HELENA – John Wardell, Montana’s Environmental Protection Agency director who died last week during a climbing accident, may have fallen up to 500 feet after slipping on wet beargrass, a search and rescue official said Monday.
Rescuers faced a thunderstorm, darkness, and the rough terrain of the Cabinet Wilderness Area near Libby before reaching Wardell several hours after his fall, said Capt. Roby Bowe, a deputy and member of David Thompson Search and Rescue.
Wardell had been climbing with a friend on the 8,700-foot Snowshoe Peak and fell while descending Thursday evening, authorities said. He suffered head lacerations and was unconscious after the fall.
Bowe said officials first used a Forest Service helicopter, and then a helicopter from Malstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls that was equipped with night-vision technology and the ability to lower people to the ground.
At 12:16 p.m. Friday, a flight surgeon on the ground confirmed that Wardell had died from the injuries he suffered during the fall, according to the Helena Independent Record.
A memorial service is planned from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Great Northern Hotel in Helena.
On Monday, the state’s longtime EPA director was remembered as talented and stubborn, but someone who rarely got angry and loved the wilderness as much as the agency he worked for.
“John was a true gentleman,” said Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Mike Murray. “Through all our disagreements, after the meetings he was always friendly and still wanted to help the county out.”
Wardell worked for the EPA for 33 years, the last 25 as director of the Montana office. He oversaw most of the major federal environmental cleanups in state history, including mine and smelting cleanup in the Butte area, lead abatement in East Helena and the asbestos cleanup in Libby.
He also helped start environmental programs in six of Montana’s seven reservations.
Julie DalSoglio, Montana EPA deputy office manager, said employees were having a difficult time dealing with Wardell’s death and that grief counselors were brought in.
One criticism against Wardell was that he would sometimes move slowly on projects or in a different direction than what state and local officials wanted. DalSoglio told the Independent Record that stemmed from Wardell’s patience, and his desire to make sure things were done correctly.
Bruce Farling, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, said of Wardell: “John is an example of the government doing it right, of a government that works.”
Wardell is survived by his wife, Sandy, and a son, Christopher, 28, of Denver.
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