Flash back three decades, to when forward-thinking Montana congressman and senator Lee Metcalf’s work to conserve Montana’s wild spaces eventually resulted in the 1983 creation of the four section, 259,000-acre Lee Metcalf Wilderness in the Madison Range.
Jump forward to Wednesday, June 26, aboard a six-passenger Cessna 210 piloted by conservationist Bruce Gordon of EcoFlights, a business that promotes wilderness advocacy via aviation. Gordon and crew are on a flight over the Metcalf in celebration of the wilderness area’s 30th anniversary.
After passing Belgrade and the relatively untouched land owned by Ted Turner, the Madison River suddenly rushes below as Gordon’s plane passes over a whitewater lover’s dream – the Bear Trap Canyon unit of the Lee Metcalf.
Soon, the crew is cruising past the Jack Creek drainage, looking east towards Lone Mountain with ski resorts etched into its flanks. Continuing west, the plane cruises over the Taylor-Hilgard unit where Cedar Mountain dominates the landscape to the left and the “hood” of Sphinx Mountain peeks through the cloud cover to the right.
The small plane then cuts through turbulence to circle snowy Cedar Mountain, quickly passing over Big Sky’s mountain village before veering south to cross over the snow-dotted peaks of the Spanish Peaks quadrant. Then the plane lowers in elevation and enters above the grassy Gallatin Canyon en route to landing at Bozeman Yellowstone International.
The tour was aptly guided by Jonathan Klien, who shortly after the creation of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness was hired to oversee the Bear Trap portion of the Metcalf by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and was made the first-ever BLM wilderness ranger. With Klien’s expertise Gordon and his media crew were schooled in the facts surrounding the wilderness as they witnessed it from above.
Passing over the lines between the undeveloped wilderness area and its gridded, populated borders, Klein noted the importance of preserving wild space.
“The contrast between what’s protected as wilderness and what’s unprotected as private land is astonishing,” he said, pointing out the developments abutting the wild expanses. “All of this is prime wilderness habitat. We’re fortunate we have what wilderness we do have, and that it will be protected into perpetuity. We can thank Metcalf for that.”
Since his early days in the newly formed Lee Metcalf, Klien said he’s seen plenty of changes. Some summers, rangers would never see another soul while patrolling the terrain, but now, things are different.
“Since Lee Metcalf was designated, the population of Gallatin County has doubled, and rose 32 percent between 2000 and 2010,” Klein said. “Wilderness has become an island in a rising sea of development.”
Following the flight pilot Gordon discussed his thoughts on wilderness.
“These flights are an opportunity to celebrate this remarkable landscape and cooperation that created it,” he said, speaking louder as a nearby airplane roared to life. “I’m hoping this will inspire people to reflect on their own thoughts of wilderness, so they don’t act on ideological concepts, but rather measure the concept of wilderness in an individual basis and merit. So many people say they are opposed to wilderness, but don’t look at the particulars.”
Lee Metcalf, the place
Designated by Congress in 1983, the Lee Metcalf Wilderness protects 259,000 acres in Montana’s Madison Range. The area includes everything from class IV rapids in Bear Trap Canyon to glacier-carved peaks and cirques that rise above 11,000 feet.
With 300 miles of hiking trails, camping, hunting, fishing and backcountry skiing opportunities abound. Wildlife abounds as well — the Metcalf is home to mountain goats, big horn sheep, black and grizzly bears, moose, elk, cougar, and more. (Information from the Montana Wilderness Association)
Lee Metcalf, the person
A man of the people and a champion of conservation, Lee Metcalf served Montana in the U.S. Congress for 25 years – 18 as a senator – from 1953 to 1978. He was admired by both friends and foes as being fiercely independent and principled.
Metcalf was deeply connected to Montana’s land and natural resources, born out of his early upbringing in Stevensville and the Bitterroot Valley.
His legacy on issues is exceptional: Metcalf introduced bills for Medicare (which passed 10 years later), the Elementary and Secondary School Act, and the Peace Corps (with fellow Montana senator Mike Mansfield.
A talented legislator admired by both sides of the aisle, he was the only person to hold the title of Permanent Acting President of the U.S. Senate.
On conservation, Sen. Metcalf was a true pioneer: he helped pass the 1964 Wilderness Act, supported the creation of the Great Bear and Absaroka-Beartooth Wildernesses, the National Wildlife Refuge System, and stream protection legislation. (Information from the Montana Wilderness Association)