“Things wild count with me. Places wild intrigue and beckon me. They move me; motivate my very being. They’ve always been a centerpiece of my life and will continue to be as long as I live. …The essence of wild Montana is an undeniable part of me.” — Dale Burk
On the night before Dale Burk died, he went to bed thinking about hunting.
Burk had spent the evening sitting at his kitchen table making plans with his son-in-law for their annual deer hunting trip to eastern Montana. The 83-year-old was excited about the prospect of being in his beloved outdoors one more time.
“He had it all arranged,” said his daughter, Rachel Burk. “He had been in a lot of pain, but he wasn’t going to let that get in the way of making this trip. His was an indomitable will. He never quit. He just kept going. He had that kind of spirit.”
Burk died Sept. 16 at his Stevensville home.
A third-generation Montanan, Burk naturally came by his love for everything wild. He grew up hearing his father — a gyppo-logger in Northwest Montana — say that if he could see smoke from a neighbor’s chimney, they were living too close to civilization.
As a child, Burk was free to roam the countryside. He developed a kinship with wild places that stayed with him through a writing career that would lead him to be the first Montana writer to win Harvard’s prestigious Nieman Fellowship for Professional Journalists.
Burk’s passing leaves a large hole in the lives of those who knew him well and for many who have never heard his name.
As a pioneering environmental journalist, Burk’s legacy reaches from the wilds of the Great Bear Wilderness’ Middle Fork of Flathead River to the top of the Bitterroot Mountains once threatened by unsustainable clear-cutting.
As an advocate for everything outdoors, Burk also cut a wide swath. He was proud of the fact that he played a role in the acquisition of every fishing access site along the Bitterroot River. Burk was the fourth member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and was a dedicated member of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association.
Burk’s deep and enduring love for Montana’s wild places is forever captured in the words penned for the state’s Constitution: “We the people of Montana grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains, and desiring to improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations, do ordain and establish this constitution … .”
“Montana has lost a giant,” said Tom Powers, founder of the Montana Youth Expo and longtime member of the Wild Sheep Foundation. “I’ve heard people say that Dale was a troublemaker. He was a good troublemaker because he spoke from his heart. What he said and what he did made sense.”
In 2018, Burk was inducted into the Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame.
In a nomination letter, the Missoulian’s former opinion page editor, Steve Woodruff, credited Burk’s hard-hitting exposes on misguided forestry practices in the 1960s and '70s for helping to push forest stewardship into the modern era and ensure meaningful citizen participation in decisions affecting national forests.
Woodruff said Burk broke new ground as a journalist at a time when the Montana press was shaking off its “Copper Collar" of control under the Anaconda Company.
“No tradition of environmental reporting existed then, much less investigative reporting by Montana media,” Woodruff wrote. “Burk broke new ground to inform and engage Montanans about forest management — catalyzing crucial public support for reforms by the Forest Service and Congress. Burk’s exhaustive work was controversial at the time, but has stood the test of time.”
Longtime Bob Marshall Wilderness outfitter Smoke Elser met Burk in 1969 when the young Missoulian reporter went undercover on a pack trip to learn about Forest Service plans to log the mountainside in the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Those plans were scrapped and Burk’s reporting and a book he later wrote, “Great Bear, Wild River,” helped build support for the creation of the Great Bear Wilderness.
During Burk’s eight years of covering public lands and forest policy for the Missoulian, he worked with former Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Guy Brandborg to reveal the Forest Service’s misguided attempts to terrace mountainsides to create plantation-style logging in the Bitterroot Forest. Those reports brought national attention to unsustainable practices and helped spark the passage of the National Forest Management Act.
Burk started the publishing company Stoneydale Press with his brother, Stoney Burk, in 1976 in Stevensville. Over 44 years, he published hundreds of books for people, all of whom he regarded as friends.
He wrote nine books of his own, including his memoir “A Brush With a Wild Thing or Two in Montana.”
For the last few years, Burk and Elser traveled to the Magruder Ranger Station to talk about the importance of wilderness to a group of lucky youngsters selected for the camp through the Montana Youth Expo.
They’d share the story about the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.
“We would try to leave them with the notion that it’s going to be up to them to take over the reins to protect what wilderness we have,” Elser said. “We wanted them to know that we fought for that when we were younger and that it’s soon going to be their turn.
“Dale was a giant in conservation leaders,” Elser said. “His legend will live on.”
Of all the awards Burk was presented, he said he was most proud of becoming a member of the Outdoor Hall of Fame and for Stevensville naming him Citizen of the Year in 2004.
Colleen Meyer, executive director of Historic St. Mary’s Mission, said Burk was always ready to lend a helping hand in the community. He wrote scripts for the mission’s annual reenactment of the Salish Indians meeting the Black Robes, and published a book on Father Ravalli that still sells well at the mission’s gift shop.
“Dale was such a good teacher and good leader,” Meyer said. “He had a way of getting people to do things that they didn’t know they were capable of doing.”
When Burk decided that book needed to be written about the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s time in the Bitterroot, he turned to a small group of women he knew in a Bible study group.
“When he approached them about writing a book, they laughed,” Meyer said. “They told him they weren’t authors, but he showed them how to do research and how to write. We now know of them as the Discovery Writers. They worked as a team. It happened because Dale was already to help them.
“Dale will very much missed in our community,” Meyer said.
Rachel Burk said her father often worked behind the scenes. After her brother died in an accident, her father gave all the money that people donated in his memory to help pay for the high school’s football field.
“He did quiet stuff like that all the time — for the greater good,” she said. “He said that all the time. For the greater good. Find the common ground and do the things for the greater good.
“I am devastated by the loss of my father,” Burk said. “He leaves behind a big void and big boots to fill. Kathleen Burk and Ruth Burk and I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support for us and love for our father and we wish to express our most sincere gratitude. It has been truly emotional and heartwarming during such a difficult time.”
Graveside services will be held Thursday, Sept. 24, at 1 p.m. at Riverside Cemetery on the Eastside Highway. A celebration will follow at the American Legion, 754 Middle Burnt Fork Road in Stevensville. Both are open to the public.
Burk’s longtime hunting partner, Dave Harlacher, is planning on traveling to Terry this year in his memory.
“He had already made all the arrangements,” Harlacher said. “We’re still going to go to honor him. … Dale’s passion for the outdoors ran so deep that it’s hard to put into words. There’s no replacing him. Some younger kids are picking up the cross and carrying it forward, but they’re not Dale Burk. That mold has been broken.”
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