From hardware to software

How the wilderness movement got its start

 

DENVER, Colo. - Without a close look, you could have mistaken it for a dot-com sales convention. The downtown Denver Hyatt ballroom seethed with purposeful-looking wilderness activists in early September. One wag joked there more people with Palm Pilots than patchouli, a sure sign the wilderness movement was edging into the mainstream.

A measure of that influence was the parade of representatives from the Clinton administration, including Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck. He used his keynote speech to say, in effect, "We're with you on wilderness."

The 106th Congress was with them, too. When the year ended, these young activists could take at least part of the credit for the passage of eight wilderness bills. About 757,000 acres of northwestern Nevada's Black Rock Desert were protected as wilderness, and the nationwide total topped 1 million acres, including new wilderness areas in California, Colorado and Oregon.

For all its current political influence and professional staff, though, the wilderness movement owes much of its start to a hardware store-owner from western Montana - a man who'd feel sorely out of place in this slick and savvy crowd. His name is Cecil Garland.

The poor man's wilderness

It happened this way. In the days leading up to the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, a final compromise forced its backers to agree that all future designations of wilderness areas would be made through additional acts of Congress.

But in practical terms, nomination of new areas was still up to the Forest Service, an agency in no hurry to set aside new areas. Staffers gave themselves years for a "Roadless Area Review and Evaluation," dubbed RARE I and then RARE II.

Meanwhile, staffers planned to manage wild lands as they saw fit, leaving some alone and developing others. One such place on the latter list was what the agency called the Scapegoat Backcountry, outside Lincoln, Mont.

Called the "poor man's wilderness" because anyone with strong legs could experience it, the 240,000-acre Lincoln Scapegoat sat hard against the massive Bob Marshall Wilderness, one of the trophy areas designated when the Wilderness Act passed.

High-winding mountain slopes fed crooked trout streams, their waters the setting for Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It. At its entrance, a sign prohibited motorized vehicles, and Cecil Garland was among those who believed that the Lincoln Scapegoat had official protection as wilderness.

When, in 1960, he learned otherwise, Garland decided to do something about it. Although most of the key players are older now, with fading memories, Dennis Roth captured much of the action in a little-read 1995 book, The Wilderness Movement and the National Forests. By the time Garland was finished with his 12-year crusade, Roth recounts, this small-town fight had forever changed the protection of public lands.

Garland was no professional environmentalist; he was a hunter, a fisherman, and a rancher who owned a hardware and sporting-goods store in Lincoln. He also had a remarkable memory and a gift for understanding complicated planning documents. He used these talents to rally opposition to the agency's planned roads for logging and campgrounds in the Lincoln Scapegoat.

"He may have been uneducated, but he was no fool," recalls Doris Milner, a key volunteer with the Montana Wilderness Association. "He had vision and knew how to get people to act."

Along with new allies such as the Montana Wilderness Association and the Wilderness Society, Garland picked apart the Forest Service's carefully constructed plans. He rallied development opponents, who packed Forest Service hearings and traveled to Washington to plead the case for wilderness protection.

One story told by Roth illustrates Garland's persuasiveness. The Forest Service, although concerned about the opposition, announced in March 1963 that its plans for road-building in the Lincoln Scapegoat would go forward. An alarmed young Forest Service engineer slipped quietly into Garland's store, telling him that the roadbed had already been flagged, and bulldozers were parked at the end.

Frantically, Garland called Montana Rep. Jim Battin, R. "I began to pour my heart out to him in a most pleading and earnest manner," recalls Garland. Battin was so moved by Garland's passion that he dialed up the regional forester, asking for a 10-day delay to study the issue. The forester replied he didn't have 10 days, saying the bulldozer was ready to go.

Battin bristled and replied, "By God, we'd better have 10 days." They got the delay, and Garland used the time to organize local opposition. A Forest Service hearing a month later drew 300 near-riotous citizens.

The agency, to its dismay, was losing its grip.

The grassroots gains clout

As Garland's cause gained more grassroots support, new Helena Forest Supervisor Robert Morgan decided in late 1963 to put development plans on hold. The following year, he told higher-ups that "we will get no support from the man on the street" if the agency proceeded with its plans for the Lincoln Scapegoat.

In April 1965, the stakes were raised when the Montana delegation introduced a bill designating the 240,000-acre Lincoln Scapegoat Wilderness Area.

"It set a precedent," recalls Clif Merritt, former executive director of the Wilderness Society, as the first-ever citizen-drafted wilderness bill. Field hearings in 1968 showed the entire Montana congressional delegation and most of the citizens in favor of the bill, with the increasingly out-of-touch Forest Service among the only opponents.

Regional Forester Neal Rahm vented his frustration over the agency's changing fortunes at a meeting of agency leaders in the spring of 1969:

"We have lost control and leadership in the sphere of wilderness philosophy," said Rahm. "The Forest Service originated the concept in 1920 and, practically, has been standing still since 1937. Why should a sporting goods and hardware dealer in Lincoln, Mont., designate the boundaries for the 240,000-acre Lincoln Back Country addition to the Bob Marshall?"

One month later, in an effort to forestall congressional action, Forest Service Chief Ed Cliff told a Senate Interior Committee that the agency would "take another look" at the Lincoln Scapegoat. It was too late. The Forest Service was no longer the sole decision-maker.

Later that year, the Senate passed the Lincoln Scapegoat bill. After a few more years of struggle, the Scapegoat Wilderness was signed into law in 1972, becoming the first national forest wilderness area designated at the initiative of anyone other than the Forest Service.

In demonstrating what Stewart Brandborg of the Wilderness Society calls "the strength of determined citizen leaders who have realized their own power," Garland had rewritten the rulebook for protecting public land, and had created a model for activists throughout the country to follow.

Back to the future

Fast-forward some 25 years, and the change is remarkable.

The growth in the West is nothing less than explosive, and partly in response, the last two years have seen a dramatic increase of interest in wilderness designation. Yet many young activists have never heard of the Lincoln Scapegoat or the man named Cecil Garland.

This story would have a tidy ending if it came here, but it doesn't.

Following the passage of the Scapegoat bill, Garland and his wife decided they had had enough of the fighting and turned the store over to his daughters. Then the couple divorced, and he drifted south and west, to Utah.

Now remarried and living in the desert, Garland occasionally rails against a vast media conspiracy (HCN, 4/3/95: Folk hero has a pure white vision). Visitors to his dusty ranch are also likely to hear a perspective on the world's problems that is, to put it politely, somewhere to the right of the late Ed Abbey's anti-immigrant views. Meanwhile, one of his daughters, now married to a miner, talks warmly about the jobs that industry can bring to the region.

Still, his legacy is clear. Following the Wilderness Conference in Denver, charged-up activists went back to work on the wilderness bills in Congress and on stopgap protections in their states. Many fired up their cell phones to check in on the last of this season's fieldwork, or to share new ideas and techniques with the folks back home.

Doug Scott, policy director for the Pew Wilderness Center, credits Garland for helping show the way to citizen action. "Folks reacted to threats to roadless areas by going directly to their congressional delegations for help," he says. "The new path they followed was marked for them by the fresh blazes and cairns set out by Cecil Garland."

Tom Price, a former communications director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, is a freelance writer who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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