Montana Wilderness Deficit

Hiker, Mollie Matteson, Windy Pass, Gallatin Range, Gallatin NF

Montana has a wilderness deficit. People may be surprised to learn that only 3.4 million acres out of the state’s nearly 94 million acres are congressionally designated wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act. There are at least 6.3 million more U.S. Forest Service acres that potentially could be designated as wilderness, as well as additional lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service.

Among the areas that deserve wilderness protection are the Great Burn outside of Missoula, Scotchman’s Peak south of Libby, the Blue Joint near Darby, the Sapphires by Hamilton, the East and West Pioneers near Dillon, the Ten Lakes and Whitefish Range near Kalispell, the Snowcrest and Gravelly Ranges by Sheridan, the Badger-Two Medicine by East Glacier, the Big Snowies outside of Lewistown, the Lionhead by West Yellowstone, the Gallatin Range by Bozeman, the Crazy Mountains by Livingston, Bitter Creek by Glasgow, Mount Baldy by Helena, the Pryor Mountains by Billings and the Terry Badlands near Miles City.

This is only a partial list of Montana’s wildlands that could be given federal wilderness designation.  Keep in mind that these are among the finest wildlands left in the entire United States. They deserve to be left unimpaired for future generations. All of these areas are included in the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act which has been introduced into Congress.

We often hear opponents of wilderness arguing that the designation of more wilderness will somehow harm the state’s economy. California, which is only slightly larger than Montana, has nearly five times as much acreage in the wilderness, with 15.3 million acres in the federal wilderness system. California remains one of the economic powerhouses in the entire world. Wilderness designation has not harmed the California economy.

Increasingly, Montanans recognize that protecting our wildlands is key to the state’s economic prosperity. While the clean water, wildlife and scenic grandeur are critical to the state’s growing tourism industry, it’s important to note that preserving wildlands goes beyond direct tourism employment.

Many people live or move to the state due to the proximity of wildlands. Over the years, I have lived in Missoula, Helena and Livingston. I never had a “local” job, with nearly all of my income from sources outside of the state. However, I spent my earnings locally, buying supplies, food, owning property and paying taxes that otherwise supported the local economy and community.

I am not alone. Non-labor income contributes to 44% of Montana’s citizen’s earnings.

I would argue a contributing factor in the decision by many people to live has to do with the attractiveness of the state’s wildlands —whether one goes into them or not.

In the age of climate change, protecting these wildlands also stores a significant amount of carbon and preserves the ecological processes that maintain biodiversity.

However, I do not wish to dwell too much on the economic value of wildlands protection — as vital as it may be to some. The real value of wilderness protection is the cultural value it engenders. When we designate wilderness, we are expressing humility, restraint and a sense that nature is bigger than us. These are critical conservative values for society to express.

The designation of wilderness shows a commitment to not only future generations but also to all the creatures who do not have a voice at the table. These the voiceless critters that need wild places to survive.

Protecting wildlands is a counteraction to the old paradigm of colonization, subjugation and servitude. It is a recognition that we humans as a society, can observe and practice limits. Wilderness designation is our society’s way of expressing a sense of the “sacredness” of the Earth.


  1. Nancy Avatar

    “The real value of wilderness protection is the cultural value it engenders. When we designate wilderness, we are expressing humility, restraint and a sense that nature is bigger than us. These are critical conservative values for society to express”

    Good summation, George. But sadly, far to many humans, who dominate, here and elsewhere around the planet, live in areas void of anything even remotely resembling wilderness areas and there for can’t begin to comprehend the importance of preserving what’s left of them.

    1. Hiker Avatar

      Nancy, I think many people have trouble connecting to nature if they live in big cities, but not all. I grew up in L.A. and always looked forward to getting out of that city and into the woods (desert, beach, mountains). My best memories from childhood are from camping and hiking in the Sierra Nevada.

  2. George Hayduke Avatar
    George Hayduke

    Always our hero Geo. Keep up the “good work”

  3. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    I think we should press congress continuously to add to wilderness and press NGO’s to give up their corporate paradigm. All public lands are under attack really and NGO’s want donations from corporations etc. and will only go so far to protect habitat.

    I recently noticed that one of the largest “preserves” in California found that there were no San Joaquin kit foxes or even badgers or golden eagles on their 90,000 acres + ‘Wind Wolves’ preserve according to a 2010 survey. They are stuck with the out dated notion of having to manage Mediterranean annual vegetation with cows and sheep which caused problems for indigenous wildlife and plant species in the first place. However, cows and sheep bring in money and donations from livestock groups so they keep doing it.

    I used to visit the Lee Metcalf federal wildlife refuge near Stevensville but got tired of seeing gobs of dogs there. It has become a dog park.

    A few years back I spent some time at the petrified forest in Arizona. I was moved by the extraordinary cloud formations, the power of the ‘thunder beings’ and ancient boulders and rock formations. As above so below kind of feeling. After a while I went back to the visitors center to witness the spectacle of people pulling up to the parking area. The puffy cheeked, marshmallow white kids would temporarily give up their hand held gaming device while a parent e-mailed “aunt Betty” and said we made it to the petrified forest and now we are heading out to where ever.

    Some of the kids would yell out ” oh look at that cool dinosaur thing” (a molded casting of a Dimetrodon) and then go back to their gaming device. I guess it was not up to their “Disneyland” expectations.

    Wilderness may be our only hope to recover our sanity.

    1. Hiker Avatar

      Bruce, don’t give up on those gaming kids, I was one of them. Take heart, right now kids all over the world are protesting for action on climate change.

  4. Dale Houston Avatar
    Dale Houston


    1. Nancy Avatar

      Yes he would, Dale. Famous words at the bottom of this site:

      “At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behavior.”
      ~ Edward Abbey


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner