Forty-five years after the first Back Country Horsemen chapter formed in Columbia Falls, members across the nation remain faithful to the founding
Story by Clare Menzel | Photography by Mandy Mohler
The Back Country Horsemen’s first press run of 5,000 booklets preaching safe horse-packing practices flew out of stock. The free 60-page etiquette guide, sized to fit in a shirt pocket, was clearly in need; slovenliness couldn’t have been the sole cause of all the man-made messes in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, which included campsite debris and, more worrisome, damage to the land from unenlightened overuse.
The Back Country Horsemen hoped the best practices book, their first official project as a newly formed service group, would change behavior enough to give Flathead National Forest managers reason to revisit their view of horsepackers in the backcountry. A proposed 1972 management plan for the Bob Marshall Wilderness, established not yet a decade earlier, included directives to minimize man’s blemishes on this roadless country, so wild in character that many perceived it as untouched. The wide-ranging plan would eliminate existing corrals, toilets, hitch racks, certain signs, and entire buildings. It would target trash and resource destruction through certain regulations on access, like a new permitting system for those using livestock in the backcountry.
Roland Cheek agreed that trash was a problem, and he agreed that increased usage without increased stewardship wore on the wilderness. However, the Plum Creek Lumber safety director, writer, and owner of the Skyline Outfit took particular issue with the permits, which he viewed as needlessly restrictive. Dennis Swift and Ken Ausk, his Columbia Falls neighbors and companions on a hunting trip, agreed. One night, around a campfire by a wall tent deep in the wilderness, they started talking about it.
“[The Forest Service] wanted the wilderness to be more pure than the people … They wanted it to be even more of a challenge,” says Cheek. “We didn’t think that [permit system] was in our best interest, frankly.”
More than that, it seemed like an existential threat to saddle and stock in the backcountry. Cheek and his comrades wanted to organize. They wanted to establish a culture where horses were part of wilderness protection, not antithetical to it. They decided they would need more than a soapbox to stand on.
“We didn’t want our organization to be just another ‘against-it’ group,” says Cheek, who is the last living founding member at age 83. “We wanted credibility. And one way to achieve that was to be of service to the resource.”
They recruited Dulane Fulton, a retired school superintendent who was a natural leader, and they formed the Back Country Horsemen. This volunteer service and education group has, over the last 45 years, spawned 194 grassroots chapters across 31 states, including a second in the Flathead Valley. Last summer, associated volunteers nationwide contributed 324,154 hours of labor, which the organization values at $12.9 million. The original chapter is now known as the Back Country Horsemen of the Flathead. Along with the other local chapter, the Back Country Horsemen of Northwest Montana, they provide stock support for Forest Service trail crews, as well as other volunteer organizations like the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation.
Their first public meeting was held at the Columbia Falls elementary school gymnasium on January 17, 1973. Newspaper journalists and a television crew were in attendance. The meeting concluded with 43 new members, a board of directors that included a U.S. Forest Service Glacier View District Ranger, a president in Roland Cheek, and no name. That came during the second meeting, in February.
Their first act was to publish the horse-packing practices booklet — a text that predates the Leave No Trace pamphlet. (They would eventually print more than 25,000 copies.) Volunteers cleared 100 miles of trail in their first season, the same summer Congress added the Scapegoat Wilderness to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. By the second season, the horsemen had completed 1,000 hours of volunteer trail labor and packing. They developed 10 official objections to the 1972 wilderness management plan. They wrote letters to Montana representatives and other political conservationists, like Idaho U.S. Sen. Frank Church, and went on record in opposition to oil and gas exploration in designated wilderness or Wild and Scenic areas. And then, in 1975, came the project that would define the Back Country Horsemen’s legacy: the Big Salmon Creek bridge.
The Big Salmon story seems to have taken on the patina of an epic over the years — enough for Cheek to compare his obligation to act with the duty of military service. But, as he says, he has always felt it was something the group simply had to do.
Big Salmon Creek, in the southern half of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, drains clear and cold from the Swan Crest into Big Salmon Lake, which feeds the South Fork Flathead River. Trails in this broad valley run down either side of the South Fork, crossing its many tributaries. A seven-foot suspension bridge over the creek at Salmon Forks is an essential link connecting the west side’s tread. This bridge “opens up a lot of country,” as Cheek says. But in the mid-1970s, maintenance on the structure lapsed, its abutments washed away, and a trail system plan that disallowed the replacement of wilderness bridges or the construction of any new ones condemned it as “unsafe.” The Forest Service was poised to take bids for a demolition crew. As the Daily Inter Lake reported, Wilderness Ranger Jack Dolan had written in a nine-page memo that this would be a positive development.
“Elimination of the bridge could restore the wilderness character of the site,” Dolan said, “by disposing of a man-made intrusion” that diminished the quality of the wilderness resource.
Cheek wrote a letter to the editor, citing a Forest Service report that claimed Big Salmon was “the most hazardous” stream crossing in the wilderness. Without that bridge, it wouldn’t be safe to attempt a wet crossing until July or August. He pointed out that the bridge on the tamer Little Salmon Creek, in the next drainage north, was being maintained and in fine shape. He also wrote about how he once lost a horse, and nearly drowned himself, while crossing Bear Creek, on the Middle Fork Flathead. Cheek believed that comments like Dolan’s proved the issue had evolved from a mere maintenance, budget, or safety item into a proxy for the “controversy over purity in wilderness management.”
And so, “we determined to go to war” over the bridge, Cheek says. Just like the proposed livestock permit, it was an ideological disagreement over man’s visibility in wilderness, but this would become the horsemen’s first rallying point to generate wide-ranging support from outside the group. And support coalesced quickly from residents, saddle clubs, and outfitters alike. Due directly to the efforts of the Back Country Horsemen, as the Daily Inter Lake reported, the Forest Service delayed bid openings for demolition and took under advisement a request for a public hearing. In Cheek’s telling of that hearing, more than 100 community members attended, and only one spoke in favor of demolishing the bridge. The agency seemed swayed by the public support, but made it clear there still wasn’t funding available for what had become a substantial restoration project.
“The response of Back Country Horsemen is, ‘Okay, we’ll help,’” Cheek says. “‘What do you need?’”
That summer, the horsemen loaded a semi truck with 90-pound sacks of cement and approximately 180 nine-foot bridge planks, and drove up the dusty road to the Meadow Creek trailhead, which is 15 miles from the Spotted Bear Ranger Station and 65 miles from Hungry Horse. From this staging area, packers — including Cheek’s son, Marc — pulled 90 fully loaded horses on the 20-mile out-and-back trail to supply the materials. The restored bridge still stands today. It was a beautiful expression of the chapter’s original mission: organized pushback on a management decision led to a changed policy, and the volunteers rolled up their sleeves to bring the change to the backcountry.
“We earned enormous credibility,” Cheek says. “The [agency] got an opportunity to understand, ‘These people mean business. They have the capacity to help us.’ The Back Country Horsemen are still providing that service.”
Sunny days greeted 27 volunteer Back Country Horsemen on their first project of the 2018 season. Groups dispatched from camp at the Meadow Creek trailhead to clear 280 trees from the trail. Two months earlier, the chapter had hosted a defensive horse safety clinic, and in early May, it held a well-attended packing clinic with renowned wrangler and educator Smoke Elser. Across the country this summer, other chapters are coordinating hundreds of similar service and education efforts.
In 1974, a year after the first chapter was established, Cheek, Ausk, and another member visited Missoula to help compose the constitution for a sister chapter. A third chapter formed in the Bitterroot Valley in 1976, and riders in other states began to follow suit. In the late 1980s, the Back Country Horsemen of Montana, Idaho, and Washington, along with California’s High Sierra Stock Users, merged to become the founding members of a new organization, the Back Country Horsemen of America. By the 1990s, chapters had popped up in every Western state, as well as in Alaska and Virginia.
The Back Country Horsemen of Northwest Montana formed in spring 2015, with a focus on adapting educational and service programming to a changing community of contemporary livestock owners and riders, as president Rick Mathies says. Even with growth across the country and the autonomous nature of independent chapters, the horsemen have stayed remarkably in-line with the goals and principles that Cheek, Ausk, Swift, and Fulton set out in Montana in the 1970s.
Though the national organization is now a 501(c)(3), and neither intervenes in campaigns for elective public office nor coordinates any official lobbying efforts, many chapters continue their advocacy for the accessibility of public lands and the place of horses in wilderness. Mathies says the Northwest chapter informs members about political issues impacting public lands, and encourages them to “keep [their] voice heard.”
No agency is proposing livestock permits these days — one contemporary concern is the prospect of mountain bikes in wilderness areas, as some lawmakers seek to amend the Wilderness Act’s verbiage prohibiting “mechanical” transport to allow the usage of wheeled devices in the nation’s 110 million wilderness acres. A press release from the Back Country Horsemen of America’s 2018 annual meeting confirms its continued opposition to this amendment, and notes that the group is “standing firm” in its defense of the “integrity” of the act, which has for more than 50 years been largely interpreted to disallow bikes.
With around 100 members in the both the Flathead and Northwest Montana chapters, every political view is represented, “from the furthest leaning left you’ve seen and the furthest leaning right you’ve ever seen,” says Greg Schatz, a longtime Flathead chapter board member. While Schatz expressed his fear of needing to put down an animal in the backcountry after a collision with a quiet and swiftly moving mountain biker, Flathead chapter president Ed Langlois shrugged that he’s only ever met one biker in his 45 years of riding in Montana. As Langlois said, “just because you belong to a club, it doesn’t change you,” meaning that this issue is less of an agenda item and more of a commonly shared interest among individual members. The chapter is more purposeful in its pursuit of maintaining dwindling budgets for trails projects.
“I get my best ideas from folks on the ground, and that’s why I’ve worked closely with groups like Back Country Horsemen to protect and enhance our public lands,” says Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, who in 2016 successfully challenged a $1 million cut to local trail funds via a proposed 10 percent decrease of the Forest Service’s Region 1 trail maintenance budget.
“We are very strong in convincing our congressional delegation to fund trail budgets for ‘the Bob,’” Schatz said. Taking cues from their founders, “we’re always very polite, never tell [representatives] that the government is stupid or they’re idiots,” Schatz continued. And, as the founders believed, being of excellent service to the resource makes any case stronger.
“Last year, we hit the million-dollar mark for doing projects just in Montana,” Schatz noted. “That does buy us a tremendous amount of pull.”
Far away from Washington, D.C., and in fact miles and miles away from the hum of any modern-day civilization, horsepackers will continue to wander into dialogues about stewardship and the role of humans in places that still seem utterly wild. Regardless of any conclusions reached or opinions held, burning conversations like the one that three horsemen had 45 years ago over the lick of a small fire will always have a place in wilderness.