Stewart Brandborg on “Today’s Wilderness Challenge”

Stewart Brandborg is The last surviving architect of the Wilderness Act of 1964. He served as the executive director of The Wilderness Society from 1964 to 1976. In 2010 Brandborg was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Montana – the highest honor UM can confer upon an individual – for his lifetime of work protecting Wilderness and advocating for public lands and wildlife.
Stewart Brandborg is the last surviving architect of the Wilderness Act of 1964. He served as the executive director of The Wilderness Society from 1964 to 1976. In 2010 Brandborg was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Montana – the highest honor UM can confer upon an individual – for his lifetime of work protecting Wilderness and advocating for public lands and wildlife.

As a Montanan I am blessed to live in a place of incomparable beauty and wealth of natural resources.  In appreciation of that I find myself moved to make a plea to thoughtful citizens to resist the corrosive effects of growing threats to the quality of life we enjoy.

The Wilderness law has delivered to us who live here an irreplaceable part of our American Heritage. The quality of wildness, of autonomous and unfettered nature, was the central concern of those of us who, in the 1950s and early 1960s, wrote and worked for enactment of the Wilderness Act. Now, after a lifetime of work for wilderness, I ask its defenders to never forget: Wildness is foremost the quality of wilderness that we must seek to preserve. It is the forces of nature at full play in the absence of human intent.

Only fifty one years ago, when I helped organize the uniquely American popular movement to pass the Wilderness Act, we did not dream of the pace of change and rapid exploitation of natural resources that we face today. In this age of climate change, species extinction and all too widespread unraveling of the natural world that we all depend on, it is more critical than ever to preserve what wilderness we have left.

Wilderness is land left to be wild as well as a principled idea. It is the embodiment of reverence for nature and the humility to withhold the hand of man from exploitation. Sadly, such wild land and grace-filled humility seem to be in short supply and disappearing quickly due to dominance by moneyed self interests.

Commodification of the natural world is, as it was, often based on resource extraction. Now it is increasingly made even more pervasive by the profitable industry and expanding self interests of recreation. Humility is too often replaced by a sense of entitlement and selfishness. We are seeing accelerated loss of wilderness as well as the erosion of selfless values and actions that set the stage for Wilderness designation. The ascendancy of recreation, an optional pastime, even when at the expense of wildness is a sad comment on the state of American values.

One new vehicle contributing to this damaging trend is the increasingly popular Trojan horse of so-called ‘collaboration’. Industry and recreation interests sit down at a table sanctified by politicians beholden to industry campaign money and divide up America’s shared natural legacy. They are the self-selected deciders for all Americans and serve to displace meaningful participation by other Americans who live further away or can not afford the time to sit unpaid at the table. The way ‘collaboration’ is being used amounts to collusion by a small club divvying up valuable American public assets.

I cautioned groups like the Montana Wilderness Association and The Wilderness Society at a recent Wilderness Conference to “resist the fuzzy, fuzzy Neverland of collaboration,” and begin to advocate for real wilderness protection as the law was written and intended.

The willingness of certain conservation groups to compromise wilderness and their organization’s mission has been rewarded by lavish foundation funds, often from foundations like PEW (Sun Oil), founded with private profits derived from exploiting publicly owned resources.

We now see some well funded conservation non-profits collaborating with the Forest Service and sacrificing wilderness, then accepting taxpayer funds for ‘in-kind’ work participating in ‘partnerships’ that serve the federal agency’s goals.

We conservationists should not advocate for deals that include release of protected wildland areas or the inclusion of non-conforming, wilderness damaging uses, baked into the very enabling legislation. Exercising the necessary altruism we must continue to instill a love for wilderness and rededicate ourselves to the mission of protecting areas for their wildness, using an ecosystem approach based on conservation biology principles, while accommodating traditional recreation to the extent it does not diminish wildness or other wilderness characteristics.

17 thoughts on “Stewart Brandborg on “Today’s Wilderness Challenge””

  1. This says it all from the last standing elder of the Wilderness Act.

    His warning about collaboration being nothing more than collusion by a self-selected/appointed elite group palatable to foundations and the agency rings so true for the Tongass. First, we had the Tongass Futures Roundtable and now the Tongass Advisory Committee. Both epitomize the bastardization of the public involvement process called for in NFMA and NEPA.

    And, the literal taxpayer and foundation payoffs to participate in this so called collaboration and then agency stewardship projects and co-mangement programs are the ultimate in conflicts of interest.

    For environmental groups it is simply easy money following mission creep and and goal displacement.
    Perhaps even more disturbing we may be witnessing the abandonment of the iconic Tongass wilderness species — the Alexander Archipelago Wolf. I too worked for The Wilderness Society, at one time, under PEW funding and know of this too well.

  2. I’m confused. Are collaborationist proposing to harvest timber in designated wilderness areas? In potential wilderness areas? In possible wilderness areas? Is wilderness (vegetation non-management and restricted access) the highest, best, and only use for federal timberland? Has cooperation between varied interests in problem solving for the common good become anathema? Please enlighten me!

  3. I’m interested to know some examples of organizations like MT Wilderness Society and The Wilderness Society’s collaboration efforts going against the Wilderness Act as it was written. The term, “fuzzy Neverland of collaboration” is dripping with the need for definition.

    I’m all for collaboration, and have been a part of collaborative efforts for wilderness, so I’m interested to have examples of collaboration that has eroded wilderness character (the only definition I have of “wilderness character” is the recent NPS publication, “Keeping it Wild” (January2014).

    • Hi Kim,

      Here’s an example of how some less-than-steller examples of public lands ‘collaboration’ in Montana “has eroded wilderness character” and how groups like the Montana Wilderness Association and The Wilderness Society have been part of this process.

      For example, Senator Tester’s ‘Forest Jobs and Recreation Act’ releases the following Wilderness Study Areas on public lands and opens these wildlands up for other uses, such as timber harvest and motorized recreation. The FJRA is supported by the Montana Wilderness Association, The Wilderness Society, Montana Trout Unlimited and the Montana and National Wildlife Federation.

      FJRA FULLY releases there Wilderness Study Areas:

      Axolotl Lakes Wilderness Study Area
      Bell and Limekiln Canyons Wilderness Study Area
      Henneberry Ridge Wilderness Study Area
      Hidden Pasture Wilderness Study Area

      FJRA also releases a portion of the following Wilderness Study Areas for logging, motorized recreation and/or development:

      Blacktail Mountains Wilderness Study Area
      Centennial Mountains Wilderness Study Area
      Farlin Creek Wilderness Study Area
      Humbug Spires Wilderness Study Area
      Ruby Mountains Wilderness Study Area
      Sapphire Wilderness Study Area
      West Pioneer Wilderness Study Area

      It should also be pointed out that the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act would result in Congress simply mandating logging levels on National Forests for the 1st time. As part of the FJRA a minimum of 100,000 acres of logging would be required on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and the Kootenai National Forest. In fact, FJRA classifies over 1 million acres of roadless lands on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest as “Timber Suitable or Open to Harvest.”

      Here’s some other information about the FJRA that was put together a few years ago:

      The situation here in Montana is perhaps unique, in terms of how bad some examples of supposed public lands ‘collaboration’ actually are.

      For example, just the other week the Montana Wilderness Association filed a ‘friend of the court’ brief in support of nearly 14 square miles of logging on the Kootenai National Forest.

      Of the public lands logging about 5 square miles is via clear cutting, including the clear cutting of 2 square miles of mature boreal forests, which currently is critical habitat for lynx (which are protected under the Endangered Species Act).

      Ironically the Montana Wilderness Association is being represented in their ‘friend of the court’ brief by the American Forest Resource Council, an Oregon-based timber industry outfit that actually sued to stop implementation of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule.

      In fact, the American Forest Resource Council is not only representing the Montana Wilderness Association, but according to a recent article in the Kalispell paper, the timber industry lawyers are footing the bill for the entire thing!

      In total, just this one public lands timber sale would result in enough trees cut down (much of via clearcuts and much of it within critical wildlife habitat) to fill 7,800 logging trucks.

      Here another example, from the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, where groups like the Montana Wilderness Association went wild with celebration because a few (non-treatened) acres were designated as Wilderness along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, while MWA stayed completely silent (and even failed to be honest with their membership) about all the tremendous public lands giveaways that became part of the specific Rocky Mountain Front act, including the release of other Wilderness Study Areas in Montana and the giveaway 112 million tons of coal. All of this was done as part of some last minute, secret, back room horse-trading between Montana Democrat Jon Tester and Republican Steve Daines and MWA raised not one single peep of protest. See:

  4. Thanks for this post Matthew.
    Stewart Brandborg’s wisdom, personal integrity and truth serve as a badly needed reference point in the present era of corruption marked by willful ignorance, opportunism and moral chaos.

    Today’s collaborationists simply propagate the present reign of corruption by putting the “con” in conservation.

  5. Reading Matt’s and others comments on the evils of collaboration confirms my belief that intransigent extremism is now the stance of some of us who are deeply concerned with the management of our public lands. Such entrenched ideology reflects the national malaise has resulted in a deeply divided nation in which rational problem solving has become impossible. May I suggest that our divided readership adopt a posture of mutual respect, reconciliation, moderation, and accommodation. Our public land heritage demands no less.

    • In response to IMac’s “evils of collaboration and… intransigent extremism…” I suggest the following.

      Collaboration is not inherently evil nor have long-standing opposing interests evolved into intransigent extremism. The real issue is about honest public participation and representation in forest planning. Opposition to pseudo collaboration is simply in response to stacking the deck with participants that insure agency engineered predetermined outcomes.

      Since 1964, opposing interests have waged an epic battle for wildland uses versus commercial logging. While this battle is still very relevant, it is secondary to today’s issues of honest public participation. Furthermore, faith in honest public participation has been compromised by decades of Forest Service decisions that (1) have not significantly resolved conflicts, but have (2) resulted in real or perceived agency efforts to preserve status quo timber budgets regardless of the merits to do otherwise. The recent wild card is accelerated fire-fighting, of course.

      Today’s collaboration should, as Mr. McConnell advocates, “adopt a posture of mutual respect, reconciliation, moderation, and accommodation.” Instead, in my experience collaboration is being used to sanction an agency determined outcome. There is no better example than the Tongass NF. On the Tongass there have been two collaborative efforts: the failed Tongass Futures Roundtable and the ongoing Tongass Advisory Committee.

      The first collaborative, the Tongass Futures Roundtable, failed after years of efforts and millions of dollars spent. The second, on-going collaborative is the Tongass Advisory Committee whose members are simply a cherry picking of the Roundtable members who were more sympathetic to the Tongass timber program.
      The bottom line: the Tongass Advisory Committee recommends the continuation of industrial scale old-growth logging for another 15 years (or more) and a lick and a promise transition to an integrated second-growth industry. Of course the economic feasibility of either timber scenario has not been tested with conventional NFMA economics. Moreover, independent studies show there are higher and better uses of the forest for habitat and recreation, but these are essentially ignored. Nonetheless, the collaborative TAC’s recommendation is the basis for Forest Service’s preferred alternative in forest planning – with concurrent but token public involvement under NFMA.

      So the bigger collaborative take away is this. The real proof of how counterfeit this collaboration is, is the testimony of the marginalized or excluded Tongass stakeholders. Their testimony almost universally is that the TAC does not represent their industries. Furthermore, they resented the token amount of time allotted for public testimony and the inconvenient access to public participation that is normally afforded in the NFMS/NEPA processes. While the collaboration is engineered to minimize public opposition, such opposition is legitimate and not just sour grapes.

      Former Alaska Regional Economist and Tongass Futures Roundtable Member.

  6. It’s always powerful to hear reflections from wise elders who, in their younger years, dedicated their lives to protect something bigger than themselves, selflessly, and who continue to carry the torch. It not only provides us culture, but inspires the next generation. Thank you for sharing this Matthew. I’ll share this on our Facebook Page.

    Reading Stewart’s thoughts reminded me a lot of my time several weeks ago with Tom Swetnam. I was lucky enough to spend a week with him and his wonderful wife Suzanne at their new home in New Mexico, purchased after his retirement as the Director of Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona. His home is located on a street that could not be more appropriately named – Ponderosa. I probably do not need to say here that Swetnam is a giant in the fire science community.

    I went to visit Tom to personally resolve the intense conflicts I had experienced between two groups of scientists I deeply respect regarding forest management. Although I still have a pile of research papers to study, it became very clear to me about midway through our visit that my rejection of any kind of management of the pondersoa pine forests in the southwest (primarily due to my lack of trust for the US Forest Service) was wrong. The wealth of data Tom and others like Craig Allen have assembled over the past 30 years is overwhelming. The dry pondersoa pine forests in New Mexico and Arizona need our help if we expect to have many left into the next century. Although I intend to write a paper on the whole subject, the story of the damaged ponderosa pine forests in New Mexico is pretty clear.

    From the research I have read thus far, here is how the story goes.

    It began with the Anasazi when they migrated onto the mesas after being driven from their cliff dwellings around 1300, most likely by drought and the over-exploitation of the arid landscape. The occupation of the out-lying mesa’s dry forests over the next several hundred years caused significant impacts to the land, namely the collection of wood for fuel. This changed the frequent, wide-ranging, low-intensity fires, to smaller, frequent, low-intensity fires.

    Then the Spanish showed up. After two centuries of efforts, they finally wiped out the Pueblo’s ability to resist and resettled them off the mesas and into missions in the canyons and flat lands. Without humans exploiting the forest, the fuel accumulated again (downed wood and grass) and the natural fire regime returned to frequent, large, low-intensity fires.

    Then the Americans came at the end of the 1800s with millions of sheep. The mesas were over-grazed and the grass was replaced by bare dirt. The fires stopped because there was nothing on the ground to carry the lightning-caused flames.

    Then the loggers came. Over a period of 50 years, the forests were heavily damaged, the soil was disturbed, and the canopy was removed, allowing sunlight to hit the ground. The result? The classic doghair thickets of trees so dense that the forests became difficult to walk through. The forests also became less biodiverse.

    Enter the third leg of the abuse – fire suppression. The key learning for me here was that fire suppression was NOT the cause of the damage, as most conservative policy makers and land managers continually claim, but the by-product of altruistic land management policy. Although there was certainly a selfish component, protecting lumber for profit, fire suppression was implemented primarily to protect communities. The government was acting in the interest of the people. This was when the US Forest Service was clearly the good guy, acting to protect the people’s forests from the greed of loggers, ranchers, and land speculators.

    The original damage, in contrast, was caused by selfishness and greed by the business community, facilitated by government inaction. This is conveniently ignored by conservative politicians and their supporters who enjoy rallying against the government and the environmental community as the source of the problem. We need to set the record straight.

    Enter the modern era. We are now confronted by an influence that will overwhelm the rest, climate change. The 20,000+ acre high-severity hole within the 2011 Las Cochas Fire in New Mexico demonstrates what a climate-change induced, high-severity fire can accomplish in a forest characterized for at least 1,000 years by low-severity fire. The space is too large for the conifers to come back as they did in the past. The approximate 100 meter regeneration limit for ponderosa pines offers a two to three century forest return model (about 75 years for each 100 meters) IF we had last century’s climate. We don’t have last century’s climate.

    By most estimates, around 2050 we will be leaving the known climate envelop and entering an unknown world with a 2 degree C worldwide temperature increase and all the ecosystem change that will engender.

    What can we do? Reduce carbon in the atmosphere by reducing the burning of fossil fuels. Can we stop high-severity fires in low-severity forests? Not completely. Most will continue to rip. But we can re-introduce fire into those ponderosa pine forests that have become a testament to our greed, in an attempt to reduce fire severity to protect and restore a few stands. The challenge is, given the mistrust involving such efforts, can we pull it off?

  7. Not to pause an interesting conversation about collaboration, but I’d love to get people’s thoughts on something I’ve found myself thinking a lot about lately, especially in the context of wildness….

    Per Brandborg, “The quality of wildness, of autonomous and unfettered nature … is foremost the quality of wilderness that we must seek to preserve. It is the forces of nature at full play in the absence of human intent.”

    What do you all think about hunting and trapping, particularly of predators, in wildness/wilderness landscapes? Does it belong?

    • What do you all think about hunting and trapping, particularly of predators, in wildness/wilderness landscapes? Does it belong?

      Good question Brandon. Here’s my quick personal opinion, offered as an avid backcountry elk and deer hunter. In general, I have problems with hunting and trapping of predators period, for a variety of reasons, including some more recent reaching about what such hunting of predators does to social structures and how it may even end up having the opposite effect of what predator-hunting advocates claim.

      As a hunter, I would certainly support a general ban on predator hunting in designated Wilderness areas, but I’m certain other hunters would disagree, but I see a difference between hunting predators more in the “wildland-urban interface’ compared with Wilderness areas.

  8. When I was a student in the early sixties, the Wilderness Act was working its way through Congress. On its passage, I was led to believe that ALL lands deemed worthy of wilderness designation became a Wilderness. Apparently that was not the case and, a few years later, RARE I (Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (?)) looked at more lands and the wilderness system was expanded. Apparently that was not enough and the process happened a third time with RARE II. Since then, that was apparently still not enough wilderness and more lands have been added to the wilderness system.

    Nearby is a “wilderness” that was once homesteaded with roads and apple orchards. I know a reforestation contractor who was actually contracted to plant trees in this “wilderness”. I hiked in another “wilderness” that has a lake that was dammed to raise its water-level and force it to drain into another creek for irrigation downstream.

    My point — what is/is not wilderness is purely philosophical and a matter of personal values.

    • Hi Dick,

      I’m curious as to who – or what – led you to believe this?

      “When I was a student in the early sixties, the Wilderness Act was working its way through Congress. On its passage, I was led to believe that ALL lands deemed worthy of wilderness designation became a Wilderness.”

      When the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, 9.1 million acres were protected in 13 states. Did you really think that was the end of it?

      If, as during a student in the early 60s, you or anyone else would’ve read the actual text of the Wilderness Act, you would have seen this section: “NATIONAL WILDERNESS PRESERVATION SYSTEM — EXTENT OF SYSTEM,” which clearly stated:

      “The Secretary of Agriculture shall, within ten years after September 30, 1964, review, as to its suitability or nonsuitability for preservation as wilderness, each area in the national forests classified on September 3, 1964, by the Secretary of Agriculture or the Chief of the Forest Service as “primitive” and report his findings to the President. The President shall advise the United States Senate and House of Representatives of his recommendations with respect to the designation as “wilderness” or other reclassification of each area on which review has been completed, together with maps and a definition of boundaries. Such advice shall be given with respect to not less than one-third of all the areas now classified as “primitive” within three years after September 3, 1964, not less than two-thirds within seven years after September 3, 1964, and the remaining areas within ten years after September 3, 1964. Each recommendation of the President for designation as “wilderness” shall become effective only if so provided by an Act of Congress. Areas classified as “primitive” on September 3, 1964, shall continue to be administered under the rules and regulations affecting such areas on September 3, 1964, until Congress has determined otherwise. Any such area may be increased in size by the President at the time he submits his recommendation to the Congress by not more than five thousand acres with no more than one thousand two hundred and eighty acres of such increase in any one compact unit; if it is proposed to increase the size of any such area by more than five thousand acres or by more than one thousand two hundred and eighty acres in any one compact unit the increase in size shall not become effective until acted upon by Congress. Nothing herein contained shall limit the President in proposing, as part of his recommendations to Congress, the alteration of existing boundaries of primitive areas or recommending the addition of any contiguous area of national forest lands predominantly of wilderness value. Not withstanding any other provisions of this Act, the Secretary of Agriculture may complete his review and delete such area as may be necessary, but not to exceed seven thousand acres, from the southern tip of the Gore Range-Eagles Nest Primitive Area, Colorado, if the Secretary determines that such action is in the public interest.

      (c) Within ten years after September 3, 1964, the Secretary of the Interior shall review every roadless area of five thousand contiguous acres or more in the national parks, monuments and other units of the national park system and every such area of, and every roadless island within, the national wildlife refuges and game ranges, under his jurisdiction on September 3, 1964, and shall report to the President his recommendation as to the suitability or nonsuitability of each such area or island for preservation as wilderness. The President shall advise the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives of his recommendation with respect to the designation as wilderness of each such area or island on which review has been completed, together with a map thereof and a definition of its boundaries. Such advice shall be given with respect to not less than one-third of the areas and islands to be reviewed under this subsection within three years after September 3, 1964, not less than two-thirds within seven years of September 3, 1964, and the remainder within ten years of September 3, 1964. A recommendation of the President for designation as wilderness shall become effective only if so provided by an Act of Congress. Nothing contained herein shall, by implication or otherwise, be construed to lessen the present statutory authority of the Secretary of the Interior with respect to the maintenance of roadless areas within units of the national park system.”

      Also, according to the text of the Wilderness Act, here is the “DEFINITION OF WILDERNESS:”

      (c) A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.

      All of this information about the Wilderness Act – and much, much more – is available at

      • As I recollect, it was primarily from a professor who’d recently retired from the Forest Service. Further, as I recollect, he’d worked on the passage of the Wilderness Act.

        From the passages you provided, I get the impression that, after Sept. 3, 1964, lands were to be reviewed and deemed worthy of wilderness classification within ten years. My hunch is that there have been a lot of lands receiving this designation well past Sept. 3, 1974.

        • Hi Dick,

          I think according to the language of the Wilderness Act your professor was mistaken.

          I’d think a simple google search would turn up some further legislative or administrative or agency action related to future Wilderness designations, past the ’64-74 period. Maybe someone here knows that history and can share it also. Or maybe you could look it up and share. Thanks.


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