Brandy and the Wilderness Act
Hamilton man instrumental in passage of Wilderness Act fifty years ago
Posted on October 2, 2014
By Michael Howell
As the nation celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, one Bitterrooter, who was instrumental in getting the law passed by Congress in 1964, is ready to celebrate, but at the same time he has some deep concerns about the future of the Act and the wild lands that it was meant to protect.
Stewart "Brandy" Brandborg of Hamilton was an "environmentalist" long before the term was coined. As a young man his work as a wildlife biologist participating in a landmark study of mountain goats in Idaho exposed him to the wild land and wildlife in a way that would have a deep and abiding effect on him for the rest of his life. In this way he was, ironically, sort of set up to jump out of the wilderness and into halls of Congress and the urban jungle of politics in Washington D.C. And jump at the chance he did, when he was tapped to work for the Wilderness Society in its efforts to push the Wilderness Act through Congress. It was a struggle against extremely well-funded and powerful industry lobbyists.
"It was a long hard fight over a number of years to get her going," Brandborg said of the struggle. But when it comes to the Wilderness Act itself, he points to his boss at the time, Howard Zahniser, then Director of the Wilderness Society.
"He saw the tragic toll that was being taken on some existing wild places in the absence of any national policy to protect them," said Brandborg. "So he almost unilaterally wrote the legislation." According to Brandborg, Zahnhiser did consult a few people at the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and someone in the Congressional budget office, for criticism and refinement, "but what was adopted was basically what he had written on a tablet at his home." He recognized that wilderness itself was an irreplaceable resource, said Brandbor.
The legislation called for a national wilderness preservation system that included all of the wild lands in the National Park, National Forest and BLM jurisdictions. According to Brandborg, the reaction was immediate from the logging industry, mining interests, and oil and gas development.
"Corporate world types came after the legislation as a terrible threat to their enterprises and did everything possible to dissuade the American public and Congress from passing the bill," he said.
The Bill was first introduced in 1956 and took eight long years to get through Congress. Brandborg said that it was a proposal to build a dam in Dinosaur National Monument that galvanized Zahniser and his colleague David Brower to take on an alliance of Colorado River states and eventually defeat their proposal to build a dam in the park.
It was during that fight that a wealthy benefactor gave them a bunch of money and told them to go get some help from a Madison Avenue consulting firm. They did and the result was a massive and successful direct mail campaign.
So when it came to pushing the Wilderness Act through Congress, they took that lesson to heart. Zahniser went to several national conservation organizations and compiled a mailing list with over 600,000 names and mailed the copies of the legislation to all those people along with arguments in favor of it, and explanations of why it was so vital to save it.
"Suddenly a bunch of people who didn't know wilderness from a bull's tail had this wonderful bill and all the reasons to preserve it," said Brandborg. He said the use of the Senate franking power meant no postage costs and was the real key to the mailing success. In response, the public turned out in a major way to the Senate hearings on the bill.
"They built a bible of public comment on the value of wilderness," said Brandborg. In the end, he said, the campaign to get the Wilderness Bill passed generated more mail to Congress than any bill in the history of the country.
One curve that he and Zahniser did not measure correctly was the price that would have to be paid to get it through. One hard pill to swallow was that each unit of proposed wilderness would have to go individually through the tedious and time consuming process of being designated wilderness. But it was a compromise that had to be made to get the thing through, according to Brandborg.
"So we got a wilderness bill, but 90 percent of the work was still to be done," he said. Brandborg then travelled the country visiting every crucial site, helping to get the necessary studies done and rounding up the public to get behind the designation.
"So that was it, proselytizing and building teams of people in each state to advocate wilderness, get these areas into the system and, hopefully, monitoring to see that the strictures of the law were adhered to. It is slippage in that last area that now causes me great concern," said Brangborg.
He said the strict adherence to the preservation policy has to be monitored by the agencies, but where they slip, it is up to the citizens.
"It is easy for agencies to drift into practices that violate the principles of managing these lands for wildness," he said. "Wild is the principal criteria. There aren't gradations of wilderness. It is the basic, natural community of plants and animals. If you haven't tampered with that, if you haven't impacted the water, the geology, then it's wild. Wild is wild. You don't need to equivocate on that point."
"The grand celebration is fine," added Brandborg, "but if it fails to show the dimension of the tremendous work ahead in gaining adherence to preservation policy and then adding these other massive areas to the wilderness system it will fall short. So I've had a deep concern that the celebrations have focused on this wonderful accomplishment of having added 110 million acres, including Alaska, to the system. I have a concern that our celebrations are not focusing on the need for continuing advocacy and monitoring and getting 110 more million acres into the system.
"I don't see any entity in Washington D.C. that is focused sharply on the building of teams, state level teams. I don't see any organization that has taken as its primary mission the continuing surveillance of state level wilderness conservation. That's the big worry."
Brandborg said, "I have a grave fear that the leadership dominating control in the boards and staff of our national environmental organizations has given way to the long tentacles of the corporate world. They don't advocate any environmental programs or preservation programs that interfere in any way with these profit-making enterprises.
"These private entities have only one measure of success, a profit for their stockholders. They must seek profits above anything else. Where their interests prevail, the exploitation of resources in the public estate will continue. They will stand up and fight for their enterprises and their profits. The public needs to sharpen its awareness of these forces, or the environment will lose."
As part of the official commemoration of the 50-year anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the Forest Service will show a film about Brandborg's efforts on Friday, October 10 at 7 p.m. at the Bedford Building, 223 S. 2nd in Hamilton. "Brandy" is a new short film about the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act and the role that Brandborg played in developing grassroots support for its passage. Admission is free.