Like an oak

The stubborn Brandborgs and the fight for wilderness



It's easy to spot Stewart Brandborg's influence on the landscape. It's visible in what's not here.

Brandborg's most notable accomplishments have come through his work with the Wilderness Society, which he led for 13 years. He helped create the National Wilderness Preservation System, which now protects 109 million acres from Alaska to New Mexico and South Carolina to New York. Montana's share is 3.4 million acres that roll across the Lincoln-Scapegoat, Bob Marshall, and Selway-Bitterroot wildernesses. Brandborg's efforts also opened the door to preservation of the sprawling Rattlesnake Wilderness, in Missoula's back yard.

On a recent rainy Saturday morning in Hamilton, Brandborg, who is 86, white-haired, and plagued by a bad back and wracking cough, is gearing up for another fight. "I've actually got to put my running pants on and get back to work," he says. He's trying to stop a new subdivision that's planned in his neighborhood.

Brandborg—his friends call him Brandy—is a fighter with a contagious cackle of a laugh. He gets around with a walker these days, but his zeal seems undiminished. He's from fighting stock, especially when it comes to saving wilderness, which is almost the Brandborg family business. His father, Guy Brandborg, was one of the early leaders of the conservation movement.

"You can't continue to pollute the air, the water," Brandy says. "You can't continue to raid the public lands. You can't continue destructive mining, logging."

This has been his unceasing cry. And for the Brandborgs, it's always five minutes to midnight:

"I do feel that we are at a critical juncture," he continues. "If people don't show more involvement, the corporate world as we know it will cause the loss of much of what we have."

He's not a man who necessarily looks for compromises, and, as he says, it's led some to label him "the extremist fringe," a "wild-eyed advocate." He wears those badges proudly, but he's prouder still that he's convinced others to follow his lead. "That is the grand elixir," he says. "They get the light of activism in their eye."

That doesn't mean Brandy is satisfied.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 gave average citizens the tools to fight to keep wild places pristine. In succeeding decades, Montana was in the forefront of that fight. But then it stalled.

"Beginning about 30 years ago, corporate forces, combined with hard-right politics in both Idaho and Montana, exerted a significant amount of anti-wilderness pressure on our two states' delegations and other members of Congress," says Pat Williams, who served nine terms in Congress for Montana between 1979 and 1997. "Ever since then, it has been particularly difficult, particularly for western states, to overcome those forces."

Often the issue is framed as jobs and money versus the intangible value of land left as it is. It's one that's likely to stay before Montanans, at least for the time being. Last week, Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, introduced his most recent draft of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which was first introduced in 2009. It's an effort at compromise that would designate 650,000 Montana acres for wilderness—acreage that western conservationists have long coveted. At the same time, it would set aside nearly 370,000 acres for mixed-use recreation, release portions of wilderness study areas for motorized use, and mandate logging of 100,000 acres of national forest in Montana over 15 years. Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Republican who is challenging Tester for his Senate seat in 2012, has been a severe critic of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, and likely will campaign against it, presumably in part because it creates new wilderness in Montana.

Brandy doesn't like it either. Rehberg has said his opposition to Tester's bill stems partly from the way it was put together. So does Brandborg's: He decries a lack of grassroots input. "What we see here is a usurpation of national forest management," he says. "If this goes through as written, it means that this particular senator has dictated what's going to happen to those acreages."

“They try to always say this is the extremist fringe, you are the wild-eyed advocate,” says Stewart Brandborg. - PHOTO COURTESY OF MONTANA ENVIRONMENTAL INFORMATION CENTER
  • Photo courtesy of Montana Environmental Information Center
  • “They try to always say this is the extremist fringe, you are the wild-eyed advocate,” says Stewart Brandborg.

Opposition like Rehberg's has gathered steam and force lately. Brandy, meanwhile, is where he's always been, and where his father was before him: arguing for the people's right to wilderness, and not yielding an inch.

'They took the Bitterroot'

It can sometimes seem these days as though the preservation of wilderness is a timeless American value. It wasn't always that way. Europeans came to the New World and found dark forests where they were sure man-eating animals and dangerous Native Americans lurked. So they cleared them, and went on clearing them as they moved west. Even before the timber was needed, the United States government encouraged clear-cutting in the name of dominion, just as it urged its citizens to drain swamps that they would one day seek to restore as wetlands.

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