The Path Least Trammeled

The Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation celebrates 20 years of volunteer work to keep trails open in one of the United States’ largest wilderness areas

By Clare Menzel
Fred Flint, with the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, pictured on July 27, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Thirty-one years ago, after the 1985 summer fire season cooled under August rains, a group of men and women ventured into the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex on a “Show Me Trip.” The 1.5 million-acre tract of untrammeled earth spans portions of four national forests — Flathead, Helena, Lewis and Clark, and Lolo — south of Glacier National Park, and enjoys the highest level of conservation protection for federal land. No roads cut through, few permanent structures blemish the terrain, and most commercial enterprises are prohibited. Aside from one particular mark of humankind, the “Bob” possesses a primitive character preserved when the creep of civilization is shut out and man is a mere visitor.

The Show Me crew was there to see that one human imprint: a vast system of trails then totaling 2,500 miles, created in large part by Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the years before World War II gripped the United States. As the nation recovered from war, trail creation and maintenance on Montana’s public lands dropped low on the country’s priority list.

Without a way to finance more workers, the forest was reclaiming sizeable portions of the Bob’s trail network. That left Regional Forester Tom Coston with a problem. He wanted to keep those endangered trails alive and provide access to the remote corners of the Bob for posterity.

“He’s the one that said, ‘Let’s do something before it’s too late,’” said Dave Owen, a volunteer packer on the Show Me Trip, a founding member of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, and an honorary board member today. “The idea was to get a volunteer organization that would help resurrect the trails, pick up the trails … that had been abandoned.”

While some retired U.S. Forest Service employees occasionally pitched in, volunteers were mostly “unheard of” at the time, according to Fred Flint, the foundation’s current board president who worked in the Flathead for the majority of his 30-year Forest Service career.

“That changed by necessity,” he said.

The answer, Coston reasoned, was an efficient organization to attract and coordinate volunteer labor. He arranged for a group, composed of local change-makers and some Washington, D.C. officials, to travel through the Bob for five days on horseback. He hoped that he could motivate his visitors to help him build a successful volunteer foundation by showing them the pristine land and languishing trails. Paperwork was filed after the Show Me Trip, a foundation was created, and a crew completed work during the first season. But within a year, the new foundation lost momentum.

“They had a bit of money, but there was no grassroots support built around it,” Flint said.

The trails continued to deteriorate until 1996, when Mike Dailey, a local realtor, “picked up interest as a civilian,” Owen said. “He saved the whole project, by word of mouth. He held meetings, hosted discussions at his realty office about how we were going to do this … He grabbed victory from the jaws of defeat.”

This summer, the foundation is celebrating its 20-year anniversary. In the last two decades, it has grown into something that Owen said “blows a person’s mind.”

There now exists an active culture of community-based wilderness stewardship. The foundation has donated millions of dollars worth of labor clearing and maintaining enough trail to stretch from Kalispell to D.C. and back, with change. It has expanded to offer educational outreach and job training programs. With innovative fundraising strategies that Owen says the founders wouldn’t have dreamed of and three full-time, year-round staff members to manage the flow of volunteers, he finds the foundation’s progress “inspiring.” He can hardly imagine what it will accomplish in the decades to come.

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Nearly a century ago, a young man named Robert Marshall moved to Montana with a master’s degree in forestry from Harvard University and a thirst for untarnished, intact nature. As a child, he had explored the sugar maple forests of upstate New York with his brother and watched his father, a lawyer, fortify New York’s “forever wild” guarantee for Adirondack Park. He’d dreamt of Lewis and Clark’s “glorious exploration into unbroken wilderness,” as he once wrote, although “occasionally, my reveries ended in terrible depression, and I would imagine that I had been born a century too late for genuine excitement.”

After working in Montana and Alaska and earning a Ph.D. in plant physiology, he concluded in 1930, “The universe of the wilderness, all over the United States, is vanishing with appalling rapidity. It is melting away like the last snow bank on some south-facing mountainside during a hot afternoon in June.”

He proposed a solution: The government needed to save and defend millions of acres of land, including “superlative scenic areas” like those in the national park system and “primeval areas or tracts of virgin timber in which human activities have never upset the normal processes of nature.” But the acreage he had in mind encompassed a percentage of the nation’s timberland, and detractors fought to maintain that resource. Marshall responded: “What small financial loss ultimately results from the establishment of wilderness areas must be accepted as a fair price to pay for their unassailable preciousness.”

He became one of the four founding members of the Wilderness Society, a nonprofit land conservation organization. The group would go on to usher in the passage of significant legislation, including the seminal Wilderness Act, one of the nation’s surest demonstrations of commitment to the preservation of wild land.

Flanked by two Wilderness Society members, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill in 1964, protecting 9.1 million acres across the country and designating the 950,000-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness. The act also officially created the legal definition of Wilderness, which prohibits mechanized travel and tools. Marshall passed away at age 38 of apparent heart failure in 1939, years before this environmental milestone, yet his role as a galvanizing force was indisputable.

“One could comfortably argue that Robert Marshall was personally responsible for the preservation of more wilderness than any individual in history,” T.H. Watkins, an editor of the society magazine, Wilderness, once wrote.

Marshall played no part in the creation of the volunteer labor foundation that would form decades after his death, but he was an ardent user of the existing trails network in Northwest Montana, reportedly walking 60 miles in a day and “finish[ing] with a spring in his step, typif[ying] the zest with which he tackled everything,” F.A. Silcox wrote in a USFS Service Bulletin eulogy titled “Robert Marshall, Forester — Crusader.”

In a 1928 article published in The Scientific Monthly called “The Wilderness as a Minority Right,” Marshall argued that saving wilderness was worth any sacrifice not only for its naturalness, but because of the potential for wild, indescribable adventure around each turn of the trail.

“Trails are really key for keeping designated wilderness, and for keeping that wildness good for all users,” said Deb Mucklow, district ranger of Spotted Bear Ranger District, one of the five that manages the Bob. “If we didn’t have a highway system or a road system and everyone took their vehicles wherever they want to go, you can imagine the chaos it would create. Trails help manage people’s impact.”

Trails prevent erosion, control what type of sediment enters the watershed, and concentrate visitors by guiding where they walk and camp. A trail in good condition will be logged, without fallen trees crossing the path. It will have a drainage system, so that when it rains, water will be strategically channeled off the trail. It will also be wide and tall enough to accommodate usage, whether it’s a mere footpath made for backpackers or a wider trail for pack strings.

Today, after the addition of the Scapegoat Wilderness in 1972 and the Great Bear Wilderness in 1978, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, managed as one unit, has 1,700 miles of trail. The network is maintained by the Hungry Horse and Spotted Bear Ranger Districts in Flathead National Forest, the Lincoln Ranger District in Helena National Forest, the Rocky Mountain Ranger District in Lewis and Clark National Forest, and the Seeley Lake Ranger District in Lolo National Forest. The largest district, Spotted Bear, has 14 paid trailworkers this season.

As the Forest Service’s trail dollars nationwide are increasingly allocated to more urban areas and places with more users, ranger districts in the remote Bob depend heavily both on volunteers and on the foundation’s organizational infrastructure.

“You can’t do everything with Forest Service-paid employees because there’s just not enough of them and there’s not enough money,” Al Koss, vice president of the foundation, said. “It’s a balance of where can volunteers help out to stretch that program, and make a complete program, of trail maintenance and wilderness stewardship.”

The foundation serves as “an extra layer of administration,” Koss said, allowing Forest Service leaders to concentrate on their own responsibilities while still benefiting from well-organized volunteer work, under the leadership of Executive Director Carol Treadwell.

Planning begins during winter, when foundation Program Director Rebecca Powell reaches out to each ranger district to determine which projects will need assistance. She then creates a calendar of trips varying in length and difficulty, and recruits volunteer packers, including many affiliated with the Back Country Horsemen of Montana. Because volunteers are held to the same standard as Forest Service employees, and the wilderness designation stipulates exclusive usage of primitive tools, like crosscut saws, the foundation also arranges for safety and tools training.

“It would be a tremendous loss to us to not have the volunteers supporting Forest Service and all the districts in the Bob Marshall Complex,” Mucklow said. “We’ve gained so much on-the-ground work, but now we also have a whole network of folks that appreciate the wilderness. We’re really proud to have the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation as a partner. It makes a big difference to us.”

In its first iteration, the foundation focused on reinstating trails too neglected for use, but “more and more, we find ourselves being asked to do routine maintenance—just because the Forest Service doesn’t have the money,” Flint said.

Forest Service crews start major clearing work on mainline artery trails in the beginning of the season. Foundation trips focusing on lower-impact clearing work on these trails continue through the summer, which fits the skillset of many volunteers who don’t have extensive, specialized training like seasonal employees. Flint, Koss, and Mucklow emphasized that volunteers don’t need to have trails experience before coming on a trip, and that organizers expect varying levels of ability. Volunteers must simply be willing to work hard and experience the backcountry.

“Your objective shouldn’t be, ‘Can I give them the biggest blisters out there?’” Mucklow said. “It’s, ‘What’s going to make them come back, then next time maybe they can go twice as far?’”

The foundation is also striving to go twice as far, with expanded wilderness stewardship efforts beyond trails work, including site monitoring, wetland protection, and noxious weed management. It also rolled out new initiatives aimed at giving a new generation the skills to care for wilderness. An intern program hosts a crew of college students for the summer while they complete trail projects and learn about careers in natural resources. This year, the foundation debuted a new packer’s apprenticeship, which will facilitate the transfer of traditional skills that make work in the far reaches of this enormous wilderness possible.

To support this growth, the foundation fosters a local community of donors with seasonal events like Voices of the Wilderness, a live storytelling and music event in November; Beers for the Bob gatherings at local watering holes; and a Mountain Film Festival with stops in Great Falls, Helena, and the Flathead Valley. It also generates income through grants, products like license plates, and the Great Fish Challenge, a community fundraising project that matches donors’ dollars.

And though foundation staff has already made greater strides in fundraising than Owen and the first generation of Bob Marshall Wilderness volunteers might have imagined, its current leaders recognize that the next great frontier is purposeful and creative development.

The foundation recently hired its first outreach coordinator, Margosia Jadkowski, to explore new venues for funding and connect with a broader community of donors and wilderness lovers. Taking a page from Marshall’s book, she hopes to make the case that wilderness matters to and needs support from everyone, even those who may never step foot in the complex.

“This is a place that belongs to all of us,” Jadkowski said. “I want to help everyone to see what their role in the foundation could be. Even if they’re not physically able to go on a trail project, or maybe they just don’t have the vacation time, or they have kids, or trail work sounds miserable to them, it doesn’t mean that they can’t be a part of the work that the foundation is doing to protect, care for, and love the Bob.”

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