciently observed: “Man always kills the thing he loves, and so we pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”

And this: “An incredible number of complications and obstacles… arise from the fact that the wilderness idea was born after, rather than before, the normal course of commercial development had begun. The existence of these complications is nobody’s fault. But it will be everybody’s fault if they do not serve as a warning against delaying the immediate inauguration of a comprehensive system of wilderness areas in the West, where there is a still relatively unimpeded field of action.”

These were men and women of action, who were joined by others, including Olaus and Mardy Murie; Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Stegner; and Howard Zahnizer, a minister’s son who drafted the 1964 Wilderness Act giving Congress the authority to protect Wilderness even over objections of Forest Service bureaucrats.

Mardy is the only one of these luminaries I personally knew, but she was more than enough -- a combination fairy godmother and female role model. Before moving to Bozeman from Jackson, WY, I made a pilgrimage to her familiar log cabin below the Tetons – hardly alone among my friends in seeking her blessing before a big transition. She told me how she and Olaus loved the wildlands of the Gallatin Range where they had gone on a pack trip in the late 1950s. “And you are going to love them too!” You were so right, Mardy.

In one letter she shared with me, Olaus had written: “I have traveled in many wilderness areas, and while I feel that public wilderness use is a perfectly legitimate use of national forest lands and needs no apology, this Gallatin area impressed me strongly as being preeminently suitable for such designation without encroachment on other interests.”

Arriving in Bozeman at the same age as the Little Giffs when they fanned out across the West during the early 1900s, I was determined to preserve the wild places that I loved. But it proved much harder than I could have imagined.

A Checkered History

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, wilderness in the Gallatin Range remained in limbo. For years, a main impediment was the complicated checkerboard arrangement of private lands in the Gallatin, a legacy of President Abraham Lincoln. So strong had been Lincoln’s zeal to settle the West that he insisted that Congress pass the Northern Pacific Land Grant Act in 1864 even as the Civil War raged. This gave alternate sections of land, including in the Gallatin and Crazy Mountains, to railroad companies to fuel their race to build the transcontinental railroads.

Over time, the railroads sold these lands to large timber companies, which typically cut and ran. In the case of the Gallatin, Burlington Northern sold to Plum Creek Timber, which then sold to an unsavory developer named Tim Blixeth. The railroad sections in the Crazies ended up in the hands of rich owners of big local ranches.

In 1977, even as Montana Senator Lee Metcalf designated Wilderness elsewhere in the nearby Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains and Great Burn, he balked at the Gallatin’s checkerboards, opting instead on interim protection for a portion, designating the Hyalite – Porcupine - Buffalo Horn as a Wilderness Study Area within which logging, roadbuilding, and motorized vehicles were banned. Any hopes that he might do more for the Gallatin and other Montana wildlands were dashed with his premature death the following year.

Although the Forest Service turned a blind eye to motorized vehicles illegally invading the Wilderness Study Area, punching roads into its heart was going too far. When Tim Blixeth threatened to build roads into the wilds of the Gallatin Range in the early 1990s, the Forest Service ran to Congress for help. What the sleazy developer was after was a real estate deal that consolidated his holdings at the base of the lucrative Big Sky Ski Area. And he got it with passage in 1993 of the Gallatin Range Consolidation Act. Meanwhile, since Reagan’s 1988 veto, nothing has been done to try to consolidate National Forest lands in the Crazies.

A Blind Eye

Although the Gallatin’s checkerboard problem has been resolved, the Forest Service continues to willfully ignore its wilderness potential. Predictably, the agency’s obsessive focus on fighting wildfires has abetted its perverse inattention to mounting incursions into the wildlands with which it has been entrusted. More people are piling into Bozeman and the Paradise Valley with new toys that allow them to get further faster into the backcountry, catalyzing illegal construction of trails where mountain bikes and motorized vehicles are ostensibly banned.

Not even successful litigation has slowed the stampede. The obsession to build roads into the last wilderness has been replaced by a fever to build trails for people on their mechanized toys. Regardless of whether powered by engines or feet, the urge to tame and dominate is eerily similar to that of our European ancestors four hundred years ago when our current ecological crisis was launched.

And even some conservation groups, including the Leopolds’ and Muries’ Wilderness Society and my beloved Greater Yellowstone Coalition, seem to have caught the disease, recommending only the portion of suitable wilderness that the bikers don’t want. Ever content to let the public fight it out, the Forest Service has been sitting on the sidelines.

That is why Indians have jumped again into the fray.

Indians Re-Enter the Fray

Dozens of Tribes lived, hunted, and traveled through what is now the 3 million-acre Custer- Gallatin Forest. Concerned that their sacred lands are being violated by mechanized travel and industrial-scale recreation, Tribes are redoubling demands for a voice in management.

Recently, Crow Tribal Chair A.J. Not Afraid and others again requested protection for the Crazies, which they call Awaxaawippiia or Ominous Mountains. Here in 1860, Crow Chief Plenty Coups was fasting and praying when he had a prophetic dream of bison disappearing into the earth and being replaced by cattle – a dream that shaped the Tribe’s relations with settlers, who were allowed to pass without conflict through the Yellowstone Valley.

The Crow still pray in the Crazies, as I learned a few decades ago from traditional elder Burton Pretty on Top, who had more than enough spiritual authority to on his own prevent the Forest Service from logging these sacred mountains -- without my help.

Having seen the power of tribal involvement in a shared fight to protect the sacred Medicine Wheel on the nearby Bighorn Forest, I have never understood why the Custer-Gallatin continues to champion bigotry and fight co-management by tribal peoples. The day of reckoning may be coming, however, with more than 270 Tribes and tribal members from across the country demanding a larger role in recovering regional grizzly bears.

Every Last Square Inch

Scientists too are being ignored. Researchers who study wide-ranging species such as wolverine, lynx, wolves, elk, and grizzlies, have long argued for protecting more wilderness and reconnecting the remaining wild ecosystems of the Northern Rockies. Pioneer grizzly bear researchers John and Frank Craighead coined the term “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem” to describe the 6 million acres of wildlands needed to sustain grizzlies -- and tirelessly advocated for wilderness.

While the question “how much wilderness is enough?” has always dogged the political debate, the answers given by independent scientists have been remarkably consistent -- and passionate. The response of Conservation Biologist Dr. Peter Brussard is typical. The otherwise deliberate and soft-spoken, Montana State University professor flushed, raised his hands and blurted: “every last square inch – and then some.”

That was 1988. Since then the clamor among scientists for more wilderness protection has become more of a roar.

The latest and most thorough scientific analysis behind protecting the Gallatin as wilderness was done by Frank Craighead’s son Lance in 2015. Climate change, he wrote, creates new urgency for preservation. Few foresaw that warming temperatures would unleash deadly mountain pines beetles in Yellowstone’s high elevation whitebark pine forests, now mostly grey ghosts of once live trees that had fed grizzlies, nutcrackers, squirrels and more until 15 years ago. Yellowstone Cutthroat trout are functionally gone from the heart of Yellowstone Park due to the combined effects of climate change and an introduced predatory fish, Lake trout.

Needless-to-say, none of the projected changes are positive. Scientists now predict the collapse of key berry-producing shrubs and army cutworm moth populations, each either a current or prospective future key food for grizzlies. The shrubs will be killed by drought and heat; the moths will disappear as the tundra and alpine flowers they depend on are driven off the tops of our highest mountains.

We must act now, say scientists. Saving wilderness is key to saving species that depend on wild ecosystems that are at risk of unraveling.

New Blast of Support for Gallatin Wilderness

Last month, the most prestigious group of scientists and political leaders to date spoke out for the Gallatin. The “who’s who” of the nation’s biologists, hydrologists, and fisheries experts, including Conservation Biologist Reed Noss and National Academy of Sciences member Cathy Whitlock, were joined by former Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt, former Yellowstone Park Superintendent Mike Finley, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, and songwriter Carole King in signing a letter advocating protection off all roadless lands on the Gallatin Range.

The signers included many familiar wilderness war horses too – among them Joan Montagne, who lent me her couch; Franz Camenzind, who authored an early paper on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem; Tom Lovejoy, called a “godfather of biodiversity;” Doug Peacock, aka Ed Abbey’s G.W. Heyduke; David Wilcove, global champion of endangered species; and Howie Wolke, who took me under his wing in Wyoming and taught me how to fight for wilderness.

The signatures of Babbitt and Finley are reminders that protecting wilderness is a political process. Now, as in the Muries’ time, the Forest Service cannot be trusted – a fact that underscores the wisdom of asking for everything possible in the current planning process.

Yvon Chouinard's voice underscores the economic and moral imperative of saving our last wild places. And Carole King’s signature matters too: she has long championed an intriguing and bold proposal--a five-state wilderness bill called the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act that has been introduced again in Congress, and needs our support.

My husband David Mattson, a long-time wildlife researcher and I were delighted to sign the letter because protecting the wildlands of the Gallatin – not to mention the Crazies, Pryors, and additions to the North Absarokas and Beartooths -- is the least we can do. As we face unthinkable challenges that include the specter of half of the planet’s mammalian species winking out during the next century, we can start by protecting what wilderness we have in our back yard.

Today, I am hobbling around in the aftermath of yet another back surgery, paying the price of carrying too-heavy packs for too many years up and down our mountains. But I find solace and even joy in gazing at the wild Gallatin, who grumbles as a storm moves in, flashes a quick white grin, then grumbles some more.

It is obvious now that the job of protecting wilderness will never be over, because success depends on humility and generosity in a world that seems ever more self-centered and short-sighted. And the future will not be shaped by what Teddy and Giff or Zahnizer and Lee Metcalf did, as laudable as their efforts were. With so many of us – and our toys -- it is easier than ever to kill the wilderness that is all but impossible to re-create. Teddy and others gave us a fighting chance, but we are still faced with deciding what matters most – which means confronting and hopefully mastering our fears, doubts, ego, and even greed for ever more profits and ever more thrills.

The ghostly champions of the past can yet embolden us. As ever, I find inspiration in Aldo Leopold’s words: “… too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.”

Many thanks to Nancy Ostlie and Great Old Broads for Wilderness, George Wuerthner, Gonnie Siebel, Don Bachman, Phil Knight, and Montanans for Gallatin Wilderness ( ) for their tireless efforts! Though the formal comment period over the forest plan has passed, the Forest Service is always open to hearing from its public owners. Let Supervisor Mary Erickson ( hear from you!

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