On March 28, 1958, Florence and Kenneth Baldwin convened a meeting at the Baxter Hotel in Bozeman with Montanans from all parts of the state.
The outfitters, stock growers, hikers, horse packers, hunters, and others who attended agreed to establish Montana Wilderness Association (MWA) to conserve public lands by working together.
One month later, Ken sent a letter to those who had attended. “Our public lands can be a blessing to science, agriculture, industry, and recreation,” he wrote. “Each has its place in the future of Montana, therefore we must plan and act together for the common interest.”
Our commitment to extend this blessing to future generations has sustained MWA for 60 years. Such dedication led to the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, a bipartisan compromise that provided permanent protection to our wildest places while also providing for outfitting and livestock grazing.
I am fortunate to live close to one of the 16 Montana wilderness areas created since then. The Rattlesnake Wilderness was created alongside the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area in 1980. I take my young daughter there to see black bears and mountain lion tracks, buttercups and glacier lilies, towering ponderosa pines and golden larches. But, mostly, I see in her face the renewal and joy that only the wild world can bring.
Although I might wish the wilderness boundary began at the trailhead, I’m also glad to see my cycling friends enjoying the recreation area that borders this wilderness. It’s a trade-off that has worked well for more than 30y years.
Moving forward, MWA members will continue to draw on every ounce of our passion to protect wild places. We will also recognize, as our founders did, that achieving wilderness protection requires building community around public lands protection through civil dialogue — in other words, collaboration.
This approach works. In 2014, it resulted in a bill that permanently protected the Rocky Mountain Front, respected grazing privileges, and preserved existing motorized and mountain bike travel. This approach also led to Sen. Jon Tester’s Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act, which would protect 79,000 acres of wilderness while creating new mountain bike and snowmobile access. The bill enjoys support from 68 percent of Montanans.
We also know that if we don’t work together, we are vulnerable to the growing power of those who look at public land and see no place for wilderness at all.
For example, Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte recently introduced bills that would strip congressional protections from more than 800,000 acres of public land across the state. Our junior senator and congressman are not eager to hold public meetings on these unprecedented measures, which represent the largest reduction in public land protections in Montana history.
Rather than fostering division with one-sided bills, Sen. Daines and Rep. Gianforte should hold as many public meetings as possible and truly listen to Montanans. They would surely hear a wide range of suggestions for the future of these lands, but they would also notice some shared interests that protect both human and natural communities.
At the Montana Wilderness Association, we would welcome such dialogue. We always have. In the spring of 1958, Ken Baldwin urged his friends and neighbors to recognize that the future of Montana’s public lands depended on multiple interests working together.
“We know that we have accepted a big assignment,” he wrote at the close of his letter, “but we also know that it can be accomplished with the cooperation of all the people and organizations who will benefit from the work done.”
Sixty years later, that assignment keeps MWA going strong.
Mark J. Hanson, of Missoula, is president of the Montana Wilderness Association state council.