Books by Frederick H. Swanson


Selections from The Bitterroot and Mr. Brandborg

G. M. Brandborg 1969
G. M. Brandborg in 1969

The Bitterroot clearcutting controversy is often depicted as a textbook case of the environmental awakening of the 1960s and 1970s, and indeed that era’s concern over land abuses allowed G. M.Brandborg and his allies to gain wide publicity for their campaign. But the horrific appearance of the Bitterroot’s bulldozed clearcuts, though they gave rise to sensational news stories and prompted Congress to adopt significant reforms in forest practices, tended to obscure Brandborg’s chief concern--the century-old, still unresolved issue of sustained-yield forestry. The nation had never settled the question of the fundamental purpose of its national forests. Whose interests would these trees serve? Which generations would benefit from their bounty? Was it still possible to develop a wood products-based economy that sustained local communities far into the future while keeping the forest healthy and beautiful?

Guy Brandborg and his rangers believed they had worked out a solution to these questions during the 1940s, when they placed these woods under a program of careful selective harvesting of large-diameter, high-value ponderosa pine. As supervisor of the 1.6-million-acre Bitterroot National Forest from 1935 to 1955, Brandy saw his program as a way to provide a modest but steady flow of timber, forage, and irrigation water for Bitterroot Valley residents. An agrarian populist by upbringing and temperament, he held a consistent vision of the Forest Service as the protector of the valley’s independent loggers, farmers, ranchers, and small sawmill operators, many of whom faced competition from larger firms located outside the valley, including those allied with the powerful Anaconda Copper Company. To Brandy, forestry was an adjunct to permanent agriculture, not a primary source of export goods. Everything in his experience, reading, and instincts told him that logging booms did not create vital communities.

mud creek terraces
Terraced clearcut in Mud Creek, Bitterroot National Forest, about 1969

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In 1968, thirteen years following his retirement, Brandborg toured the Bitterroot National Forest with Champ Hannon, a former forest ranger:

The tour opened Brandy’s eyes to the extent of changes on the forest, which in many places no longer resembled the green-cloaked hills he had known. That evening he told Ruth that he was determined to take the forest management issue to the people of Montana. As Ruth recalled years later, Brandy stood in their kitchen doorway and recounted what he had seen that day. “I’ll never give it up,” he told her. “I’ll say it as it is.”

He began by outlining his concerns in a letter to [Montana senator] Lee Metcalf. “What I saw yesterday was shocking and sad,” he wrote. “The experience disclosed twenty years of scientific foresters’ and other employees’ hard work, long hours, working in hot, cold, and wet weather, climbing hills even on snow shoes, as well as the expenditure of tens of thousands of dollars gathering information, planning and executing a program on the public’s behalf. All this has come to naught at the hands of present-day foresters.”

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Late in his life Brandborg often spoke of the social implications of poor land use practices:

Brandborg saw in the floods of 1974 grim forebodings of landscape destruction and economic ruin. In the spring of 1975, another high-water year, he and Ruth made a long auto trip through north-central Montana, revisiting scenes from his days as a young ranger on the Lewis and Clark and Helena national forests. He reported his observations to Senator Metcalf: “Every stream, large and small (Sun River, Teton, Milk, Musselshell, including the Missouri River) was flowing thick with the black soil which came from severely eroded farmlands, severely overgrazed public and private grasslands, clearcut and overcut private and public forest lands. In crossing the Divide, heading for Townsend in the Helena Forest, we found Deep Creek running black within about four miles of the Divide. There was increased silting as we proceeded down the canyon—all the result of misuse of public forest lands. . . .In short, without question, Montana’s very next generation is headed for a lower standard of living, thus suffering the hard experiences of hordes of people in foreign lands.”

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Top photo: courtesy Dale A. Burk; clearcut: USDA Forest Service