Frank Vitale was one of the panelists at last Thursday’s MWA “Wilderness Speaker Series” presentation. Here’s a transcript of his remarks.
Nicely done; recommended reading . . .
OPENING STATEMENTS (INTRODUCTION)
It was probably 20 years ago I planned a pack trip out of Cave Mountain up in the Teton drainage. Our destination was “as far as we could go in about 8-10 days.” We had to travel over Route Creek Pass and I had never been on that trail before. So I decided to give Roland Cheek a call. He told me to “Come on over and bring your map. It just so happens Route Creek Pass is one of my favorite trips in that part of the Wilderness.” So after a great visit and a drink or two, Roland marked on my map the best places to camp with good water and good grass. He didn’t steer us wrong.
I don’t think I ever told you how much I enjoyed reading your newspaper column, “Wild Trails & Tall Tales,” from back in the early 80s, so while I’m thinking of it now I just want to say it’s an honor to sit on the same side of the table with you.
WILDERNESS & POLITICS (MESSAGE TO THE YOUTH)
In our discussion about wilderness, politics always seems to come up. It’s sad, but true, but anything in life that’s worthwhile never comes easy. This is also true for wilderness.
The wild country we have today is by no accident. It had to be fought for. At time things got ugly. Wilderness and politics are wrapped together and I suppose it will always be that way.
But spending nearly my whole life in wild country I guess I’ve learned to let the heart speak first. It was not always like that, and when I was younger it was easy to get mad as hell and frustrated.
But youth being no easy keeper, the words for wilderness come a whole lot easier. I would tell the young folks that everybody needs a hero, a mentor; someone to look up to. My advice for you young folks is to find your heroes and learn their stories.
From early on I had many heroes. Way too many to even have time to mention. Some of my heroes are even probably sitting in this room tonight.
So I will tell you just a few of mine and briefly tell their stories…
About 35 years ago, my father-in-law handed me a book and said, “Frank, you might find this book interesting.” He had picked it up in some used book store and even back then the book was a bit worn and tattered. When I opened it and read the first page I knew I was hooked. The book blew me away and little did I know back then that this book, titled “Grizzly Country” and the man who wrote it would become one of the greatest influences in my life. Andy Russell became one of my greatest wilderness heroes.
He was born in 1915, and grew up in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains of southern Alberta. Andy wore many hats including trapper, cowboy, ranch hand and ran an outfitting trail guide business for 30-plus years. Andy Russell is gone now, but his ranch still remains next to Waterton Lakes National Park. But the impact of his writing and storytelling will (like the Rockies themselves) last forever . . . He wrote many books about wilderness and the west. His greatest passion was big wild country and grizzly bears. He knew if the grizzly was to survive in this rapidly changing world, we would have to fight to save the last of the wild country. He also knew that the 49th parallel doesn’t exist to a grizzly bear.
In the introduction to his book, Grizzly Country he wrote,
“Wasteful and incredibly shortsighted exploitation of natural resources by industry was carving the wilderness into ragged ribbons. With its passing it was clearly evident that not only was the old-time mountain man almost nothing more than a character of history, but as I watched, the grizzly was being hard pressed to find the necessary environment for his continuance.
“It was a sad thing to contemplate, especially for one who knew the freedom and the happiness of real mountain wilderness and had shown it to many people from all over the world; but tears of nostalgia do nothing for that being mourned. So I dropped the rifle and picked up the pen and the camera to see what could be done to save some of the fast-vanishing wilderness and thus to help, too, the grizzly that must have it to survive.”
Andy Russell went on to receive one of the highest honors when he was awarded “The Order of Canada.”
Not bad for just a ranch kid.
* * * * * * *
About 18 years ago on one of my pack trips deep in the wilderness below Scapegoat Mountain I lead my string of mules off the high plateau called Half Moon Park. As we crossed the Continental Divide and headed down the west slope, a momma grizzly bear and two cubs of the year shot out and off the trail below me. Faster than any race horse out of the starting gate, before I knew it they made it across the canyon and up to the opposite ridge as though they were three rockets. As they crested the ridge top they stopped and looked back toward the pack string as we slowly moved down the switchbacks. Then they disappeared.
As I rode through the Scapegoat on that trip and others since then, I thought about Cecil Garland and how he fought like hell to keep the spoilers out of what was then known as the Lincoln Backcountry.
At that time, in the 1960s, the Forest Service and big timber interests were against any wilderness and plans to punch roads into the backcountry seemed inevitable. The odds were stacked against Cecil and others who cherished this wild country. But these local folks rallied. Trees shook. Politicians listened.
The Scapegoat was designated in 1972 through a “grass roots” community effort and earned a place in history as the first citizen-initiated wilderness area in the nation.
Two years ago the town of Lincoln threw a huge party to celebrated 40 years of the Scapegoat. Cecil, then age 86, just couldn’t make the horseback ride into the wilderness so arrangements were made to fly him over the Scapegoat. It was pretty emotional for him, his daughter and others as he viewed the landscape. Would he remember? Once he got his bearings, he began to name the landmarks he knew so well and worked so hard to fight for.
Not bad for just a general store owner in the small town of Lincoln, MT.
* * * * * * *
Many people helped in the fight to secure Wilderness Areas in Montana including Columbia Falls resident, Loren Kreck.
The first time I met Loren was about 1980 or ‘81. A bunch of us North Fork locals decided to make a hockey rink. So we flooded an area on some county park land across from the North Fork Hostel in Polebridge. It was a cold winter and the ice held. We heard that some folks in the Valley were trying to get hockey started so we invited some of the guys up to toss the puck around a bit.
Loren Kreck and about a half dozen other folks showed up. We divided into 2 teams and commenced to playing some hockey. I thought to myself, ‘who is this older gent?.’ I had a hell of a time keeping up with him and I’m just half his age!
For all you wilderness veterans out there Loren Kreck holds a big part of our hearts. He was one of the founders of the Montana Wilderness Association. Along with many others (some who are in this room tonight) championed both the Great Bear and Scapegoat Wilderness Areas along with the Jewel Basin, just east of Kalispell.
Loren also fought to keep the air clean in the Flathead Valley and challenged the Anaconda-owned Columbia Falls Aluminum Company to clean up the fluoride gas emissions it spewed from its plant that were killing trees and affecting the health of deer and other wildlife. It wasn’t easy and people accused Loren of threatening their jobs which wasn’t true. In fact, Loren’s stance and fight to protect the environment turned out to be good for the Flathead economy. The investments made by CFAC to reduce fluoride emissions kept the plant viable for several more decades.
Not bad for just a small-town dentist.
* * * * * * *
So as we celebrate the first 50 years of the Wilderness Act the question we ask is, “what will the next 50 years for wilderness be like?
I don’t know. Some people will say we have enough wilderness. My answer to them is ‘we don’t even come close to having enough wilderness. They ain’t making any more.’ And probably more now than any time in our history the need for wilderness and wild places has never been greater.
Here at home, in Montana, the glass is only half full. We still have some of the best wildlands unprotected. And if there are any politicians in this room tonight I make no apologies. Help us out or get out of our way.
It took us 50 years to get where we are now. It might take us another 50 years to fill the glass, but we’ll get there. It will be up to the next generation of young folks to carry the torch.
So in closing, I’d like to read few lines from an Ian Tyson’s song, “Land of Shining Mountains.” The words sum up so clearly what we have lost, and what we still can gain.
“In my days I’ve heard the thunder roll,
And in my days I’ve felt the wind and rain,
And like the cowboy said, I wish I had seen the buffalo,
Maybe they’ll come back again.”