Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law, and Bob Marshall was there from the beginning

BY MYERS REECE | PHOTOGRAPHY BY MANDY MOHLER

“The richest values of wilderness lie not in the days of Daniel Boone, nor even in the present, but rather in the future.”

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949

Bob Marshall Wilderness

The north end of the Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

Bob Marshall devoted his adult life to wilderness preservation, eloquently promoting it as both an environmental and social obligation. He held chief executive forestry positions within the federal government and was instrumental in creating The Wilderness Society in 1935. He viewed 30-mile day hikes through rugged country as a reasonable means to better understand the natural world that he so wished to protect, and nobody questions his claim to being a founding father of the wilderness movement.

Yet, after all of that, Marshall never got to see his movement’s crowning achievement: the 1964 passage of the federal Wilderness Act. He died of heart failure in 1939 at age 38.

But there’s no doubt Marshall would have beamed with pride 50 years ago when the act was signed into law, just as there’s no doubt how proud he would be today to witness the act’s 50-year anniversary. And one might guess if he were around, he’d come up to Northwest Montana, where the wilderness complex of his namesake is located, to celebrate with the modern disciples of his movement.

As an environmental concept, wilderness is the preservation of land in its most primeval state, “untrammeled” by humans, to quote Howard Zahniser, the act’s primary author. As a policy implementation, wilderness is the designation of land under protections that generally prohibit commercial activities and development, while safeguarding it for public recreational uses that don’t involve motorized or mechanized transportation.

To conservationists, the Wilderness Act is one of the most singularly important legal expressions of environmental progress in U.S. history. To its most ardent opponents, it’s an enduring example of government’s heavy hand squeezing out land-use opportunities. The polarity of its politics reflects the importance of its impact. Just how socially beneficial that impact is depends on where you stand, but tectonic land-management shifts are supposed to be felt deeply, and for generations.

Bob Marshall Wilderness

Greg and Deborah Schats at the Prarie Reef Lookout in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law on Sept. 3, 1964, after more than eight years and 66 revisions, he placed 9.1 million acres in 13 states under the National Wilderness Preservation System. Since then, the system has expanded to include 757 wilderness areas across the U.S. encompassing over 100 million acres, half of which are in Alaska.

Four federal agencies are tasked with overseeing these areas: the National Park Service, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management.

The Bob Marshall Wilderness, known today as “The Bob,” was among the original 1964 designations, eventually expanding to over 1 million acres in 1978. Congress established the 240,000-acre Scapegoat Wilderness in 1972 on the southeast border of The Bob, followed by the designation of the 287,000-acre Great Bear Wilderness in 1978 on the northwest border.

Collectively, the three areas are called the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, which, at 1.5 million acres, is the third-largest wilderness complex in the lower 48. By itself, the Bob Marshall is the fifth-largest wilderness area in the lower 48. Altogether, Montana has 16 designated areas comprising about 3.5 million acres.

Following the early activity through the 1970s, Montana has experienced a decades-long wilderness drought. The last designation was the 259,000-acre Lee Metcalf Wilderness in 1983. The political and ideological battles that have prevented further expansion show no signs of letting up. Hundreds of thousands more acres are believed to qualify for wilderness designation in Montana alone, and tens of millions nationwide. Advocates stress that there’s a lot more work to be accomplished.

Those inevitable policy debates will determine how much more does get done. That’s on the horizon. But while this year’s anniversary is an opportunity to discuss the future, it’s perhaps foremost an occasion to look back at the last 50 years, especially at the forward-thinking pioneers who ushered wilderness from its infancy as a well-meaning concept to its implementation as a far-reaching law.

INTO THE WILDERNESS

Into the WildernessA photographer’s fresh perspective following her nine-day trip

On the first day of her first solo backcountry excursion, a nine-day hiking trip through the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Mandy Mohler encountered a large fallen tree blocking the trail. It was too tall for her packhorse, Ben, to step over, even after she removed its branches. She ducked off-trail to survey her options, which didn’t immediately look much better: eight-foot-tall root wads and seemingly impenetrable foliage. The trip wasn’t off to a good start.

But Mohler, a 29-year-old photographer from Kalispell, had prepared too long for this journey to turn around on her first day. So she squared her shoulders, took out a hatchet, and braced for jungle warfare. For the next hour-and-half, she fought the Bob’s abundance and bush-wacked around the clogged section of trail, leading reluctant Ben to surer ground.

“That was my first day and I was just defeated,” Mohler said.

If she was defeated, she quickly bounced back, hitting the trail the following morning with renewed enthusiasm and a fresh perspective. But then, as she was descending a steep switchback pass on that second day, carefully considering each foot step as well as Ben’s steps behind her, she got a funny feeling.

“I looked at Ben and he was making a weird face,” she said.

Suddenly, the 150-pound saddle and pack hurled over Ben’s head, tangling around him on the downward-facing slope. Day two wasn’t going much better than day one.

Mohler freed Ben from the saddle, tied him up 50 feet away, and disassembled the pack containing all of her supplies so she could move everything piecemeal to a flatter area, where she then reassembled the pack to put back on Ben. That was another hour-and-a-half.

Looking back, Mohler says those rough early patches were actually blessings.

“It was frustrating, but I was able to successfully deal with them on my own,” she said. “When you’re out there, you don’t have anyone else to turn to. You just have to problem solve and do it. You can either just stay there or fix it and move on. It felt good to figure it out and move on.”

And she kept moving on for the next seven days, completing a 94-mile hike through one of the most remarkable wildernesses in the country. In the nine days between departing Silvertip trailhead and arriving at Benchmark trailhead, she would hike past fields of waist-high beargrass and the famed China Wall. She would eat dehydrated meals and find unexpected comfort in hot Jell-O. She would have the most amazing journey of her life, and she would document it all in photos.

“I would recommend it,” she said. “It’s epic, but it’s doable. As long as you’re prepared, it’s really just hiking in the woods.”