Dale Harris 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 outdoors section.
In 1971 at the age of 24, University of Montana student Dale Harris fell in love with the Great Burn, 275,000 acres of wild country along the Montana-Idaho border.
The Billings West High School grad spent the ensuing 50 years fighting to protect the region.
“That place gave me more than I ever gave it,” he said.
Friend and conservation colleague John Gatchell met Harris when starting his job with the Montana Wilderness Association. He still recalls their first encounter in 1985 as Gatchell toured the state being lobbied by wilderness advocates. Harris’ first words were out of concern for Gatchell. “How you doing?” he asked.
“He’s a terrific human being and a good friend,” Gatchell said.
Harris dedicated “all of his adult life” to protecting the Great Burn, so named because of the historic fire that swept through the region in 1910, Gatchell said.
“It’s probably the wildest shared state border anywhere in the country,” he added.
Harris refers to the region as “horizontal wilderness,” a place with expansive views that on a clear day can take in the Bob Marshall, Mission and Rattlesnake areas to the southeast. In a 2015 article, retired Forest Service district ranger Sharon Sweeney said the Great Burn was a link between several important wild areas, including the Cabinet-Yaak, the Crown of the Continent of Glacier Park, the Bob Marshall to the Selway-Bitterroot, the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Harris was introduced to the region after seeing an ad in the University of Montana’s student newspaper, the Kaimin. For 21 days he and other students explored the Great Burn.
“It was the longest trip of my career,” he said. “I fell in love with the place.”
His attempts to have it designated wilderness extended to 18 bills, one of which Congress passed but President Ronald Reagan refused to sign.
“He would set aside his business, his work … I later realized he organized his entire life around the Great Burn,” Gatchell said.
In working toward consensus, Gatchell said Harris would engage the timber industry and mill workers to seek out compromise. When wilderness designation failed, Harris turned to working with the Forest Service to clear trails, do weed control and visitor contacts under the banner of the Great Burn Conservation Alliance, Gatchell said.
Not limiting his work to the Great Burn, Harris also served as executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center and worked with Mark Rey, Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment, which led to the protection of 250 wild areas in Idaho.
In 2012 Harris was recognized for his 11 years of work for the Missoula City Parks and Recreation Board as it sought federal support for local parks, trails and open space projects.
Other recognitions have included: the MWA Founders’ Award; the Chevron Texaco Conservation Award; the Cinnabar Foundation's Len and Sandy Sargent Stewardship award; the Eddie Bauer Hero of the Earth Award; the Montana Power Company Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Award; and the USDA Lincoln Award.
Now 73 years old and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, Harris said he was humbled and shocked by his induction into the Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame. If you’ve never heard of him, that’s because he never sought the spotlight, preferring to keep a low profile.
He now passes on the work of achieving wilderness designation in the Great Burn to the next generation.