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Rarely do people associate housewives with rugged wilderness. But on Nez Perce Pass, they will forever more.

On Saturday, a party of conservationists, Forest Service personnel and members of the public bounced in buses up the Montana side of the Magruder Corridor road. Reaching the Montana-Idaho border, they piled out for the dedication of three interpretive signs now perched atop Nez Perce Pass, one of which honors Hamilton resident Doris Milner.

The sign for Milner, who passed away in 2007, graces the Montana side, while a sign honoring Idaho Sen. Frank Church identifies the Idaho side. Straddling the pass between the two, a third sign explains the significance of the Magruder Corridor, which wouldn't have existed but for the efforts of Milner.

"The preservation of Magruder didn't happen by accident; it happened because Doris was interested and dedicated enough," said Hamilton attorney George Corn. "She left this legacy for generations, but she also left the legacy of citizen involvement, which is what the Wilderness Act was all about."

Both Milner and Church helped add thousands of square miles of Montana and Idaho forest to the nation's wilderness system.

"Milner represented conservation efforts at the citizen level, paralleling the work of Sen. Church at the national level," said Darby District Ranger Dave Campbell. "We thought this would be a nice recognition of both."

Church, who sponsored the bill that eventually became the 1964 Wilderness Act, was instrumental in passing the Central Idaho Wilderness Act in 1980, which added more than 2 million acres of wilderness south of the Magruder Corridor.

But Milner was right in there with the powerful Idaho senator.

Having moved to Hamilton in 1951, she and her family had grown to love camping and fishing in the Bitterroot Mountains, particularly along the Magruder Corridor.

In the early 1960s, she came upon a bulldozer near a favorite spot and learned the Forest Service planned a timber sale along the Selway River within the corridor.

The threat to such a beloved place spurred Milner into the role of citizen conservationist that would she would play for more than 40 years.

"All I knew was I was mad," Milner told National Public Radio in 2004. "That's all I knew - and I was going to do something about it."

Although the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness was established as part the Wilderness Act, it was originally smaller, leaving the Magruder Corridor open to other land use. Milner helped organize opposition to development, which ultimately added the Corridor area to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in 1980.

With that, the two wilderness areas ended up back-to-back, creating 3.6 million acres of uninterrupted wild country unique in the lower 48 states.

During the time she was fighting for the corridor, Milner turned to the Montana Wilderness Association for help. She later served as association president and as inspiration for upcoming conservationists such as conservation director John Gatchell.

"I still remember her voice, impressing on me to have credibility in all my dealings," Gatchell said. "She's really the reason I'm involved and still working for Montana wilderness."

Writer and friend Dale Burk said it should be remembered that Milner had all her accomplishments at a time when women weren't usually accepted in leadership roles.

"Her perseverance was epic, an essential quality in a situation where timing is at play," Burk said. "But she also based her stand upon a very scientific analysis of the law of nature and the law of the land. That set her aside from other activists."

That scientific analysis came easy to Milner because of her background. She was no ordinary housewife.

She earned a bachelor's degree in science, worked five years in a hospital laboratory and completed all the course work for a graduate degree in microbiology.

But it wasn't her informed view of the environment and the need for wilderness that helped win over potential adversaries, said Trout Unlimited spokesman Marshall Bloom.

"I can sum up her philosophy of environmental protection in three words: integrity, respect and modesty," Bloom said. "Unfortunately, I have to admit that many people now don't have the same respect for people with whom they disagree."

In 2008, Ravalli County commissioners considered sponsoring a petition to have a geological feature named after Milner. Campbell said this was a more apt tribute.

"Naming a feature is a lengthy process and it was just a remote lake," Campbell said. "This way, thousands of wilderness visitors will see her name and know the story."

Reach reporter Laura Lundquist at 363-3300 or laura.lundquist@ravallirepublic.com.

 

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