Lay of the land

As the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act approaches, advocates are already facing the next half-century's challenges



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.

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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.

It’s daunting.

Smoke: And everybody’s got a cellphone now. Geez, I don’t have one. Don’t carry one at all.

When you testified back in 1960, what was the atmosphere like in Montana around the Wilderness Act?

Smoke: It wasn’t near as much a battle here as it was in other states. The Wilderness Act itself actually started in Kalispell and Missoula. [Advocates like] Howard Zahniser came to Montana to talk to residents of Montana who already knew what wilderness looked like and already had felt the issues of wilderness. Those guys came out here, because here they had a good, substantial constituency to help them get such a bill passed. They came many, many times after that to get our view.

I was a young kid from Ohio, near Cleveland. Highly industrial area, Youngstown country. When I got here to Montana, by golly, I couldn’t believe it. And then Tom Edwards kind of took me under his wing, and Howard Copenhaver, and they showed me the backcountry. As they rode down the trails, they didn’t just sit on their horse and say, “Oh, look at that pretty valley, look at this pretty valley, look at that tree.” No, they interpreted that to me. They said, “Hey, look at this valley. I remember when we shot a big grizzly up that valley,” or “I remember when we shot elk up that valley, and I remember when we could lay on our bellies and drink water out of any stream in the Bob Marshall.” You don’t dare to do that anymore. Giardia is everywhere. I can still see Howard Copenhaver—there’s a red bugle hanging right there, that red hose—I can remember him sticking that hose in an elk track that was full of water and getting a good drink of water out of there.

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Good way to get beaver fever these days.

Smoke: Ha, yes. In those days, no problem.

Jared White: Smoke, what you were saying about how Montana was an important place for wilderness—I wasn’t around in those days, but all my reading and research and work on wilderness has led me to that same leap, that Montana was sort of a cradle of wilderness. We had Congressman Lee Metcalf, and he was one of the original sponsors of the Wilderness Act. Western lawmakers were pushing this thing … When they set aside the 1964 Wilderness Act, they basically said, “Hey, this is citizen legislation that’s going to enable democratic process to take place where citizens can basically step forward and advocate for their backyard, as opposed to the Forest Service being able to decide what happens administratively.” This is the first place in America that happened, and that was the Scapegoat Wilderness.

Smoke: That’s right. In the ’40s, the Forest Service set it aside as just a primitive area, meaning anytime we want to change our minds about how we’re going to treat that land, they can do that. But when it became a law, that made a difference. That made a difference.

You talk about going out with Edwards and Copenhaver as a youngster from Ohio. Was there any singular moment in those first trips that you still carry, that motivates your advocacy?

Smoke: Yeah, many of them. For instance, to have the head of a large corporation run around and smell ponderosa pine trees, right into the bark. You know, it smells like vanilla. Here I’ve got a guy who’s probably worth millions and he’s smelling the bark. And to have a lady that was really well-to-do with the General Motors corporation walk in grass, first time ever, in her bare feet … I get letters yet from people saying, “Gee, that was the greatest experience I’ve ever had.”

Yeah, but was there a particular moment that made these wild places special to you personally?

Smoke: The first time I went into the Danaher Valley. To know that in 1900, a man went in there and tried to homestead unsuccessfully … To know that somebody tried to make a living there and couldn’t because it was so wild, so absolutely untamed by man.

How about you, Jared? What pushed you toward wilderness advocacy?

JW: The first designated wilderness area I encountered was the Absaroka-Beartooth, that high, granitic plateau just full of clean, sparkling-blue lakes and cutthroat trout that are already jumping on your fly rod before you can even tie a fly on. A place that has that power, I knew it was worth dedicating my career towards trying to acquire a few other places through a citizen, democratic process. That was really, for me, a powerful place.

How critical do you think that citizen-driven process is for wilderness?

JW: Smoke had a front-row seat to the first time that happened with the Scapegoat addition to the Bob Marshall. I think that was a turning point in the whole wilderness process … In a way, for these bills to move forward, you sort of need a Lorax, to quote Dr. Seuss. Someone who deeply cares about a certain place. And when you have that person on the ground who’s committed and passionate and is able to dedicate time and energy, you have a lot better chance of moving just a pipe dream to passing a law that will forever protect it for the next generation. You really need that boots-on-the-ground advocate. Even today, the bills that are out there in Congress right now—the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, Sen. Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act—they all have those pieces, so that tradition continues to move forward.

Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Arnold “Smoke” Elser

I’m glad you brought those bills up. Fifty years in, Montana has two bills with wilderness designations that can’t seem to garner the support necessary to get through Congress. It seems like any wilderness proposal faces this massively uphill battle now. Where do you see us now, at the 50-year mark?

JW: I don’t think the fact that these pieces of legislation haven’t passed through Congress is reflective of the work that’s gone into them, nor the relative support these bills have. It’s more a reflection of having the most dysfunctional Congress in the last 40 years. There’s a reason right now that people are fed up with Congress’ inability to move things forward. If these bills move through a Montana process here, then they should be able to move through a legislative process eventually. We’re still holding out hope that will happen. And I think the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act would be a great birthday present for the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. There are some landscapes in that bill that are just as deserving as the Bob Marshall was 50 years ago.

Smoke: I see us struggling with Congress, there’s no doubt about that. And right now, it’s hard to pick out a real leader like Lee Metcalf and some of those guys. Tom Edwards went all the way back to Washington, D.C. Here’s a man that never traveled that much. He was a school teacher and then went into outfitting, and he goes all the way back to Washington, D.C., and got up in front of the committee and said, “I’m an outfitter in Montana. I don’t sell fish, and I don’t sell elk … What I sell is the hush of the land. Guests come from all over the world just to experience the hush of the land.”

That’s what I try to sell when I go in the hills, and Tom taught me that. Many a night we’d sit around the campfire and we’d tell stories about the old days, and then there would be a time when everybody was pretty well storied out and they just looked into the coals of the campfire and watched the stars light up the sky and they knew they were there. Now it’s hard to get people to do that. That’s one of the problems we have right now.

Smoke, you seem to have hinted that there’s almost more of a need for wilderness now than before, what with losing ourselves in technology and the like. Do you think there’s more importance in wilderness these days?

Smoke: I feel there is. Whenever I testified on any of the committees—and I never went to Washington, D.C., but quite often they’d have hearings out here—a lot of people got up and said, “Oh, how can you destroy this beautiful country?” They would read poetry and talk about all that kind of thing. I testified a little differently. I asked the congressmen, “You know, wilderness may be more valuable than gold, silver, coal, timber. It may be more valuable to mankind than any of those products than we can take out of the wilderness now.” Actually, the product that we may need in the future is the sanity of man. Because [wilderness] gives man a chance to look within his own body, to understand what he’s doing, what he’s about. That’s the way I stood forever. That’s how I testified all the time. They were always talking about hauling all this stuff out of the backcountry. Maybe we ought to haul people in so they can get sanity.

That might be even more rare in another 50 years.

Smoke: Really, yeah, think about it. How many of you do you think push a computer button every day? I never do. I just don’t do that, and pretty near everybody does. “I want to know how to bake a chocolate cake.” [clicks his fingers like on a keyboard] There it is. “I want to know how to fix my car. The starter’s not working.” [clicks again] There it is. “I want to know what Paris looks like in the spring.” [more clicking] There it is.

This is what scares me the worst: “I want to know more about wilderness.” So what do they do? [more clicking] “Oh, I’m in the Absaroka Wilderness. Oh, I’m in the Bob Marshall. Oh, I’m in the Selway-Bitterroot. Now I’ve seen it. I don’t need to go there. I’ve already experienced the wilderness.” They haven’t begun to experience the wilderness.

Smoke, I just got a peek at the film the Forest Service produced for the 50th anniversary (see sidebar). In it one of the high school students from Missoula says he never even realized the Bob Marshall Wilderness existed. How familiar do you think most Montanans are with wilderness?

Smoke: I don’t think they are. There are lots of people in Montana who have lived here all their lives—for instance, Bob Ward and Sons, you heard of that store? Well, Wayne Ward went the first time ever into the Bob Marshall with me, and he was 76 years old. Had never been in the wilderness, ever. And from that time until his death, he went every year … I know of ranchers that live right on the boundary of the Bob Marshall that have never been into the wilderness. Never, never. Same with [former Sen.] Max Baucus. Here his family owns that big ranch right over there, and he’d never been in the wilderness until we called him up … He said, “Well, I’ve got two days. Can we do it in two days?” We said we could do it in three, and by golly we took him in on a three-day trip. Max became aware that wilderness was really valuable. In my opinion, I think that’s what did it. When he got a chance to get his feet on the ground, he said, “I think it is valuable.”

Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness

How long ago was that?

Smoke: Oh, golly, that was about 1975, ’73, something like that. We took him on a saddle horse.

And another guy I took in the hills—well, I didn’t really take him in the hills, we actually took him on a ride in the valley here—to his dying day he didn’t understand wilderness at all. That was Ted Kennedy.

You’ve done a lot for wilderness over the years yourself, taking all these folks into the backcountry.

Smoke: Not as much as needed.

Well, what do you hope for in the next 50 years for wilderness? More designations? Increased exposure?

Smoke: I hope people find its value. I think we need some additions to make it more valuable and easier to get at. When you have to drive in the Spotted Bear and go all the way the whole length of the lake before you can get to the wilderness, that’s a long drive, 40 miles. I’m just hoping that with this celebration, in the next five or six months, that we can touch as many individuals as we possibly can and try to get them to at least think about it. If they think about it, most of them will recognize its value. And those who don’t think about it, we’ll probably never get their support. They’ll live their computer life and their cellphone life and call it good.

JW: Eventually, we will get through this congressional dysfunction and bills will move again. I have no doubt of that. We don’t have a crystal ball, we don’t know how many years that’ll take. Maybe it’ll be this year, maybe it’ll be next year, where Montana’s congressional delegation is finally able to reward the hard work that Montanans are putting into these efforts. That’s part of it, getting through Congress.

Although there are two pieces of legislation before Congress, there are six, seven, eight grassroots campaigns around the state that are all looking at their piece of the pie or their backyard. There’s a lineup of these bills that will probably be ready after these other ones are through, so this is going to be a long voyage. There’s more where these came from, and they’ll continue to probably be picked up as long as they’re able to build local support and come up with reasonable recommendations and hit the middle ground. Common sense designations are out there.

The other thing that Smoke was talking about was that importance of the next generation. I think more and more will probably discover this resource that he’s been guiding through for the last 50 years. The Big Sky state has been put on the map, and I think people are moving here because of big, open country, these beautiful lakes, these mountains. That means there’s going to be more of a constituency for wild country as people start linking it to their amenity-based recreation or the reason they’re moving their businesses to Montana. I see a good future, a bright future, once we’re able to finally break through this logjam.

Smoke, you’ve stressed passing the baton a couple times.

Smoke: Yeah, we’ve gotta get it moved on, forward.

JW: We just need 25 more Smoke Elsers out there, taking folks into the wilderness.

Smoke: Ha, no we don’t. We need a lot more of everybody, that’s who we need. Because wilderness is, once it gets into your core, it’s a fundamental part of your being. There’s just no doubt about it. I go to bed at night in the winter, I don’t think about snow drifts and all that stuff. I think about, “Boy, this year I’m going to hit the northern end of the Bob Marshall. I’m going to go down the Middle Fork, across that river, probably in July. I want to see what it looks like around Trilobite Peak.” I dream about all those things. That’s what keeps me alive, keeps me going, even though someday I know I’m not going to be able to get on that horse anymore and ride into the backcountry. The wilderness, it’s always something that’s been there for me. And I hope the younger generations can understand that it’s something they need to experience.

Trekking the Untrammeled

The confession might come as a slight surprise to some in Montana: A Missoula high school student, standing deep in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, looks straight into the camera and states, “I literally didn’t know this existed.” It’s been 50 years since Congress passed the Wilderness Act, enabling citizens nationwide to fight for permanent protections for their most cherished wild spaces. And yet there are those who remain oblivious to the pristine beauty of backcountry expanses like the Bob.

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“This anniversary year provides a wonderful opportunity for us to re-affirm our commitment to wilderness stewardship and to engage the public, particularly youth, in opportunities for a better understanding and appreciation of wilderness benefits,” U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said earlier this year.

That’s largely why the Forest Service opted to send three contingents of young adults—two separate pack-strings of Missoula area high schoolers and a group of University of Montana backpackers—into the Montana backcountry to experience wilderness for, in many cases, the very first time. The agency also produced a film, in conjunction with a host of other groups, documenting those trips in the hopes of building interest and awareness in advance of the Wilderness Act’s Sept. 3 birthday. That 26-minute film, Untrammeled, is set to premiere at UM April 8 before embarking on a national tour.

“I think it’s important to remember that some of the target audience is kids in urban places,” says Julia Starrett, producer and co-owner of the Florence-based Starrett Productions, which shot the film. “It’s one thing here in Montana where we are exposed to a lot of the wilderness areas and we have a lot of this natural landscape. But if you’re a kid living in Chicago or Los Angeles, you don’t realize that you have this.”

Untrammeled depicts the sweeping and idyllic vision of the Bob one would expect in the midst of such a historic anniversary. Students lounge in alpine glades, weave together strands of wild grass, roast food over open flames; the entire undertaking was unscripted, says Shanenon Starrett, Julia’s husband and the film’s director.

“I also think that, visually, seeing a wilderness area from the inside out and hearing how it affects people, young people—hopefully that’s inspiring to other folks,” Shanenon says. “We take it for granted. If you’re in Washington, D.C., or kind of removed from wilderness and you see it as stats and data on a piece of paper, you don’t really realize what it does to a person’s psyche when you’re there.”

The Starretts leapt at the chance to secure the contract last year, partly for the opportunity of being allowed to film inside a wilderness boundary. The government rarely grants commercial filming permits in areas like the Bob, Shanenon says. Of course, following separate crews of students into the backcountry as an independent, isolated film crew presented its own logistical challenges. The backpacking portion alone entailed hauling camera gear 85 miles over 12 days, and Shanenon and the other photographers had to rely solely on solar power to charge their equipment.

“We had a lot of weight in our packs, and we knew the amount of time that it would take to do the whole thing,”

Shanenon says. “Our food, it had to have 100 calories per ounce or it didn’t make it into the pack.”

Late-season wildfires added one more layer of difficulty, prompting the Forest Service to reroute the student trips five times. Shanenon was originally looking forward to blue skies, breathtaking vistas and, particularly, capturing the reaction of students to their first view of the Chinese Wall. That iconic Bob Marshall site was dropped from the itinerary.

“It adds to the experience of being in a wild place, knowing that a huge swath of land is on fire now,” Shanenon says. “It added that sense of wilderness, for sure. You’re out there, anything can happen. Fire is one of those things.”

One of the Starretts’ primary mandates was to let wilderness be wilderness, an aspect most underscored in Untrammeled by freak injury. During the backpack trip, Shanenon happened to be following a pair of UM students hanging bear bags when one stumbled and fell, impaling a sandal-clad foot on a stick.

“It’s so amazing how one little thing can alter your whole experience being out there,” Shanenon says. “Even blisters.”

The screenings of Untrammeled come as just one of scores of events marking the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act by government agencies, organizations and nonprofits across the country. Here in Montana, those events include a June 21 canoe trip on the Upper Missouri River guided by Adventures Worldwide, an Aug. 30 wilderness run in Lincoln and a late-September picnic in McCormick Park hosted by the Forest Service.

The Wilderness Act may have reached the half-century mark, but there are still many across the country who remain clueless as to the grandeur it protects.

“You go to an urban area or a big city and young people don’t even know it’s there,” Shanenon says. “It’s for them, it’s for us. It’s for all of us.”

Untrammeled debuts at the University Center Theater April 8 at 7 PM. For more 50th anniversary events, visit

This story was updated Friday, April 4 to clarify the Forest Service's production of Untrammeled.

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