Preserving America's Wilderness

Hometown Heroes, People
on April 29, 2001

Two dogs at his feet and a parrot perched on his forearm, Stewart Brandborg recalls long hours spent on the trailhiking and in the saddlewith his father, a career forester. Guy M. Brandborg was then Bitterroot National Forest supervisor.

My parents had a great love of animals, a great appreciation of nature, the beauty of meadow landscapes, and the alpine, he says.

Brandborg of Darby, Mont., (pop. 600) followed in his fathers footstepsand those of Robert Marshall, a preservation pioneer who, in 1935, founded the Wilderness Society.

Thats one reason he treasures the Robert Marshall Award he received last year for a lifetime of accomplishments in conservation. The societys top honor is named for Marshall, a Brandborg family friend.

He was a towering figure in the nations conservation history, and its humbling to receive an award bearing his name, says Brandborg, who met Marshall when he was 13. Dad and Marshall were kindred spiritspeople who appreciated the backcountry.

But its his turn now, and when it comes to preserving Americas wilderness, Brandborg has proven to be a natural. The 76-year-old fourth-generation Montanan, born into a family of dedicated conservationists, grew up at remote, backcountry forest stationswhere he developed the passion for nature that became the driving force in his life.

At age 17, he did seasonal work with the Forest Service. He studied wildlife biology and range science, doing pioneering research on mountain goats in Idaho and Montanas high country.

Since then, Brandborg has spent most of his life working to preserve the last of Americas wild lands. Hes widely credited as the force behind an eight-year effort to pass the 1964 Wilderness Act, which ultimately protected more than 104 million acres from development to preserve the wilderness for future generations. He also led efforts that strengthened environmental protective features of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

Friends say Brandborg has a unique ability to unite people. Larry Bott, who joined him in grassroots leadership training, recalls his good friend of 25 years speaking to a group for the first time.

Just the sheer intensity of his feelings was so contagious, Bott says. He wasnt trying to sell us something but sharing a vision. It was pretty hard not to be persuaded by it.

His first love has always been the high country, but his commitment to the wilderness and the tranquility he finds there took him away from Montanas mountains and backcountry for a time. In 1954, the National Wildlife Federation wanted a true Westerner in Washington and recruited Brandborg as assistant conservation director. In 1956, the year the Wilderness Bill was introduced, he was appointed to the Wilderness Societys governing council and is credited with helping mobilize grassroots wilderness advocates throughout small-town America.

The wonderful thing is that people give their lives to do this great work, not because of the money they make, but because theyre trying to make the world a better place, Brandborg says.

After serving in top positions at the Interior Departments National Park Service in Washington, he finally came back home in 1986, turning to local development and land management issues. In the late 1980s, Brandborg co-founded Friends of the Bitterroot, a group of local conservationists who work on forest management issues in the Bitterroot National Forest, including fire recovery efforts. He also serves with two other planning and preservation groups.

Brandborg lives with Anna Vee, his wife of more than 50 years, in a home perched on a hill and surrounded by trees. They have five grown children.

His passion for the wilderness has never waned.

Hes out in the trenches, says John Grove, a retired career forester and Friends of the Bitterroot member, a soldier right out there in the front lines.

And hes left an enormous legacy for those who follow.