Montana’s natural landscapes are what drew the new executive director of the Montana Wilderness Association to apply for the job.
“When I think of the West, Montana depicts in my mind what the West is,” said Ben Gabriel from his office in Helena.
Gabriel, 38, took the helm at MWA on Dec. 1 following the tenure of Brian Sybert. He was previously serving as executive director of Friends of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks in New Mexico since 2014, which received national monument designation that year.
“His experience with outdoor recreation, leading campaigns in defense of public lands in southern New Mexico, and engaging a diverse range of communities really impressed us,” Debo Powers, member of MWA’s state council who participated in the executive director search, said in a statement. “That kind of experience, especially of working with people from many different backgrounds, is something we will welcome having at MWA.”
Before leading the friends group, he led the New Mexico State University outdoor recreation program. That is where Gabriel says his inspiration to protect wild places began.
“We were taking people out in these public lands, but it was really about protecting, restoring and stewarding our public lands that drew me to the conservation community,” he said.
Gabriel describes himself as a whitewater guru and former guide, an avid rock climber and mountain biker. He holds a bachelor’s degree in adventure recreation from Ohio University and master’s in education management from New Mexico State.
Gabriel had never before been to Montana, but hearing stories and the scale of the state piqued his interest and desire to explore with his family.
“It’s my third week but it’s been amazing so far traveling across the state meeting with staff and partners,” he said. “I’ve been blown away with how friendly people are in Montana and also the landscape – I feel like I’m a kid in a candy store.”
Gabriel sees himself and MWA as an important player in advocating for protected lands. He called recent efforts to scale back national monuments “an assault” on the Antiquities Act and called legislation from Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., to release protections from wilderness study areas an “attack.”
Proponents of reducing the size of some monuments have largely argued that the designations did not see enough local support and stifle natural resource extraction.
Supporters of Daines’ bill say that the study areas have remained in limbo for decades and releasing them to multiple use will increase public access, specifically motorized access.
MWA and others have condemned both initiatives as an affront to conservation interests.
“I think right now we’re committed as an organization to maintaining protection of public lands and wild spaces and that’s our No. 1 priority,” Gabriel said. “I believe our organization in collaboration with other strong partners across the state, we’re going to make the voices of Montanans heard and our representatives will hear that.”
Gabriel does not see MWA and other protected land advocates as entirely on the defensive. He pointed to collaborative supported initiatives such as the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act and input for forest planning as ways his organization continues to push.
With MWA’s 60th anniversary coming up next year, he believes the organization is in a good place.
“I think we have a really strong foundation and my predecessor made MWA a model for the rest of the country, and it’s my responsibility to build on that,” Gabriel said. “I think we’re in a great situation but we’re also facing some really tough challenges so we have some work to do as well.”