Stewart Brandborg is one of 13 inductees in the 2020 class of the Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame. Lee Newspapers is highlighting inductees each week in the Montana Untamed section.
Stewart Monroe Brandborg arrived in the Bitterroot Valley as a 10-year-old boy.
In an interview 70 years later, the man everyone called “Brandy” remembered it as a paradise with mountains to climb, forests to explore and a place inhabited by farming and logging families who shared common values.
Often credited as a force behind the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act, Brandborg served in top posts with the Wilderness Society, the National Wildlife Federation and the National Park Service in the 1950s through the 1980s. After he retired to the Bitterroot Valley in 1986, Brandborg volunteered on preservation and land management efforts. He died in April 2018.
A young Brandborg learned his conservation ethic from his father, Guy Brandborg, who served as the Bitterroot National Forest supervisor from 1935 to 1955.
His youth was filled with long pack trips through the Sapphires. When his father took the family fishing up the west-side canyons, he advised that they keep their hooks dry until they walked at least three miles to ensure the crowd had been left behind.
The elder Brandborg was a friend of Gifford Pinchot, the Forest Service’s first chief, as well as Bob Marshall, the wilderness preservation pioneer and founder of the Wilderness Society. They shared values of protecting wilderness, sustainable timber harvests, land planning, stream protection and community involvement at a time when Forest Service policy favored clear-cutting.
A wildlife biologist by training, Stewart Brandborg credited his two summers spent on a groundbreaking study of mountain goats in a remote piece of the Bob Marshall Wilderness for opening the door for his later employment with the National Wildlife Federation in Washington, D.C.
It was there he met his mentor, Howard Zahniser, the federation’s executive director who recruited Brandborg as a member of the Wilderness Society’s Governing Council in 1956, the same year Zahniser drafted the first version of the Wilderness Act. Four years later Zahniser hired Brandborg to a staff position on the Wilderness Society where he worked toward the goal of passing the wilderness legislation through Congress.
When Zahniser died in May 1964, Brandborg was selected as his successor as Wilderness Society executive director. In September of that same year Brandborg was there when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law.
Initially, the legislation was a disappointment to some in the conservation community. Many were expecting 50-60 million acres to be protected in that first round. Only 9 million acres in 13 states were set aside.
“Part of Brandy’s genius turned this seeming defeat into an incredibly powerful tool to build and expand and activate the wilderness movement across the nation,” wrote Wilderness Watch conservation director Kevin Proescholdt. “Brandy embarked on a years-long process of identifying local wilderness supporters, organizing them, training them on the Wilderness Act and turning them loose on their state’s congressional delegations to push for new areas to be added to the Wilderness System.”
By the time Brandborg left the Wilderness Association in 1976 there were 70 new wilderness areas in 31 states. Today, 803 wilderness areas in 44 states protect nearly 112 million acres.
"I learned, we learned that you work with the folks in local areas, the people who live in the areas under consideration," Brandborg said in a 2010 interview with the Ravalli Republic. "It was a success because we organized a massive grassroots campaign and we talked to people — they fished, they hunted, they hiked these places — from stockmen to the wilderness purists they wanted to know that wilderness was going to be here and preserved for future generations."
From there, Brandborg explained how their collective voices had power.
“The hot oil of public pressure poured down the backside of the people in Congress will make believers of them," Brandborg said. "The pressure of people who care for the environment and the wonderful world we live in can make change. It is then that message becomes clear."