- Associated Press - Sunday, May 4, 2014

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) - This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, a piece of legislation that has led to the protection of more than 109.5 million acres of land in the United States and 3.4 million in Montana.

The Wilderness Act has shaped Montana’s landscape, but before and since its passage, many Montanans worked to shape the Wilderness Act and its enduring legacy.

Howard Zahniser, who drafted the Wilderness Act, once said there was no stronger support for wilderness than in Montana, according to the Montana Wilderness Association

The concept of wilderness was pioneered by Bob Marshall, for whom Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness is named, said John Gatchell, conservation director for MWA.

Marshall grew up in New York City but spent time in his youth exploring the Adirondack Mountains. Independently wealthy and with a master’s degree in forestry from Harvard University, Marshall moved to Montana at the age of 24 to work for the Northern Rocky Mountain Forest Experiment Station in Missoula, where he researched reproduction in forests after fires, according to Wilderness.net, a collaborative partnership between the University of Montana, the Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute.

“While he was working for the Forest Service, every spare minute of his time was spent taking big, long hikes,” said Gene Sentz of Choteau, who has been advocating for wilderness for more than 40 years.

In 1935, Marshall, along with Aldo Leopold, founded the Wilderness Society, a national organization that helped establish the National Wilderness Preservation System and still works today to designate land as wilderness.

In 1924, Leopold, who worked as a district ranger with the Forest Service in the southwest United States, worked to establish the Gila Wilderness Area in New Mexico, according to the book “The Enduring Wilderness” by Doug Scott.

The wilderness was designated through an administrative order from a regional forester. Soon, other Forest Service staff followed suit, creating wilderness areas in their forests.

The problem with an agency setting aside wilderness was that it wasn’t an enduring designation, Gatchell said.

“What an agency could establish, it could unestablish,” he told the Great Falls Tribune (http://gftrib.com/1hpMaNv).

In fact, Montana saw that come to pass when the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area was reduced in size.

Citizens saw the need for a more permanent protection that assured land could be passed from generation to generation without changes because of elections or the hiring of new forest supervisors.

“The strongest protection you can get is the protection of law,” Gatchell said.

It was from that idea of perpetual protection that the Wilderness Act of 1964 was born.

Story Continues →