‘Endlessly superlative’ Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness marks 40th anniversary this week

The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness celebrates its 40th birthday this Tuesday, March 27. (Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Foundation)

Editor’s note: This is Part 1 a two-day package of stories marking the 40th anniversary of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Tomorrow, we look at the larger legacy of the late Sen. Lee Metcalf, who introduced the bill creating the wilderness.

In describing the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, a vast, high plateau in southwestern Montana encompassing nearly 1 million acres, people tend to employ lofty terms.

“Magnificent … like no other place on the planet,” were the words chosen by longtime wilderness advocate Bill Cunningham. Kris Prinzing, who just finished a documentary commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Absaroka-Beartooth, called it an “amazing, astonishing, endlessly superlative wilderness.”

Harrison Fagg, a retired architect in Billings who once told a U.S. House subcommittee that he had probably spent more time in the Beartooth Mountains than anyone in Montana, said the area engenders “a feeling of awe. You certainly feel you’re in God’s kingdom.”

People employ similar language in describing the late Sen. Lee Metcalf, who introduced the bill to establish the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, which became law on March 27, 1978, soon after his death.

“Lee Metcalf was almost like a saint to me. He really was,” said Jim Murry, the former executive director of the Montana AFL-CIO. Evan Barrett, a former congressional staff member and former head of the Montana Democratic Party, called Metcalf “a silent giant.”

Teddy Roe, who was Metcalf’s legislative director for five years, called him the “patron saint” of Montana wilderness. Montana Sen. Mike Mansfield, who served longer than anyone else as Senate majority leader, described Metcalf simply as the best senator Montana ever sent to Washington.

Forty years later, in an era of governmental paralysis, presided over by political leaders of Lilliputian stature, it’s almost hard to imagine a senator like Metcalf, or to imagine the nearly unanimous passage of a bill to create an enormous wilderness area.

Even in that era, though, advancing the legislation was a huge struggle that probably would have failed but for Metcalf’s death at the age of 66. As it was, creation of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness was both a tribute to and the culmination of Metcalf’s 25-year congressional career.

In light of what has happened — and not happened — since Metcalf’s time, his achievements are all the more remarkable. Cunningham pointed out that creation of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness was the single largest act of land protection in the history of Montana.

Forty years after this “magnificent accomplishment,” he said, Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte have introduced bills to eliminate Wilderness Study Areas in the state, which Cunningham called an “attempt to remove from protection the largest amount of land in the history of Montana.”

And consider this: since the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, along the Madison Range southwest of Bozeman, was created to honor Metcalf in 1983, not a single additional acre has been designated as wilderness in Montana. And since the Upper Missouri River National Wild and Scenic River was established in 1976, Cunningham said, “here we are 42 years later without an additional inch” of wild and scenic river in Montana.

The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness (outlined in orange), which straddles the Montana-Wyoming state line, totals 944,000 acres. (Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Foundation)

During his years in the House and Senate, Metcalf was a leader in the campaign to create wilderness areas, which included his large role in writing and shepherding the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. That act automatically established five wilderness areas in Montana and laid the groundwork for the seven to come.

When he was inducted into the Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame in 2014, Montana Outdoors magazine said that Metcalf also “sponsored, co-sponsored, or wrote conservation legislation for the Clean Air Act of 1963, the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1964, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968, and the Clean Air Act of 1972.”

And in the summer of 1977, nearing the end of his third term in the Senate and in increasingly poor health, he introduced the bill to designate the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. In the statement he read into the Congressional Record, he referred to the area as “this magnificent primeval expanse of nearly a million acres … a land of jewel-like lakes, clear cold streams and picturesque waterfalls.”

Years of effort had preceded the bill’s introduction, most of it focused on bringing together and substantially enlarging what had originally been two smaller, fragmented parcels of wilderness. Those consisted of two officially designated “primitive areas,” the Absaroka, at 64,000 acres, and the Beartooth, at 230,000 acres. A third parcel, even smaller, was later added to the mix, and they were sometimes referred to as the Papa, Mama and Baby Bears.

After a series of public hearings in 1974, the Forest Service proposed unifying the parcels into an expanded wilderness area of 542,000 acres. Metcalf’s bill proposed a further expansion, to 913,500 acres. It also dealt deftly with what had been the biggest sticking point all along — the so-called Slough Creek corridor.

When the Forest Service created the two primitive areas in the 1930s, they were separated by the Boulder River, along which there had been a historic wagon road. Snowmobilers and officials in Park and Sweetgrass counties wanted to build a road through the corridor, connecting the Boulder River Basin with Cooke City.

The Forest Service, for its part, wanted access to half a million board feet of timber in the drainage, and Metcalf was told that a unified wilderness would endanger jobs at seven lumber mills in the Bozeman-Livingston area.

Proposals to expand and unify the two primitive areas by permanently closing the Slough Creek corridor divided conservationists, some of whom felt that by seeking too much they would end up with nothing.

Many people were involved in the fight to create the unified wilderness area, but much of the credit goes to the late Bob Anderson, of Livingston, who formed the Absaroka-Beartooth Task Force in 1970. He tirelessly hiked the plateau to familiarize himself with the area and he wrote a lands inventory that greatly enlarged the area being considered for wilderness designation.

His research and advocacy were vital to the cause, and Randall Gloege, then an English professor at Eastern Montana College in Billings, was credited with making the final, persuasive case to Metcalf for combining the wilderness areas.

Among those who played big parts in shepherding the bill through Congress and winning public support for it were Fagg, the Billings architect; Cunningham, then with the Wilderness Society; and Roe, Metcalf’s legislative director.

Fagg had grown up in Billings, and his uncle owned a dude ranch near Nye. Starting when Fagg was 9 or 10, he frequently accompanied his uncle on pack trips into the Beartooths, and his uncle also got him hooked on mountain climbing. Fagg and his youngest son, Burk, were the first people to summit all 27 peaks in Montana above 12,000 feet, all of them in what would become the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. (It remains a point of contention exactly how many peaks top 12,000 feet.)

Fagg worked hard on the wilderness bill, doing his own research, giving testimony and lobbying. In August of 1977, the day before a scheduled field hearing on the bill in Billings, Fagg and Cunningham took eight House and Senate Interior committee staff members up to the Beartooth Plateau, to Lower Aero Lake, so they could experience the wilderness for themselves.

Fagg is convinced that the episode helped the cause considerably by making allies of the trusted staff members. At the time, it should be noted, Fagg, a Republican, was the minority leader in the state House of Representatives, while Cunningham, the co-host of the wilderness outing, was a self-described “wild-eyed radical.” The two men still speak fondly of each other.

The day after the trip to Lower Aero Lake, during the subcommittee hearing at what was then Eastern Montana College, Fagg spoke at some length about the value of the Beartooth Mountains.

“The Beartooths are something very dear and very close to me,” he said. “I think I’ve probably spent more time in the Beartooths than anyone in Montana.” Then, before continuing, Fagg produced a “little rock” he’d picked up on a recent visit to the Beartooths.

He told the congressional panel that scientists had recently concluded that rocks gathered in the Beartooths were among the oldest on earth, older even than those in Greenland, previously thoughts to harbor the most ancient rocks.

“I think this pretty well speaks for itself,” Fagg said, holding up his specimen, “because this area waited some 3.7 to 4 billion years for this type of a hearing so that it could receive the protection that it so richly deserves.”

A bit later, less poetically but perhaps more persuasively, Fagg said he was a businessman and a believer in free enterprise who felt “very strongly that wilderness is probusiness and must be considered such.” He also called wilderness “a very necessary part of our society and one that we can’t live without.”

High in the Beartooths above Island Lake, moonlight and firelight illuminate a campsite. (Jim Hagengruber)

Cunningham played another key role in the process quite by accident. He had been trying, with no luck, to get an audience with Rupe Cutler, the assistant secretary of agriculture overseeing the Forest Service.

One day in Washington, D.C., heading up to Capitol Hill, Cunningham jumped into a cab to find it already occupied by Cutler. Knowing he had a captive audience for 20 minutes, Cunningham said, “Rupe, can I give you some background on the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness?”

That was all the time he needed. “By the time we parted company,” Cunningham said, “Rupe told me, ‘I’m with you. I’ll make sure we get something done,’” referring to the administration of President Jimmy Carter. Cunningham described that encounter as “smoothing out that trail to eliminate one last objection.”

Other critical meetings were held in Teddy Roe’s home in Northern Virginia. Anderson and Cunningham, in particular, spent a lot of time there studying maps of the Absaroka and Beartooth mountain areas, drawing and redrawing possible wilderness boundaries.

In a 2010 interview with Karole Lee, with the Montana Wilderness Association, Anderson described the almost mystical process of drawing boundary lines on quadrangle maps laid out on makeshift tables supported by sawhorses.

As he drew on the maps, Anderson said, “it was an out-of-body experience because it was like I was flying over the landscape and I was seeing the drainages and I was seeing the rivers and plateaus and I was actually drawing it all the way around it.”

Meanwhile, there was that Slough Creek corridor. In introducing his bill, Metcalf had pointed that the Office of General Counsel of the Forest Service had investigated the records and conducted on-the-ground reconnaissance and concluded that a county road had never been constructed and that the disputed area therefore still belonged to the United States, not the two counties.

But since the counties had challenged the decision in federal court, Metcalf inserted another paragraph in his bill, which said that nothing in the act would have any effect on the legal dispute over Slough Creek. The county officials were convinced they would win in court, Cunningham said, but Metcalf, with his fuller knowledge of the law, was convinced they would lose.

So he put in that extra clause, making it difficult for anyone to oppose the bill on the grounds of supporting the counties. It was another smoothing of the trail, and Metcalf was right: a federal judge ultimately dismissed the case. Cunningham said Metcalf’s insertion of the Slough Creek provision was a “masterful work of legislative art.”

Fagg and Cunningham both also lauded the work done by Roe. Like his boss, Roe knew how to work the floor, how to do the background work to get things done in the Senate.

“Teddy’s involvement was absolutely crucial, every step of the way. … I never worked with anyone of his caliber on the staff side of things,” Cunningham said.

And like Fagg and Cunningham, Roe was committed to the cause for personal reasons. Roe said he grew up poor on the South Side of Billings and could never afford anything as extravagant as fishing gear. Later, when he was a high-schooler working for Connolly Saddlery, another worker started taking Roe up into the Beartooths on weekend fishing trips, and Roe learned to appreciate the magnificence of the nearby wilderness.

After the hearing in Billings, though, the bill’s prospects seemed to grow dimmer, despite the successes along the way, the rounding up of support and the finessing of the Slough Creek obstacle. Metcalf’s health was deteriorating and he had other priorities besides the wilderness bill.

Mansfield had retired from the Senate by then, to become the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, and though his successor, John Melcher, was a Democrat, he was a constant thorn in Metcalf’s side when it came to wilderness issues. Roe pointed out that 1978 was also an election year, and “controversial legislation does not move well in a congressional election year.”

In the House, the two Montana representative were Ron Marlenee and Max Baucus. Metcalf got along well with Marlenee, Roe said, but he was a Republican and no friend of wilderness. Baucus, a Democrat, was readying himself for a run at the Senate and “was not about to blunt his sword over a wilderness bill,” Roe said.

Lee Metcalf

Even those who knew of Metcalf’s health problems were surprised by his sudden death on Jan. 12, 1978, and his death changed everything. That’s why Roe calls the Absaroka-Beartooth “the accidental wilderness.” If Metcalf had lived, the bill more than likely would have languished and eventually died, Rose believes.

But Metcalf’s death, and the high esteem in which he was held, brought the bill back to life. Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a Washington state Democrat and chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, had been close friends with Lee and Donna Metcalf.

After Metcalf’s death, Jackson, in consultation with Donna, decided the best memorial to her husband would be to push for passage of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Act. As one of the most powerful committee chairmen in the Senate, that meant passage was almost a sure thing.

And on March 14, 1978, the House voted 405-7 to pass the legislation and send it to the White House. President Carter signed it into law on March 27.

A few small boundary changes were made later, ultimately expanding the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness to 944,000 acres. It is the largest contiguous piece of land with an elevation above 9,600 feet in the United States, outside of Alaska. It is also among the handful of places in the Rocky Mountains where there are still glaciers, there being a few remnant glaciers in the High Beartooths.

David Kallenbach, director of the Absaroka-Beart00th Wilderness Foundation, so no one tracks visitor numbers, but he would estimate the wilderness sees between 100,000 and 200,000 people a year — compared to the 4 million or so who visit Yellowstone National Park.

That means that while some of the main trails and popular spots in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness see heavy use, sparking concerns about the wilderness being “loved to death,” solitude is not hard to find.

Roe said many of the reforms championed by Metcalf in his political career were dismantled during the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s, and his contributions to the nation and to his native state have long been under-appreciated. But the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, and hundreds of thousands of wilderness acres elsewhere in the state, remain.

“The only monument left standing to Lee,” Roe said, “is the physical one of wilderness in Montana.”

Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana, working in Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and Billings. “The Big Sky, By and By,” a collection of some of his newspaper stories and columns, plus a few essays and one short story, was published in 2011.