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Excerpt From 'Where Roads Will Never Reach: Wilderness and Its Visionaries in the Northern Rockies'

May 19, 2015

From Where Roads Will Never Reach: Wilderness and Its Visionaries in the Northern Rockies, by Frederick H. Swanson ($24.95 softcover, ©2015 University of Utah Press)

In the summer of 1957 a University of Montana forestry student named Arnold Elser took a job at the White Tail Ranch, Tom Edwards’s outfitting operation located at the edge of the Helena National Forest northeast of Ovando, Montana. Behind the ranch’s rustic log buildings rose a forested ridge flanking the North Fork of the Blackfoot River, along which ran a well-used trail leading through miles of undeveloped forestland into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Elser had left his home in Ohio three years earlier to find work in just this kind of country--either as a forest ranger (as he hoped to be one day) or as a wrangler for an outfit such as the White Tail. Edwards was willing to take a chance on the young student, especially after he offered to try out for a couple of weeks at no pay. His job was to supply and run the backcountry kitchen, but Edwards first put him to work moving a fence--an unusual task in an area where property lines had been settled decades ago. The Forest Service wanted to make use of an old right-of-way that came up from Kleinschmidt Flat and ran along the western edge of the 160-acre ranch. The following summer came the construction of a 32-foot-wide road, graded and crowned to accommodate heavy traffic. It led into the adjacent national forest and ended at a substantial concrete bridge across the North Fork. Progress, it appeared, had arrived in the upper Blackfoot.

Elser recalls that one evening Edwards’s business partner, Howard Copenhaver, suggested that the three of them go have a look at the new bridge. There they discovered a four-by-eight-foot plywood sign announcing the “Lincoln Back Country Scenic Highway” and bearing the Forest Service’s logo along with a schematic map depicting how motorists soon would be able to drive through the mountains and come out at the town of Lincoln, fifteen miles to the southeast. “This would be terrible,” Copenhaver announced to his companions. Edwards agreed: he had been watching the Forest Service push new roads into the South and Middle Forks of the Flathead River, getting closer each year to the northern boundary of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Now the country south of the wilderness, a magnificent portal through which he had taken horse parties for two decades, was about to be opened to log haulers and Sunday drivers.

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Friderick H. Swanson

Author Frederick H. Swanson

Frederick Swanson writes about the wild places of the western United States from his home in the foothills of Utah’s Wasatch Range. His books and essays focus on the history, exploration and conservation of public lands during the twentieth century, including wilderness areas, national parks, and national forests. His most recent book, Where Roads Will Never Reach: Wilderness and Its Visionaries in the Northern Rockies (University of Utah Press, 2015) depicts the long-running citizen campaigns to protect wild lands in Idaho and Montana. A former Helena resident, he holds a graduate degree in environmental studies from the University of Montana. Fred enjoys hiking, backpacking, paddling rivers and birding with his family. His website is www.fredswansonbooks.com.