In 1972, nearly 240,000 acres of federal public land lying between Montana’s iconic Rocky Mountain Front and storied Blackfoot River Valley became the first acres in the nation to enter the wilderness system at the behest of ordinary citizens. The story of the Scapegoat Wilderness has influenced every effort to protect wild country during the past 40-plus years in Montana and throughout the nation.

And it’s a great story, full of colorful characters and bugling elk. On some levels it is also a heartbreaking tale of sacrifice and the heavy emotional burden that comes with standing up for what you believe is right.

In early May, we lost a hero of this story with the death of Cecil Garland, who passed away at the age of 88 with his family by his side.

Garland was an Air Force veteran who owned a hardware and sporting goods store in Lincoln in the 1960s. For more than a decade, he fought fiercely, from his own community to the halls of Congress, to ensure that the Scapegoat received the permanent protection it deserved.

Homegrown perseverance

Like every good story, the tale of the Scapegoat has many lessons.

One is that connecting people to wild places can be a life-changing experience. It was a trip into the woods that convinced Garland to risk his family’s business and their reputation to prevent the Forest Service from building roads into the back country.

He shared the story of this first trip during his testimony to Congress after Montana Sen. Mike Mansfield introduced a bill to protect Scapegoat in 1968. He described the magic of hearing elk bugle above Ringeye Falls and another calling back, defending its territory from Webb Lake Hill. In his testimony, he wrote, “That night I made a vow that whatever the cost, for whatever the reason, I would do all that I could do to keep this country as wild as I had found it.”

Another lesson is the importance of having champions from both political parties in Congress. When Montana’s lone Republican U.S. Rep. James Battin listened to Cecil’s heartfelt words, his response was to one-up Democratic sponsors Mansfield and Metcalf by introducing his own bill in the House to protect roughly three times as many acres. When the bill faced opposition from other states, the Montana delegation stuck together – Republican and Democrat – and never backed down.

Ultimately, homegrown perseverance and bipartisan support paid off. Congress passed the bill designating the Scapegoat Wilderness and it was signed into law on August 20, 1972.

Today, many Montanans are following in Cecil Garland’s footsteps to protect public lands adjacent to the Scapegoat Wilderness along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. Ranchers, teachers, farmers, and business owners have worked for nearly a decade to piece together the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act that would protect access to wild places like the Upper Dearborn Canyon and the West Fork of the Teton.

Just like the Scapegoat legislation, the Heritage Act has widespread support across Montana and recently received a bipartisan vote in a Senate committee. Montanans have risked much by wading into the debate over the fate of the Rocky Mountain Front. They’ve done it because they believe, like Cecil Garland believed, that doing what is right is not always easy.

Bipartisanship needed again

Montanans are now asking, will Rep. Steve Daines follow in the footsteps of Republican Battin and choose bipartisanship to protect Montana’s back country? Or will he remain neutral, choosing to risk nothing one way or the other?

If Cecil were alive today, I think we know what he would say: Let’s keep this country as wild as we found it.

Let’s speak up for the right of all people to enjoy these special places. Let’s represent the best interests of all Montanans by working together to protect the Rocky Mountain Front.

Brian Sybert is executive director of the Montana Wilderness Association.

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