Happy 40th birthday to the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

By Ed Kemmick
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Fresh snow on Soda Butte Creek and the Absaroka Mountains, photographed within Yellowstone National Park. (NPS Photo)

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Power lunch: Rep. Lee Metcalf, center, meets with Senate Democratic leaders in August 1960. Also pictured, left to right, are 1960 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kennedy; Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, then National Democratic Party chairman; Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson; and Senate Assistant Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. (Montana Historical Society Research Center Photograph Archives, Helena)

Editors note: This is the first article in a series celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wildnerness.

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.

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.