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Preserving the Wild Empire
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the watershed legislation that preserved sections of public land in their natural state.
The Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness | Shutterstock photo
Rick Potts can share a lot of stories about the Bob Marshall Wilderness. One in particular from nearly 13 years ago sticks in his mind.

It was October 2001 and Potts was helping a friend near Seeley Lake who was leading a 10-day excursion into the wild interior of the “Bob.” The men taking the trip were emergency room doctors from New York City and had spent the weeks leading up to their trip experiencing the tragedy of 9/11 from the front lines.

“They were like zombies,” Potts recalled recently, describing them as dispirited and overcome with grief after witnessing “the most unimaginable horror.”

Potts dropped them off at the doorstep of the wilderness and bid farewell as the group disappeared into 1.5 million acres of forest, away from the civilized world and into a place where the earth and its community of life were untrammeled by man.

Ten days later, Potts met the doctors as they emerged from the mountains. He saw something in their eyes that he’ll never forget.

“They were reborn. The wilderness restored their spirit, healed their soul,” he said. “That’s what wilderness does for us.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the watershed legislation that preserved sections of public land in their natural state.

On Sept. 3, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law “for the permanent good of the whole people.” The landmark legislation, solely a product of the American mind, identified the importance of conserving unspoiled land in perpetuity by designating “wilderness areas” where roads, vehicles or industrialization are prohibited.

The Bob Marshall Wilderness, named after the iconoclast who helped spearhead the grassroots effort in the early 20th century, became one of the first tracts of forest preserved under the law. Today the Wilderness Act has furnished 4.5 percent of the nation’s acreage as an endowment for present and future generations to explore and enjoy.

“This was our only hope to put lands aside to enjoy in their natural state forever,” said Potts, a former National Wilderness Program manager and the current refuge manager at the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge near Lewistown. “The Wilderness Act is at the same time the finest recreation act and finest conservation act that’s ever been passed.”

But half a century after the wilderness system was created, Potts worries about one question: does today’s society care?

Since the heyday of exploration in the nation’s outdoors, backcountry overnight use is down 26 percent across the U.S., Potts said.

“That scares me to death.”

Potts expressed his love of the wilderness and concerns for the future last week at Flathead Valley Community College at the first of four local lectures this year celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The event, hosted by the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation and Montana Wilderness Association, attracted almost 100 people who listened to Potts’ impassioned ode to the outdoors.

“The Bob happens to be my favorite place on earth,” he said, adding, “We are blessed in Montana to have an abundance of those blank spots on the map.”

But increasingly fewer people are adventuring into wild places like the Bob, and “wilderness is in danger of becoming irrelevant,” he said.

It’s a great dilemma that faces the Wilderness Act in the next 50 years, he said, as urban populations grow, climates change and industrial enterprises, like mining, seek new footholds.

“We need to make sure that we give the next generation the same menu of options that we had,” he said, “so when it comes time for them to need to seek wild land that it will still be there.”

Countries that have shied away from protecting some segments of land in their natural state have seen the consequences. Acid rain, polluted rivers, extinct species — without some form of conservation, civilization inevitably has deleterious impacts on the landscape, Potts said.

He cited a recent video that went viral showing a city in China where residents were only able to see the idyllic scenery of the sunset by looking at a large television screen on a building surrounded by skyscrapers and under a shroud of smog.

“Everything is tied to everything else,” he said.

The Wilderness Act began as an idea rooted in concern. In the 1950s and ‘60s, America’s urban sprawl had broached further into the rural landscape. A grassroots movement led by early conservationists, like Bob Marshall, Aldo Leopold and Wallace Stegner, advocated for some form of protected status for certain wild places. It was an unheard of request at the time, but it captured the attention and support of Americans.

Today the same concerns that spurred the inception of the act remain as relevant as ever. Less than 19 percent of the nation’s population lives in a rural setting, Potts said, and the role that the outdoors plays in people’s lives is diminishing in many ways.

Potts encouraged the crowd to become active advocates for wilderness and help introduce others to the nation’s outdoors. The way to get people to love wilderness is to go into it, enjoy it and explore it, he said.

“We had mentors and people who would take us outside on that first excursion,” he said. “Who are going to be this generation’s mentors? Who are going to be their guides?”

The Wilderness Lecture Series has three more events planned for Kalispell that focus on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The free events are at FVCC in the Arts and Technology Building and begin at 7 p.m.

On Feb. 13, Bob Keane, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service Fire Research Station in Missoula, will discuss climate change and its effects on the landscape and ecosystems of Western Montana.

On March 13, a panel discussion will focus on “Leaving a Legacy: Passing on Wilderness to the Next Generation.” The panel will include Roland Creek, retired wilderness outfitter and writer, Dave Owen, retired USFS wilderness ranger, and Frank Vitale, wilderness advocate.

On April 10, Jonathan Klein, a recently retired USFS wilderness and recreation manager on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, will discuss hair-raising encounters with wildlife in wilderness.

For more information, visit www.bmwf.org or www.wildmontana.org.
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