September 3, 2014

Lee Metcalf's Legacy of Conservation


By Matthew M. Peek, Photograph Archivist

The narrative that is often told of the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act describes how conservation groups and key politicians nation-wide united to support the conservation of America’s natural resources and wild areas. While true, the story of the Wilderness Act’s origin and development has up to now largely left unexplored the influence of one of its greatest proponents: Senator Lee Metcalf of Montana.

On the 50th anniversary of the signing of the 1964 Wilderness Act, a look at the role Metcalf played in shaping our national wilderness policy is vital to understanding the full extent of his dedication. Serving as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives (1953-1960) and the U.S. Senate (1961-January 1978), Lee Metcalf’s priorities were not just about preserving forests and wilderness, but managing and protecting all resources which are part of nature’s lifecycle, including wildlife and their habitats, streams and rivers, bird migration routes, clean water resources, and so much more.
Dr. Arnold W. Bolle, Dean of the Montana State University School of Forestry [present-day University of Montana], testified in support of a bill to establish a land and water conservation fund to assist state and federal governments in meeting outdoor recreation needs. Pictured are (left to right) Agriculture Secretary Orville L. Freeman; Senator Lee Metcalf; Bolle; and Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, March 6, 1963. [Lot 31 B16/6.10]
As early as the 1950s, Metcalf was determining the course of conservation efforts. The proposed Echo Park Dam would have flooded portions of Dinosaur National Monument.  Metcalf became one of the most vocal opponents of its construction and one of the major reasons the Echo Park Dam was dropped from the Upper Colorado River Project.  The Echo Park Dam controversy sparked the modern conservation movement, and made the need for federal wilderness legislation glaringly apparent.

Just after President Eisenhower was sworn into office in 1953, Montana U.S. Rep. Wesley D’Ewart introduced the Uniform Federal Grazing Land Act, which would have allowed cattle ranchers to graze their herds on national forest lands and would potentially destroy wildlife habitats. Rep. Metcalf’s testimony and advocacy to protect wild areas helped kill that grazing act.

He also helped stop another grazing bill (S. 2548) that would impact national forests.  During the U.S. Senate Agriculture and Forestry Committee hearings on January 21-22, 1954, Metcalf testified against that bill stating:    
In the light of industrial development and expansion we should continue to be alert to protect our water...and to follow the leadership of enlightened local community leaders who know the problems and are familiar with local conditions. A balanced constructive legislative program is needed.
That same year, Metcalf blocked the passage of the Ellsworth Timber Exchange Bill. This bill would have allowed the federal government to exchange national forest lands for private lands in order to reimburse private owners for federal projects developed on their land. Metcalf called this trading “trees for stumps,” and was the strongest opponent of the bill. For his efforts, Metcalf received the 1954 National Award for Distinguished Service to Conservation.

In addition to helping stop potentially destructive legislation, Lee Metcalf introduced many conservation and wilderness-related measures from 1953 to 1963, including: an outdoor recreation bill in 1956 (H.R. 1823); the first ever federal legislation for studying the effects of pesticides and insecticides on wildlife and fish, which passed in 1958 as the Pesticide Research Act; a bill, introduced in January 1956, to protect federal wildlife refuges from dissolution; and the “Save Our Streams” bill (S. 2767), on January 30, 1962, to cease the destruction of rivers and streams by sloppy highway construction.

When John F. Kennedy was running for President in 1960, he and Metcalf discussed Kennedy’s stance on conservation issues if he were to win the presidency. In the autumn of 1960, Metcalf and Kennedy shot a television program on conservation for Kennedy’s campaign. On October 21, 1960, shortly before the national elections, Metcalf wrote to Senator Kennedy:
Conservation has the power to impart to an administration a quality of character which makes it stand out in history. I sincerely believe you could set the tone for your Administration by this approach. Through the medium of conservation the needs and aspirations of our people can be galvanized—the challenge of tomorrow translated in a visible way.
Senator Lee Metcalf meets with other national conservation leaders, August 6-12, 1961, to discuss legislative strategy regarding the proposed national wilderness preservation system bill. (Pictured left to right, standing) Alden J. Erskin, Izaak Walton League president; Phil Schneider, International Association of Game, Fish & Conservation Commissioners president; Tom Kimball, National Wildlife Federation exce; Carl W. Buchheister, president of National Audubon Society; (left to right, seated) C.R. Gutermuth, chairman of the Natural Resources Council of America; Senator Metcalf; and Ira N. Gabrielson, president of the Wildlife Management Institute. [Lot 31 B16/2.06]
As a precursor to the Wilderness Act, Metcalf introduced the National Preservation System bill in the House of Representatives on June 13, 1956. Eight years later, on August 21, 1964, Senator Lee Metcalf, as presiding officer, signed the Wilderness Act on behalf of the U.S Senate. In a ceremony on the grounds of the White House Rose Garden, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act and the Wilderness Act on September 3, 1964.

Lee Metcalf was one of America's most vocal and effective conservation congressmen. He had a hand in the classification, eventual creation of, or passage of every acre of wilderness in Montana by the time of his death in January 1978. He also is one of the major reasons Montana has the great outdoor recreation sites and facilities it does, which draw millions of tourists to the state and employ thousands of Montanans.

His is a truly great legacy, which is fitting to recall on the anniversary of the signing of the 1964 Wilderness Act.




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