Cecil Garland is not well known beyond the Big Blackfoot River of western Montana. But in this scenic valley, he is remembered as the hardware store owner and WWII veteran who led a 10-year fight to designate the 240,000-acre Scapegoat Wilderness.
He is a legend among conservationists, largely because the Scapegoat was the first wilderness ever created in the United States, not because of a federal recommendation, but because the people who loved the place insisted on protecting it.
From 1969 to 1973, Garland served as vice president and president of the Montana Wilderness Association. However, 40 years ago he moved to a remote ranch in southern Utah and more or less lost touch with the organization. In a way, he’s like a reclusive writer who writes one masterpiece and then vanishes into obscurity. So it was a welcome surprise when Garland’s daughter, Becky, spread the word that Cecil would be in town for his grandson’s wedding in July, and that he was willing to talk to a few of us about the old days.
The wedding reception was under way when we arrived at Becky’s home in Lincoln, Mont. Cecil leaned on a wooden walking stick at the bottom of the front stoop, surveying a green lawn full of beer-drinking revelers. He wore a plain white T-shirt under a pair of denim overhauls, which hung loosely on his 86-year-old frame. With a smile, he asked us to follow him to an upstairs bedroom, where he sat down in a tall-backed armchair.
He began by describing the North Carolina of his childhood. By the time he was 10, he said, logging had removed the vast majority of the virgin forest in the Great Smoky Mountains. “Everything that I had romanticized in my mind had disappeared,” he said, “and I knew that if I’d find it anywhere again, it’d be in the West.” He found what he was looking for in the Big Blackfoot watershed after moving to Lincoln around 1955:
“I’d found what I’d been missing. … That night in Ringeye Creek we had an elk bugling up above us on one of them benches and down the Webb Lake hill was another elk bugling back and forth, and of course as someone who had never heard that or seen that before I was spellbound … and I told myself, ‘They’ll destroy this too.’”
That night, Garland said, he made a pledge to prevent the Lincoln backcountry from meeting the same fate as the Great Smoky Mountains. A few years later, though, in 1960, he learned that the Forest Service planned to build logging roads as tangled as “wet spaghetti” deep into what is today the southern end of the Scapegoat Wilderness. In response, he established the Lincoln Backcountry Protective Association and began a fight against logging that would drag on for more than a decade.
First, Garland managed to delay the Forest Service road plan with the help of Montana Republican Rep. Jim Battin. Then, he convinced Battin to introduce legislation to permanently protect the area over the objections of the principal timber interests, including the Anaconda Co. and the Champion Fiber Co. By 1965, Battin and Montana’s two Democratic senators, Lee Metcalf and Mike Mansfield, were all committed to passing a wilderness bill.
However, one obstacle remained in the person of Wayne Aspinall, the powerful Colorado congressman who chaired the House Natural Resources Committee. Aspinall didn’t like the precedent that would be set by a hardware store owner telling the U.S. Forest Service what to do. The stalemate persisted for years, and in 1971, Garland traveled to Washington, D.C., to implore Mansfield, who was then majority leader of the Senate, to do everything in his power to force Aspinall to relinquish his hold on the bill.
Garland’s voice grew shaky as he relayed his conversation in Mansfield’s office. Mimicking Mansfield’s movements, he leaned back in his chair and placed his fingertips together pensively. Tears welled beneath his glasses and he took several breaths to steady his voice against the memory.
“Mike leaned back in his chair. … I’ll never forget it. … He said, ‘Cecil, one of these days Wayne Aspinall will want something, and when he does we’ll be there.’ …And I knew that he would keep his word. He said, ‘You go back home and you tell them people … you tell the people back there that we’ll get their backcountry.’ And I did.”
Mansfield kept his word, cutting a deal with Aspinall to designate the world’s first “citizen wilderness” on Sept. 5, 1972. Shortly afterward, Garland left Montana for good. A local boycott of his hardware store had finally taken its toll on him and his family.
“There was a burnout,” he told us, “no question about it.” And the long, drawn-out fighthad an impact on his marriage, which ended in the winter of 1973. “Someone had to leave,” he said, “and it was me that needed to do it.” He bought a piece of land between the Deep Creek Mountains and the Great Salt Flat in southern Utah, 96 miles from the nearest town. He moved there permanently after the divorce.
Outside on the lawn we could see people beginning to serve themselves from a small hill of pulled pork that sat simmering on a grill built with one half of an old propane tank. Before we headed back down to join them, Garland told us that he wanted no accolades for what he had done.
“The fact that I could do it,” he said, “and get it done is all the reward that I ever needed or ever will need.”
Since Cecil Garland ended his fight for this glorious landscape, over 98 million additional acres of wilderness have been protected by people who followed his example: They fought for a special place, because it was in that place that they found what was missing from their lives.
On the 40th anniversary of the first citizen wilderness, Cecil Garland may want to avoid the limelight, and ask us not to celebrate his own actions, but I hope he won’t mind if the rest of us continue to find inspiration by telling the story.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.