Bob’s Legacy Lives On

By Beacon Staff

When Robert Marshall arrived in Montana in 1925, he was a 24-year-old New Yorker fresh out of Harvard University with a master’s degree in forestry and a magnetism toward nature.

“I love the woods and solitude,” he would later say. “I should hate to spend the greater part of my lifetime in a stuffy office or in a crowded city.”

Moving from the constraints of Boston’s bustling cityscape to the sylvan landscape of the West proved to be impactful. After three years living and working in Montana’s forests, Marshall went on to become one of the most renowned wilderness conservationists and iconoclasts in U.S. history.

Today the West is noticeably different from Marshall’s days. Except for a few chosen places. Thanks in large part to Marshall’s efforts, designated segments of land remain frozen in time, lasting evidence of “that nature in which hundreds of generations of ancestors were reared.”

The Bob Marshall Wilderness in Northwest Montana is one such place and represents its namesake’s living legacy. “The Bob” is one of the oldest and largest protected forests in the country, with almost 1,700 miles of trails winding through 1.5 million acres.

Marshall championed the idea of setting aside segments of land for preservation. Even though he never lived to see the full results of his lifetime battle — he died at the age of 38 from heart failure — his efforts, including three books, became the roots of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which designated protected forests across the nation. That same year, in honor of “Bob,” the wilderness named after him became one of the first in history to be federally protected.

Today almost 500 volunteers work every summer to keep the complex pristine. This year the local foundation in charge of organizing preservation efforts is celebrating its 15th anniversary, and the group’s largest fundraiser of the year is this week in Whitefish.

The Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation is hosting the Mountainfilm Fest at the O’Shaughnessy Center on Thursday, March 22. The event, which starts at 6 p.m., will feature independent documentary films touching on a variety of subjects. The lineup includes “WildWater,” a film about the fabled North Fork of the Payette River in Idaho, a renowned stretch of water for kayaking, and the adventure documentary “Berber Turns,” which follows three friends as they explore Morocco and ski the second highest peak in Northern Africa.

“We try to feature films that touch on some of the things that are near and dear to our heart, like wildernesses and impact on environment,” Shannon Freix with the foundation said.

Founded in 1997, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation is a nonprofit organization that partners with the U.S. Forest Service and other groups to maintain the complex’s trail system and values. Every summer, volunteers complete trail maintenance and reconstruction, noxious weed removal and general cleanup. The foundation operates completely on grants, private donations and fundraisers like the film festival and relies on the work of volunteers who range from all ages.

“A lot of our volunteers are people who say they wanted to do something in the Bob but didn’t know where to start, so they find a trip in an area where they always wanted to explore and sign up,” Rebecca Powell, the foundation’s program director, said. “It’s a great way for people to get into the wilderness.”

The foundation offers close to 40 trips a year for volunteers, ranging from weekend excursions to weeklong adventures that include hiking and floating. Powell said the two most popular trips involve floating down the middle and south forks of the Flathead River. Groups travel and camp along the river and pick weeds for almost a week. To register, volunteers pay a $50 deductible and the money is refunded at the end of trips but can be donated back to the foundation, which provides food and tools during the trips.

Powell said this year’s spring and summer volunteer schedule will be posted on its website, www.bmwf.org, soon.

“I think it’s really important to get people in your community connected to wild places,” Powell said. “This is a great way to do that.”

Tickets for the film festival cost $12 and can be purchased in advance at Rocky Mountain Outfitter, The White Room and Trailhead Supply. For more information on the event or about volunteering in the Bob, visit the foundation’s website.