Former Wilderness Society leader dies at 93

Stewart Brandborg served as executive director of The Wilderness Society from 1964 to 1976.
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As Stewart “Brandy” Brandborg's children reflect on his life, they recall story after story of him taking them camping in the backcountry, oftentimes on the way back home to Montana after advocating for wilderness conservation in Washington D.C.

Stewart Brandborg

Stewart "Brandy" Brandborg

His son, Dan Brandborg, said that on one trip, they locked one of their many pet raccoons in their Volkswagen bus overnight, and the critter got into the fishing rods and wound up with a little fly hook stuck to his tongue. "It was chaos with children and animals—skunks to ravens to crows to you name it," he said, laughing. "It was part of our world."

Then, there was the time when the family realized they'd left one of their many dogs, Sukey, by a giant buffalo statue during a stop in South Dakota and Brandborg paid a pilot to fly back to recover the dog. 

Or the time one of his four daughters, Betsy, trudged along with her family all the way to a campsite at a high alpine lake, and upon unzipping her backpack, she realized she had been carrying a cast iron frying pan that her father packed. "We didn’t even bring any food; he caught fish, we picked huckleberries. That's how it worked," said Betsy Brandborg.

They could go on and on with hilarious, heartfelt stories.

“My father was always such a force of nature," Betsy Brandborg said. "People were drawn to him wherever he was. He was so charming and funny and he was so willing to laugh at himself. He accepted everyone and he taught us all that."

On Saturday, Brandborg passed away at his home just outside Hamilton, Montana. He was 93.

His death hits the conservation community hard. He was the last surviving architect of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The legislation created the National Wilderness Preservation System and recognized wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

In 1956, Brandborg, a wildlife biologist who studied mountain goats by training, was elected to the governing council of The Wilderness Society while he served as assistant conservation director at the National Wildlife Federation. He joined the society’s staff four years later as special assistant to Howard Zahniser, the executive director at the time, to manage grassroots organizing, membership, and fundraising.

Stewart Brandborg

Until the very end of his life, Stewart Brandborg was a fierce advocate for wild places and encouraged people to speak up to their politicians.

“He would spend a lot of time on the road going from community to community finding a Wilderness Society member or two to meet in somebody’s living room and talk about their local wilderness areas,” Dan Brandborg said. “The message was really clear: You write your congressman, you tell them why you value these areas. It was very effective to where a number of congressmen would grab him on the Hill and say, ‘What are you doing out there? I’m getting letters from everybody.’”

While Zahniser was behind the words of the Wilderness Act through dozens of drafts and hearings between 1956 and 1964, it was Brandborg who was it through after Zahniser tragically died months before the act was signed into law. Brandborg was elected to fill the void and in the following 12 years, Congress approved more than 70 new wilderness areas in 31 states under his leadership at the society.

Brandborg had grown up listening to his father, one of the early forest rangers in Montana and Idaho, raise concern for conservation and the lumber tactics of the National Forest Service. Brandborg then instilled those same values within his own family by bringing his young children to meetings with senators and to Senate hearings, as well as taking them outdoors and into the backcountry whenever he could.

“We were always outside, we were always planting trees,” said Betsy Brandborg. “He’s probably planted thousands of trees just because it was a sunny day and it seemed like a good idea.”

His son, Dan Brandborg, went on to start the first solar company in Montana. He said that most of his father’s conversations would go beyond small talk and end with a call to action: "So, now what are you going to do? What are you going to do to make your voice be heard?" That pressure to act drives many conservation-focused organizations today.

“Brandy was a passionate and tireless advocate for protecting America’s wilderness,” said current Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams in a statement. “His ability to mentor advocates and galvanize citizen action was unmatched. He took up the leadership of The Wilderness Society right after the untimely death of Howard Zahniser, the author of the Wilderness Act, and Brandborg led the organization through a critical time for America’s conservation movement. His talents and passions, which never ebbed, have contributed greatly to conservation and preservation of America’s wilderness.”

Michael Reinemer, the society's spokesman, first met Brandborg when he was just a boy. He said, "He was always very gregarious and a warm person. He had a real passion for the outdoors. His father was sort of a legend in the forest service so he got to meet some of the true legends going back to the beginning of the 20th century in the conservation movement. He was part of that whole tradition and was one of the WWII generations of conservationists. We don’t have many of them left. He and my father worked together on the wilderness bill and some other things. As a kid, I got to know some of those sung and unsung heroes. Brandy was certainly far and away the biggest personality that I ever got a chance to meet."

After leaving the society, Brandborg served at the National Park Service and rallied activists nationally and in Western Montana. He worked at Wilderness Watch, which is dedicated to protecting designated wilderness areas from weak legislation and poor management—such as allowing helicopter landings or concrete structures—to ensure they stay truly wild.

Kevin Proescholdt, the current conservation director, said Brandborg up until his end was committed to organizing people, not only for the purposes of wilderness conservation and protection, but because working toward common goals was beneficial for society.

“I think today when we look back half a century or more to the Wilderness Act, I think it’s easy for us to sort of think that the passage was inevitable and that it was going to happen sooner or later, and I don’t think that was the case,” Proescholdt said. “There were lots of entrenched legislation against it, lots of entrenched politicians. It really was a small band of people like Brandy, Zahniser, David Brower of the Sierra Club and a few others who really worked against all odds to get that passed.”

So, in Brandborg style, what are you going to do to make sure your voice is heard?

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