Fifty years ago this September, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law one of the most profound pieces of conservation legislation in history: The Wilderness Act, authored by Howard Zahniser. That landmark bill established not only the National Wilderness Preservation System but gave citizens the ability to petition their lawmakers for future designations. Since that signing, 106 million acres of “Big W” have been set aside nationwide, forever protected from settlement, development and all but the most primitive modes of transportation.
Wilderness itself was defined as a place where “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” But in the decades since the act’s passage, wilderness has become a wedge issue in the United States. Partisan politics have all but stalled the latest efforts to add new wilderness to the system, including several pristine areas here in Montana. The gridlock hasn’t stopped scores of agencies and nonprofits from organizing a still-growing list of celebratory events to mark the Wilderness Act’s 50th birthday, from a summer hike in the Scapegoat Wilderness to volunteer trail cleanup in the Lee Metcalf’s Bear Trap Canyon.
For more than half a century, Missoula outfitter Arnold “Smoke” Elser has frequented the Bob Marshall Wilderness with clients of all ages, backgrounds and income levels. He positioned himself on the front lines of backcountry advocacy years before Congress even passed the 1964 Wilderness Act, and he hasn’t wavered since. With the 50th anniversary of that keystone legislation approaching this fall, the Indy joined Smoke, 80, and Jared White, regional communications director for the Wilderness Society, inside the old stone barn off Rattlesnake Drive that serves as Smoke’s headquarters. The conversation meandered, as any good Montana-style palaver is prone to do, but offered a rich look back on 50 years of wilderness protection and a hint at what the next 50 years might bring.
Smoke, you’ve been a staunch advocate for wilderness pretty much since the dawn of the Wilderness Act itself. What have the 50 years since its passage meant to you personally?Smoke: I think it has allowed me to take thousands of people into the backcountry from all walks of life—shoe salesmen, gas station attendants, bankers, heads of big corporations like Boeing and so forth—and be able to show them what it really looked like when the first man came west into this country.
Tom Edwards, owner of the Whitetail Ranch, he was my mentor. He and [outfitter] Howard Copenhaver. Those two guys were my mentors, and what they did is they took lots of people into the hills. They taught me how to interpret the wilderness. That’s really the important part. To be able to interpret the wilderness as it sits and why it’s wilderness. A lot of people don’t understand why we want to set this aside as wilderness. I testified on the Wilderness Act in Great Falls in 1960 at a hearing run by [Sens. Lee] Metcalf and Mike Mansfield. I testified as a young packer just not knowing a whole lot about it. But Tom Edwards, he was really pushing us. He took us to all those meetings to make sure that the congressmen and Congress itself understood that young people, such as myself at that time, were looking forward to seeing and getting into the wilderness. That’s why I think it’s so important that we pass that baton on to younger generations.
How big a challenge has that become?
Smoke: The younger generations right now are absolutely glued to their cellphones, their computers and the TV set. And how we’re going to be able to pull them away, that’s the hard part. If you could just pull them away for two or three days to let them really experience a sunrise in the backcountry, a sunset in the backcountry, a breeze, a drink of water out of a stream, those kind of things—they’re hooked then. But how do we get them away from that TV?
That’s the hardest job I have right now is trying to get young people. I teach a packing class here, and I get people from all ages. I had a 65 year old all the way down to I think he was 10, learning how to pack. It was tough for the grandfather to bring those kids. Had a heck of a time dragging them away from the house in the evening to come up here and watch how to pack. But once they felt a mule and saw where it might get them in the future, they were hooked.