LINCOLN — While camped above Ringeye Falls in the 1950s, Cecil Garland pulled an elk reed bugle from his duffel bag and released a call into the September air.
“All through the frosty fall air the calls echoed back and forth and I knew I’d found wilderness,” Garland testified before the U.S. Senate on Sept. 23, 1968. “But all was not at peace in my heart; for I knew that someday, for some unknown reason, man would try to destroy this country as man had altered and destroyed before.”
As Garland lay down that night to sleep with the stars cast wide across the Montana sky, he made a vow to keep the backcountry north of Lincoln as pure as the day he found it.
The “Lincoln Back Country,” as he called it, would become the Scapegoat Wilderness. It was in 1972 – 40 years ago this summer – and it marked the first citizen-designated wilderness in the country.
But while it served as a victory to wilderness advocates, the U.S. Forest Service viewed it as a dangerous precedent, one that threatened the agency’s autonomy and its plans for the nation’s lands.
Demand for timber boomed with the onset of World War II and the Forest Service was eager to provide it. Logging trucks rumbled over new roads, saws toppled mighty trees and timber production jumped to new heights.
Despite the uptick in activity, Lincoln and the great tracts of land to its north remained undisturbed. A logging road connected Lincoln with Ovando. Traveling west to Missoula or east to Great Falls required a drive south through Helena.
The regional Forest Service office in Missoula had quietly made plans to develop the Lincoln backcountry with roads for timber. By 1960, residents in Lincoln and surrounding communities, including Seeley Lake and Ovando, caught wind of the plans and weren’t pleased with the news.
“When all this started going down in 1966, I was old enough to know it was a struggle,” said Jack Rich, a longtime outfitter and guide who grew up in Seeley Lake.
The lines had been drawn in the Montana wild. Advocates for protection would find themselves facing a powerful Forest Service and its allies. It was shaping up to be a long battle, and perseverance would serve as their only hope of success.
With a bulldozer sitting outside Lincoln ready to run a “flag-line” into the backcountry, Garland made a desperate move. He picked up the phone and called Rep. Jim Battin, Montana’s Republican congressman back in Washington.
As Garland tells the story, Battin listened keenly before calling Regional Forester Boyd Rasmussen. He asked Rasmussen for 10 more days before the road building began.
While Garland worked the phones with Montana’s congressional delegation, including Battin and Sen. Lee Metcalf, a Democrat, he also rallied folks up and down the Blackfoot Valley.
They formed the Lincoln Back Country Protection Association in 1964. The nation’s first citizen-designated wilderness would find its roots in rural cafes and around the kitchen tables of Montana families.
The Lincoln backcountry was initially seen as 75,000 acres on the north end of the Lincoln Ranger District of the Helena National Forest. It was separated by the Scapegoat Mountain region from the newly established Bob Marshall Wilderness.
But protection advocates pushed for 200,000 acres, insisting that any protection include the Scapegoat Mountain region. They envisioned a “complex” of wild lands, uninterrupted, and the Wilderness Society back in Washington, D.C., had taken note, as had Metcalf and fellow Sen. Mike Mansfield, D-Mont.
The two Montana senators introduced a bill in 1965 to protect 75,000 acres of the Lincoln backcountry. Upon learning of the Democrats’ bill, Battin upped the ante, introducing a Republican measure to preserve 240,000 acres as the Lincoln-Scapegoat Wilderness.
Battin’s bill won the support of Metcalf and Mansfield, but even then it had hurdles to clear.
When the act passed the Senate in 1969, the Forest Service was less than pleased. Regional Forester Neal Rahm lamented at having lost control of the wilderness debate, as did other members of Congress.
“Why should a sporting goods and hardware dealer (Cecil Garland) in Lincoln, Montana, designate the boundaries for a 240,000-acre … addition to the Bob Marshall?” Rahm wrote. “If the lines are to be drawn, we should be drawing them.”
The 1969 bill designating the Lincoln-Scapegoat Wilderness would linger in the House for two additional years – the result of last-minute political wrangling.
“The Scapegoat is a wilderness today because of those citizen efforts and the reception of Lee Metcalf,” Rich said. “If it wasn’t for Metcalf, it would not have happened.”
Some 50 million acres of land still remain pristine, but unprotected. Of that, 6 million acres lie in Montana as potential wilderness. The debate on whether to protect it or release it for development is as hot now as it was 40 years ago.
The question becomes, what legacy will this generation leave behind?
“There’s still a heated debate over what lands should be wilderness, or if there’s some other type of designation that could be applied,” said Rich. “Back in the ’60s, it wasn’t a highly funded political campaign that did this. The little people won by speaking from the heart with integrity and honesty.”