A farewell to legendary mountain man Joe Gutkoski
By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist
Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt of a longer article first appearing in Mountain Journal. Visit mountainjournal.org for the full story.
Pound for surly pound, as a sentient being standing maybe five feet four inches and weighing 140 pounds, Joe Gutkoski had the tough ferocious spirit of a wolverine. Meekness was not a trait associated with Gutkoski who just passed from this earth. For a small man he lived large.
Joe turned 94 years old on Aug. 4, the day before he died. With so much of what makes the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem extraordinary now on the line, in danger of being permanently transformed by deepening human impacts, it is worth at least a moment to reflect on what kind of conservation-minded person Gutkoski was.
“I know a lot of people who can’t stand controversy when it comes to conservation,” Gutkoski said. “But there’s no way around it. You can’t protect a place unless you’re willing to stand up and say ‘no’ to those who are willing to destroy it. Politics is contentious. Business is contentious. Religion is contentious. Why, every issue involving natural resource extraction is contentious. There’s no way around it. Get used to it. People might get their feelings hurt, but I’ve never known anyone who wasn’t grateful to the conservationists. I’m grateful to the folks who inspired me.”
Gutkoski said the reason we’re fighting over the last shreds of “wild country” today is because so much already has been willingly given away that didn’t need to be lost.
In July of this year, I had the honor of being invited by the Gallatin Wildlife Association to deliver a few words on the occasion of that local conservation organization turning 45 years old. One of its most devoted founding members was Joe, who was 50 when GWA was created, but he couldn’t make it that night. My short riff was about a derisive word that gets tossed around— “radical”— and who gets to tag others with the label. I added how I’ve seen farsighted courage manifested, set within the context of why the Greater Yellowstone is the last of its kind in the Lower 48.
Those who advocated for establishment of Yellowstone National Park were labeled impractical radicals by members of the Montana Territorial Legislature and local natural resource profiteers who had colonized Paradise Valley and didn’t want park lands put off limits to their unbounded exploitation.
Had the naysayers prevailed with their argument that protecting land would impair prosperity, liberty, freedom and progress, we would not have Yellowstone today or, at best, there would be a pale watered-down imitation.
The Gallatins were a regular topic of discussion in my chats with Gutkoski. For those who need a bit more geographic description, the Gallatins are a biogeographical extension of Yellowstone. Stretching northward, they run between Paradise Valley to the east and the Gallatin River Canyon on the west, the latter today dominated by the bulging bustle of Big Sky.
The Gallatins are among the few mountain ranges south of Canada still home to all of the major mammal species—from grizzlies and wolves to bison, moose, wolverine, lions, lynx, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, pronghorn and the famous Gallatin elk herd, plus hundreds of other species including birds, fish, reptiles and plants—that existed in the Northern Rockies before Europeans arrived in North America.
Call the terrain whatever you choose, but one way of thinking about wilderness in the 21st century is it’s a place where humans with conscious deliberateness make space for wild creatures that have a hard time thriving in human-dominated landscapes. Wilderness is where the wild things are. Wilderness is where a lot of people, moving fast paced trying to cover as much ground as possible, are not.
Based on that distinction alone, the Gallatins are wild. Joe and I marveled at the idea that were you to pick up the Gallatins and drop them into California, they would instantly, because of their diversity of original native mammals, be the wildest mountains in the state. The same would be true if you relocated them to Utah, Colorado, Washington State, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho, Texas—any state outside of Montana and Wyoming.
If the Gallatins were a standalone national park they’d be wilder than any national park in the Lower 48 save for Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier. They are the only significant mountain range next to Yellowstone without a major road bisecting them—a fluke with a tangible link to Gutkoski.
Gutkoski was, until his final breath, among a growing group of citizens who believe the Gallatins deserve more than being viewed as a pie to be carved up among “stakeholders,” each wanting their own piece of the action to consume.
If you’ve made it this far, you may reasonably wonder: Why listen to Joe Gutkoski? Consider this: After World War II, a war in which he served his country on a Navy destroyer before graduating from Penn State on the GI Bill, this son of a Polish coal miner from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, fell in love with the West.
He was hired as the first landscape architect for famous Region One of the Forest Service based in Missoula, a region which had jurisdiction over the most spectacular forests in the Pacific Northwest. Eventually, he transferred to what is today the Custer-Gallatin National Forest, headquartered in Bozeman, where he and his wife Milly raised their three kids, Mike, Marie and Helen.
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Gutkoski knew a lot about the Forest Service, its internal culture, its reputation as a non-risk-taking go-along-to-get-along agency. He spent 32 years working for the Forest Service and retired in 1982.
Award-winning Bozeman-based novelist Keith McCafferty, who writes mystery potboilers and for years penned an outdoor column for Field & Stream, credits Gutkoski for teaching him how to hunt big game. McCafferty once published in that popular outdoor magazine a tribute to Gutkoski titled, “The Great Gutkoski.”
Along the way of his early career with the Forest Service, Gutkoski was a smokejumper for 13 years starting in Idaho, and a field guy who accompanied timber cruisers in identifying which stands of old growth forests were to be toppled with little regard given to environmental impact.
“… as Joe flew on fire-fighting missions across the West … he took notice of the accelerating devastation of the forests wrought by clear-cutting,” McCafferty wrote. “His vow to fight for wilderness designation for some of the last unroaded land would eventually bring him recognition among environmentalists. It also earned him more than a few enemies during his career as a landscape architect with the U.S. Forest Service, whose bosses were adamant advocates of development.”
It is fashionable in these times, as it has been in the past, for young people to look upon an “old dude” like Gutkoski and claim he is out of touch with reality. What many don’t realize is that in the cannisters on the tops of many hard-to-reach mountains in Greater Yellowstone, Gutkoski signed his name into those logs decades ago.
Over the years, Gutkoski had hunted in the Madison mountains remembering what the flanks of Lone Mountain were like when they and the nearby Yellow Mule area below Flattop Mountain were grazed by cattle in summer and before industrial logging felled the old growth Douglas-fir and spruce.
He met Chet Huntley when the Cardwell, Montana native-turned-famed national news reader for NBC News began discussing his vision for creating Big Sky. Huntley wanted to build a destination for downhill skiing that echoed of Montana values and would be quaint compared to the industrial approaches of resorts in Colorado.
Even in these last weeks, Gutkoski said he believed Huntley would have viewed the size of the human footprint that has overwhelmed the former feel of that valley as an abomination. And it’s why he was doubly concerned about the fate of the Gallatins across U.S. 191.
On his kitchen table, Gutkoski unfurled topo maps and had marked in pencil the perimeter of land sections that met the land-condition standards for inclusion in potential Gallatin Range wilderness designation. Gutkoski believed at least 230,000 acres qualifies, including the biologically rich Porcupine and Buffalo Horn drainages, both of which are part of a wilderness study area.
While in his 70s and 80s, he personally hiked the entire circumference and crisscrossed the interior of the 230,000 acres of the Custer-Gallatin to ground truth their ecological condition and to make sure his conclusion was accurate. What he and others believe qualifies as wilderness is nearly two-and-a-half times what the Forest Service does.
The forerunning American ecologist Aldo Leopold, himself a Forest Service veteran, once remarked: “Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching—even when doing the wrong thing is legal.”
Gutkoski pulled out another weathered and cracking map that detailed a proposed road, supported by the forest supervisor, that would’ve been blazed along Buffalo Horn Creek from the present location of the 320 Ranch along U.S. Highway 191 and stretch all the way over the Gallatin Crest. It would have connected with the current dead-end road rising from Paradise Valley into Tom Miner Basin.
Gutkoski learned that a powerful triumvirate had formed, and the plan was to get the road approved in a way that significant public scrutiny would be avoided. Montana Power (today Northwestern Energy) approached the then Gallatin Forest requesting an access road be approved to allow construction of a powerline extending over the mountains. Burlington Northern Railroad, which owned checkerboard sections of land in the Gallatins astride the proposed road and eventually became Plum Creek Timber, expressed interest in carrying out some significant logging and using the road to get the timber out.
“I got wind of the plan and then I saw the rough map that laid out the proposed route and I was shocked and horrified,” Gutkoski said. “I was, after all, the landscape architect on staff and I went to the forest supervisor and asked, ‘How come I never heard about this?’ I was told that I should just mind my own business, so I reminded him that this is my business. I am a public servant and the public will want to know about this.”
After a series of tense internal meetings, the road was shelved. Had the plan moved forward, the passage would have likely become a throughway for Big Sky tourism promoters advertising it as a shortcut to Mammoth Hot Springs.
“The part that scared me just as much is that Burlington Northern would have clearcut its holdings and then might have sold them to developers,” Gutkoski said. “Those sections would have had trophy homes and guest lodges and subdivisions and who knows what else. If a road corridor had been opened up,” he added, “the Gallatin Land Exchanges would never have happened. Instead of having the opportunity to save the Gallatins as we do today, they would have been cut over and turned into a suburb of Big Sky.”
For as tough as he was physically—he once trekked out of the Gallatins solo after suffering a broken leg—Gutkoski was more determined in being a responsible citizen. He was founding groups like Montana River Action.
Despite Montana’s water laws dating to the 1860s and being treated as sacrosanct, Gutkoski says that allocation of the state’s most precious natural resource is outdated and lacks ecological mindfulness necessary in modern times. He readily condemned the fact that thousands of miles of stream in the state are dewatered in Montana, often to grow one crop—alfalfa—to feed one nonnative animal: cattle. It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate the habitat ranchers provide for wildlife, but streams are corridors of life—the richest ecological parts of the landscape and they deserve better.
Presciently, Gutkoski predicted that winnowing snowpacks yielding low water levels would bring severe impacts. And he was relentless, like a Lorax. He advocated for establishment of a state bison herd in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.
On the day of Gutkoski’s 90th birthday party in 2017, a wide array of people showed up. Matt Skoglund, then head of the Northern Rockies office of the Natural Resources Defense Council, brought his wife and their two young children because he wanted them to meet “a living legend.” Skoglund, an ardent hunter, today operates North Bridger Bison.
“Whenever I’ve described Joe to anyone, I always used the word ‘hero.’ He truly was a hero of mine, someone I’ve looked up to since the day I met him,” Skoglund said. “The things that stick out were his endless energy and passion for conservation in Montana. When somebody in their 80s and 90s could be paying attention to other things, there was Joe at every meeting, constantly writing letters, op-eds, providing leadership by his actions but not seeking attention.”
Hundreds of people have their own Gutkoski stories.
“Joe Gutkoski was a real piece of work—and I mean it in the most endearing way,” said Dennis Glick, hunter, wildlife advocate and hiker who has done many multiday trips into Greater Yellowstone, and professional community conservationist for 40 years.
“People look around and they ask, ‘Where have the great defenders of wild country in America gone?’ Joe was an original,” Glick said. “I’d encourage those who care about wild country, especially young people, to take a look at Joe and glean some insight from his convictions. He loved to recreate, to use public lands, but he also accepted limits in deference to wildlife. He’s not going to be remembered for how many elk he shot or mountains he climbed. He’s respected for his courage in speaking up. He stood for something good that benefits us all.”
Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and is a correspondent for National Geographic. He authored the book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” featuring photography by Thomas D. Mangelsen, about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399. His cover story on renowned actress Glenn Close appears in the summer 2021 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine.