The New West: Reclaim Your Conservation Mettle

By on April 20, 2018

How often are we asking tough questions about the future of a movement?

President Lyndon Johnson signs the Wilderness Act of 1964 in the White House Rose Garden. (Wikimedia Commons)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Has the mainstream wildlands conservation movement gone soft, lost its edge, forgotten the hard-earned lessons of the past?

Are some groups interested only in fundraising?  Do others use the guise of “consensus” because they are conflict-averse and avoid saying things contributors don’t want to hear?

Do they rationalize positions based upon what they believe to be “political expedience” instead of creating citizen groundswells that change political trajectories and make stronger cases for wildland protection?

These were questions raised often by Stewart Brandborg who passed away this week at the age of 93.

If you don’t know of “Brandy,” he served as executive director of The Wilderness Society at perhaps the most pivotal moment in the organization’s history, when The Wilderness Act of 1964 was signed into law and the looming question became, “what’s next?”

Until the end, Brandborg never lost the fire in his belly, nor the conviction that brave acts of conservation aren’t achieved by those who stake out middling positions. He was openly critical of groups he perceived were willing to compromise away dwindling wild landscapes being swarmed by more human activity.

During his tenure, Brandborg helped make the case for creation of 70 wilderness areas in 31 states. He once told me, “We don’t have enough wildlands left to squander or bargain away. We forget that what’s left is all there is.”

I’ll never forget a night at Brandborg’s house during the 1990s following an event in the Bitterroot Valley that brought together aging champions of the American wilderness movement. It included Brandborg (son of a federal forester), the late John Craighead, Michael Frome, the legendary David Brower and Dale Burk.

Afterward, I stayed at the Brandborgs along with Frome and Brower. We spent the entire night sipping scotch, me listening silently to tales of derring-do, about how dams were stopped from blocking rivers, how redwoods and giant sequoias were spared from industrial forestry, and the fearlessness demonstrated by those who made wilderness protection a law of the land.

No one understood the fight better than Brandborg, who ensured that the language of the Wilderness Act remained in the law after its primary author, the leader of the Wilderness Society, Howard Zahniser, died just months before it reached a vote.

Brandborg spoke about how conservationists today don’t want to hear his advisements that advocates must never settle for what the Forest Service, politicians and resource extractionists arbitrarily decide is doable; you push to protect as much wilderness-caliber lands as possible because you will not have a second chance.

Frome agreed. A college professor and journalist, he noted how conservation organizations tried to blackball him when he called them out for losing their spines. Brower, one of the true green lions of the modern age, said one doesn’t protect land to be popular.

Conservation, he explained, involves advancing ideas that are ahead of their time, that make the status quo feel uncomfortable in the moment, but that are never regretted years down the line.

Wild nature, as we know it today, would not exist had earlier generations of young people not pushed public land managers and elected officials to see the light, he noted.

Lately, I’ve had conversations with recreationists who have invoked the Muries, Edward Abbey, Brower and others. They claim those conservationists would abide demolition of the Wilderness Act and the giving away of wilderness study areas so they can have access to everything as outdoor gymnasiums.

Jan Murie, son of Adolph and Louise Murie and professor emeritus in biology at the University of Alberta, echoed thoughts expressed by his cousin, the late Martin Murie. He wrote in 2012: “The rationale [of collaboration and consensus] is that a shriveled wilderness bill that leaves out lands of true wilderness quality is better than no bill at all. If we give in to plans like that we can’t help asking if we aren’t selling the whole store.”

When presented with assertions by recreationists who invoked quotes from conservation heroes to undermine conservation, Jan Murie told me: “It is indeed irksome when people with little knowledge of their views present misinterpretations.”

Which leads us back to Brandborg. He said there is a pervasive willingness on the part of certain conservation organizations to settle for less. They forget that in the halls of Congress, conflict is a good and necessary thing. He argued that most feel-good consensus exercises, including one recently sponsored by the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, have been failures.

“We must resist the fuzzy, fuzzy Neverland of collaboration,” Brandy, who knew better than anyone else, said at a recent wilderness conference in Missoula. “We invite people to deliberate with us, but we must recognize the primary value is the wildness of this land and the preservation of it.”

Now return to the top of this column. Do the questions Brandborg raised hold validity?  PJH

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal, is also author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at

About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (which just published a long piece on climate change in Greater Yellowstone), is also author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at

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