A rock star was my teacher

Re-encountering a science nut who instilled in me a love of wilderness.


Growing up in Montana, I was surrounded by wilderness. Yet I never set foot in a designated wilderness area until I was 14 and assigned to study earth science with a teacher named Dan O’Leary.

He was a passionate rock hound and a tough grader; even the smartest kids struggled to pass his class. While the students across the hall watched episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy, the ones in Mr. O’Leary’s class could be overheard comparing minerals by porosity and density. His field trips were always adventures; we’d hike to abandoned stamp mills near mines or to crystal-digs in places known only to Mr. O’Leary and his cantankerous cousin, Red.

But these excursions were nothing compared to the trips that he led every summer into the 1.5 million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness. Tales of these five-day marches seemed too fantastic to be believed, but I believed every one, and in the summer after my eighth grade year, I signed up for a spelunking adventure deep in the heart of “the Bob.”

First, we had to learn how to climb, so for several weeks in July, we gathered inside the cavernous auditorium of the middle school where we practiced ascending and rappelling from rigging above the stage. When we finally boarded a yellow school bus for the four-hour ride to the trailhead, we felt like Eagle Scouts under the tutelage of Indiana Jones.

The trip lived up to its billing. We summitted Silvertip Peak, developed blisters the size of silver dollars, and were nearly crushed inside a shallow cave when a massive ice column collapsed at my touch. That trip, I got hooked on the outdoors.

A decade later, I signed up for my first real job as a community organizer for the Montana Wilderness Association and relocated to Choteau, pop. 1,600, on the Rocky Mountain Front. There, I quickly learned about the decades of tension that accompany questions of wilderness conservation in Montana. I saw ranchers trembling with frustration as they described getting “burnt out” by the 1988 Canyon Creek fire, which began in the Scapegoat Wilderness. I heard a tired hope in the voices of wilderness outfitters who had put their businesses on the line to protest oil and gas development throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. As I listened, I sometimes wondered where Mr. O’Leary, the wilderness lover and mining buff, would plant his flag in this tricky conversation.

After a year on the job, I had a chance to ask him. He had traded in his chalk-dusted Dockers for a pair of cutoff jean shorts and was pounding up a local trail at a feverish pace. “I’ve seen your name in the paper,” he bellowed, shaking my hand, when we met on the trail. “You took a job with the greenies!”

Suddenly, I had an idea where he might land on the wilderness question, but I politely reminded him who had set me on this path. “I love wilderness,” he responded, a smile spreading across his face, “but I hate environmentalists.”

For me, that memorable exchange suggests a new set of compass points for a state that has failed to designate a single new wilderness area in 30 years, the longest such span in the country. We need to find that sweet spot where a meaningful conservation agenda overlaps with the state’s long history of dependence on extractive industries. Somehow, we’ve got to bridge the gap.

Thousands of people across Montana have come to the same conclusion over the last several years, including members of our congressional delegation, who have sponsored two wilderness bills recently, the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act and the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. These bills are the products of uncommon partnerships, the former between timber companies and conservation groups, and the latter between ranchers and sportsmen and women. Both bills maintain an approval rating among Montana citizens of greater than 70 percent.

As the nation begins to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act this year, parties are being planned across Montana -- in logging towns like Libby and Seeley Lake as well as urban centers like Missoula and Bozeman. It’s been five years since I ran into Mr. O’Leary, but I think I’m going to invite him out to join the festivities. I’m not sure whether he’ll accept, but when the bands begin to play, I expect to see a bunch of wilderness lovers like him swapping tall tales with a lot of “environmentalists” like me. After all, he helped inspire my love of wild country in the West.

Gabriel Furshong is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in Missoula, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Andrew V Sipocz
Andrew V Sipocz
Feb 17, 2014 12:22 PM
Reading the story in this issue on the Judge Boldt decision and then this essay I was thinking how one thing I've learned is that when something you do makes a difference, some people are going to hate you even when it's the right thing.

Use the best of what God gave you and choose your course. Reassess it often. But don't let the opinions of others, even your friends or relatives, keep you from doing what you think is right.
martin weiss
martin weiss Subscriber
Feb 18, 2014 11:45 AM
Either we'll outgrow the cruelty and waste or we won't.
It's the measure of our ingenuity whether our ethics can mitigate necessity.
We see the beauty and also the cruelty, the flow of nutrients and their despoliation. It does seem like we're learning pretty quick. We'll have to.
That's what we do. HCN is a touchstone and a talisman/taliswoman of the good word.
Nancy Ostlie
Nancy Ostlie Subscriber
Feb 18, 2014 01:54 PM
The Tester FJRA is "strictly a logging bill" according to one legislative staffer, creating some rock and ice wilderness that is useless to timber interests, while setting a bad precedent of Congress mandating timber harvest, rather than scientists at our agencies determining best practices. Look at H.R. 1526 supported by Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., to see what follows the precedent: a bill which compels the Forest Service to prioritize logging over all other multiple uses. The bill would mandate a six-fold increase in timber harvest in Montana over 2012 levels, requiring extensive new logging road networks and clearcutting practices.

The writer likes 'compromise' and I do too, but giving honor to someone who "hates" folks who care about the environment we live in bothers me. Support by Montana Wilderness Association for a logging bill is disappointing at best.

Nancy Ostlie
Bozeman MT
Larry Bullock
Larry Bullock
Feb 23, 2014 08:36 PM
Ms. Ostlie: Big, popular enviro-conservation organizations support or tolerate all manner of ecological abuses, chipping away at the last few remnants. I don't know of any that are not compromised or co-opted. Some small ones may value wilderness and environmental health.
     Perhaps, the hatred of environmentalists arises from their unexamined support for these feckless organizations.
Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler
Feb 26, 2014 07:32 AM
RE: S 37, the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act (FJRA)

The Last Best Place Wildlands Campaign is a Montana-based coalition of conservation organizations and citizens dedicated to wildlands protection, forest restoration and the sound long-term management of our public lands. Our coalition includes 5th generation Montanans, small-business owners, veterans, retired Forest Service district rangers and biologists, backpackers, hunters and anglers, outfitters, scientists and community leaders.

Our Coalition supports forest and watershed restoration, protecting our roadless wildlands and sustainable jobs in the woods. Therefore, the issue regarding the FJRA isn't what Tester and the collaborators intended to do; rather the issue is what this bill, as written, would do.

Our Coalition believes that, despite the best intentions of Senator Tester, the FJRA represents a serious threat to America’s public lands legacy. The mandated logging provisions are unprecedented and represent an unscientific override of current forest planning. The notion that Congress should legislate logging levels on public lands is antithetical to the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) and irresponsible given that lumber consumption in America has dropped significantly.

The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act contains several major precedent-setting provisions detrimental to America’s national public lands legacy.

The bill would localize the management of America’s National Forests opening the flood gates for mandated logging, mining, grazing, fracking, drilling and road building for National Forest and federal public lands elsewhere. This could fragment and balkanize the entire National Forest system and ignores the basic principle that national public lands belong equally to all Americans.

As the FJRA is currently written it contains several provisions that abrogate the Wilderness Act by allowing non-conforming uses. It also releases – and opens for logging, motorized recreation and development – 76,000 acres that are currently protected as “Wilderness Study Areas” as a result of a late 1970s bill passed by the great Montana Senator Lee Metcalf.

The numerous unfunded mandates included in the FJRA could cost US taxpayers well over $100 million.

While supporters of the bill complain of “gridlock” between 2008 and 2012 the US Forest Service’s Northern Region sold enough timber sales in Montana and N. Idaho to fill over 239,000 logging trucks, which if lined up, would stretch for 2,048 miles.

Supporters of the bill may tell you that 70% of Montanans support the FJRA. However, you should know there has never been one single independent state-wide opinion poll conducted about the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. The polls supporters of the FJRA refer to were actually PAID for, WRITTEN and COMISSIONED by supporters of the bill and were designed to produce a desired outcome.

As the Great Falls Tribune reported this past weekend, “The core of the FJRA proposal sprang from a series of private meetings that began in 2005 between Sun Mountain Lumber, Roseburg Forest Products, Pyramid Mountain Lumber, RY Timber, Smurfit Stone, Montana Wilderness Association, National Wildlife Federation and Montana Trout Unlimited.”

Make no mistake, the exclusive, self-selective process used by the Montana Wilderness Association and a few others to develop the FJRA, particularly on the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest, has engendered more distrust and hard feelings than anything we’ve witnessed in Montana. Members of our Coalition, and a large segment of the public, have felt excluded, disenfranchised and ignored throughout the entire process. Basically, if you didn’t agree with the radical notion that members of Congress should start mandating logging and resource extraction levels on public lands your views weren’t welcomed.

For these and other reasons, over 50 forest and wilderness organizations around the country – including the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, WildEarth Guardians, NRDC, Center for Biological Diversity, PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) – either oppose, or have expressed serious concerns with, Senator Tester’s mandated logging bill, S 37 the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.

Again, while our Coalition supports forest restoration, Wilderness and sustainable jobs in the woods, Congress doesn’t need to mandate large increases in logging and throw science-based planning and management of America’s National Forests out the window to achieve these goals.
Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler
Feb 26, 2014 07:37 AM
Below are more substantive concerns about Tester's mandated logging bill, this time from WildEarth Guardians, which has 35,000 members in Montana and nationally. Gabe Furshong and the Montana Wilderness Association simply ignore these substantive concerns and have for nearly 5 years.

Please don't let MWA deceive the pubic anymore about this bill. MWA and Furshong are either unwilling, or incapable, of responding to these substantive concerns and that, in and of itself, speaks volumes.

December 18th, 2013

Dear Members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee,

WildEarth Guardians is a non-profit, public interest, education, and conservation organization whose mission is to protect and restore wildlife, wild rivers, and wild places in the American West; we have 35,000 members throughout the country.

We are writing to express deep concerns with Senate Bill 37 titled the, “Forest Jobs and Recreation Act of 2013,” and urge members to vote against it passage. While we support many of the bill’s purposes, several provisions direct inappropriate uses of our public lands and require specific management actions that are best developed by scientific professionals and informed by a full public process.

Specifically we are concerned with the following provisions:

• SB 37 mandates the mechanical treatment of vegetation on a predetermined amount of acres and defines mechanical treatment in a manner that requires the production of wood fiber that has commercial value regardless of whether or not such action has a restoration benefit;

• Mechanical vegetative restoration treatments cannot be limited to only commercial harvest since many other treatments are typically prescribed to restore a landscape including non‐commercial and pre‐commercial harvest, prescribed burning, and weed treatments.

• Furthermore, the science of mechanical vegetative treatments in a restoration context is still developing and in many mid to high elevation areas, the best way to restore the land it to allow natural disturbance even if the result does not conform to historical ranges of variation.

• SB 37 defines road decommissioning in such a way that road prisms will remain on the landscape, which then could be reconstructed for use in future projects. Any decommissioning needs to remove the road prism.

• For authorized forest and watershed restoration projects, SB 37 requires project areas not exceed 1.5 mi/mi2 road density after project completion, but with a loophole that road closures count towards this density requirement, so it is unlikely they would be decommissioned. Road closures should not count toward road density objectives because they can be administratively re‐opened at any time and the Forest Service lacks the capacity to adequately enforce such closures.

• SB 37 weakens standards established under the Inland Native Fish Strategy (INFISH) by including a loophole that allows managers to change those standards if doing so still meets the Strategy’s “intent.” We oppose INFISH loopholes.

• SB 37 includes exemptions to the Wilderness Act for non‐conforming activities in the proposed additions to the Wilderness Preservation System.

• SB 37 releases Wilderness Study Areas without any future protections. While someof these areas would be designated Wilderness or Special Management and Recreation Areas, thousands of acres would be left unprotected.

• SB 37 legislates the allowance of motorized recreation in Inventoried Roadless Areas and specifically over‐snow vehicle use in areas that provide crucial habitat for wolverine, mountain and big horn sheep. These areas are currently open to winter motorized recreation, but lack any analysis that demonstrates such use complies with Executive Order 11644 as amended by 11989. Under SB 37 this would continue.

WildEarth Guardians recognizes the good intentions behind SB 37, and we certainly support many efforts to restore the environmental degradation left from decades of public land mismanagement and exploitation. However, SB 37 would legislate unproven and poor management policies, therefore we urge committee members to vote against SB 37.


Adam Rissien
Northern Rockies Conservation Manager
WildEarth Guardians