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America's first "citizen wilderness"

The Lincoln-Scapegoat Wilderness area is not only a Montana gem, but with its designation 30 years ago on August 20, 1972, Montanans literally established a new process for the congressional recognition of wilderness. The Scapegoat is America's first "citizen wilderness."

From 1900 until the early 1960s, the U.S. Forest Service's management of the public's estate was conducted with little, if any, influence from those who actually owned the land—citizens. 

During the early days, management of the nation's forests meant little more than manning lookout towers and fire guard stations. There were grazing leases to monitor and a few trails to clear, but not many major decisions to make. When timber was needed for some of the West's early industrial productivity, the Forest Service was primarily guided by corporations, particularly the mining and railroad industries which were large consumers of timber for their operations. The first four decades of the 20th century were, for the Forest Service, an "Era of Custody."

As the nation's economy boomed in the '40s and '50s, the Forest Service entered its "Management Era." There was a war to be won and later the enormous demands of the nation's housing boom to be met. Bulldozers and chainsaws roared through the previously remote wild lands of Montana and the West. For the most part, however, the Forest Service's suddenly vigorous management decisions remained immune from citizen challenge. The U.S. Congress was seldom, if ever, asked to intervene with the Forest Service unless it was on behalf of a private company seeking expanded use of the public's land.

Then in 1964, the Congress, in an effort to restrain the ever growing private extraction of riches from the public's remaining wild lands, passed the nation's first Wilderness legislation. However, even in that process the Congress relied exclusively on the Forest Service to recommend, from their "primitive areas," those lands which the Congress should consider for possible wilderness designation.

For almost six decades the authority of the Forest Service had remained virtually unquestioned. That is, until the late 1950s when, here in Montana, officials of the Helena National Forest made public a plan to cut roads into what was then known as the Lincoln Backcountry, a wild, "primitive area" of 75,000 acres in the Helena National Forest lying a dozen miles north of the town of Lincoln. 

The proposal was to construct logging roads and allow timber cutting and, perhaps, mining throughout two-thirds of the Lincoln Backcountry, also known as the Lincoln-Scapegoat. The Forest Service's plan created a storm of protest. An emergency public meeting was held in a tiny community building in Lincoln and 300 angry citizens showed up, with almost all of them demanding that the roading-logging plans be killed.

Congressman Jim Battin of eastern Montana made phone calls to the regional forester asking that plans be delayed until the public could be heard but the Forest Service rebuffed him. 

Battin was then joined in his demands by Montana Senator Lee Metcalf. Although the plans were slowed, the Forest Service, accustomed to having its way without public interference, would not be deterred in its proposal to allow roading and cutting throughout the wild Lincoln Backcountry.

A Lincoln hardware dealer and former Forest Service campground foreman, Cecil Garland, led a citizens' effort to protect the area. He and others, including a few Forest Service employees, wrote and called, cajoled, lobbied, and pleaded with the congressional delegation. For the first time Congress was faced with a "bottom up" wilderness proposal. Senators Mansfield and Metcalf introduced the citizen-inspired Lincoln-Scapegoat Wilderness legislation in 1965. In the House, the Republican Congressman Jim Battin introduced a bill protecting more than three times as much land as the senators had proposed. The Democrats Metcalf and Mansfield agreed with the larger Battin bill and Montana's Republican Governor Tim Babcock endorsed it!

As it always is with such legislation, the process was difficult. It took four years to pass the Senate bill only to have it die in the House. Finally, following six years of determined efforts by Montana citizens, the bill passed and became law.

When President Nixon signed it in August, 30 years ago, America had the first wilderness ever initiated and fought for by the people: Montana's "citizen wilderness," the 240,000 acre Lincoln-Scapegoat.

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Author info

Rep. Pat Williams Rep. Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at the University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West and is Northern Director of Western Progress.

Tagged as:

Montana, wilderness, history, Lincoln-Scapegoat Wilderness area, public lands

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