Marking the loss of a great and generous friend, and an outdoorsman of deep wisdom
In the fall of 1969, just as the larch were turning golden in the mountains of western Montana, a reporter was wrapping up his notes from a meeting on the campus of the University of Montana in Missoula. It was a roundtable discussion on forest management issues, always a contentious topic in the western part of the Treasure State. The reporter was on deadline, but he also had to hit the books, for he was taking a full load of classes at the university. His name was Dale Burk.
Burk already had a full plate as an outdoor columnist for the Missoulian and state wire editor for its parent company, Lee Enterprises, but he was about to take on a much larger assignment. As the meeting broke up, one of the speakers, a tall, solidly built man with a close crop of white hair, approached him. He was G. M. “Brandy” Brandborg, the former supervisor of the Bitterroot National Forest and ringleader of a group of dissident ex-foresters, ranchers, and loggers in the Bitterroot Valley south of town. These individuals, all of whom had long ties to the area, were raising questions about the management of national forest timber lands surrounding this exceptionally scenic valley.
These days it’s not unusual for a reporter to get calls from disgruntled agency employees, but in 1969, it was unheard of for a retired national forest supervisor such as Brandborg to openly criticize his former employer. Burk listened to the old fellow and promised to come down and have a look. Then he wrapped up his notes and went off to write his story.
Dale Burk taking notes on a Bitterroot Forest field trip, 1971. Courtesy Burk family.
Dale A. Burk died last week at the age of eighty-three at his home in Stevensville, Montana, following a long and distinguished career as a reporter, editor, and book publisher. His was a voice of conscience for wild creatures and wild places, and his passing is being mourned by a great many Montanans who love the outdoors. Coming so close to the death of Jim Posewitz last July, I cannot help but think that we are seeing the conclusion to a great chapter in the conservation history of the Northern Rockies.
Burk’s byline was a fixture of environmental journalism in Montana in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but I didn't really get to know him until fairly recently, when I began researching material for my book on G. M. Brandborg. I had heard him speak at meetings and conferences shortly after beginning my graduate studies at the University of Montana in Missoula in 1974. The following year he left Montana for Harvard to study under a prestigious Nieman Fellowship. He continued to work at the Missoulian for a brief time after his return to Montana, but soon left to pursue work in outdoor education, and then book publishing through his firm, Stoneydale Press.
What Dale and I did have in common was a certain friend, and therein lies a story I would like to tell. Burk was the fishing buddy of Kenneth Bohlig, an independent-minded outdoorsman from upstate New York, who had settled with his wife in a high, remote valley in southwestern Montana called the Big Hole. Dale became fast friends with Ken and Clara Bohlig, as would I, for these friendly and outgoing folks often invited me to stay at their remote outpost on the far side of the Continental Divide. Ken's conservation ethic made him a person of suspicion in the conservative Big Hole valley, and he and Clara paid for his views with the loss of their teaching jobs in the valley's small high school. Dale, for his part, would often take Ken out on the Big Hole River to fish from his drift boat and swap stories. Most of these, I suspect, came from Dale's inexhaustible trove of hunting and fishing tales.
When Ken was killed a few years later in a backcountry accident, we both lost a dear friend. Dale’s eulogy, delivered that fall at the annual meeting of the Montana Wilderness Association, has stayed with me all these years. Dale was an eloquent and entertaining speaker, but his remembrance of Ken Bohlig was brief, somber, and directly from the heart. He noted that after his last float trip with Ken that summer, they parted with a promise to get together again. Referring to Dale’s drive over the mountains separating the Big Hole from the Bitterroot, Ken said, “I’ll see you soon--on the other side of the Great Divide.” A few months later he was dead. Dale choked up as he spoke those words to us, as did I. I thanked him afterward, but we had no further communication until much more recently.
Dale Burk now lies on the far side of that unbreachable divide. Many Montanans, and former residents such as I, are bereft of a generous, outgoing man who lived life with a robust capacity for enjoyment. Dale also had a conscience that wouldn’t quit. There are many places in his home state that are still wild and beautiful, thanks in part to his journalistic efforts, most notably the Great Bear Wilderness and its lifeblood stream, the Middle Fork of the Flathead, which he wrote about with great passion and deep understanding. But it was his nine-part investigation of clearcutting practices on the Bitterroot National Forest, which grew out of his meeting with G. M. Brandborg in the fall of 1969, that established Burk as a reporter of high rank.
Burk's series, which ran in the Missoulian in November 1969, touched off a firestorm of controversy in western Montana. It was his first major investigative job, an assignment he sold to his editor, Ed Coyle, after his initial discussions with Brandborg. Spaced in installments to maximize reader interest, the series exposed what appeared to Burk to be a deliberate attempt on the part of the U.S. Forest Service to hide its mismanagement of federal forests from public scrutiny.
Terraced clearcut, Took Creek, Bitterroot National Forest, Montana, 1960s. USFS photo.
Burk began his series with a feature on a third-generation Bitterroot logger named Ernie Townsend, who had become disillusioned with the intensive clearcut logging sponsored by the Forest Service. Townsend believed the Bitterroot National Forest was being cut too fast and that workers like him would soon be out of a job. Burk also interviewed Bitterroot Valley ranchers who felt that logging in the headwaters streams was depriving them of late-season irrigation flows. For another installment, he flew over clearcut forests in a small plane with a Sierra Club attorney, who told him the Forest Service was destroying the ability of the land to regenerate itself. He devoted three more installments to a rebuttal of these claims by Forest Service officials, who pointed out that trees regrew quickly on the cleared and terraced hillsides. But their comments, delivered in the dry language of professional timber managers, failed to assuage many of the agency's critics.
Burk's final articles focused on G. M. Brandborg, who for decades had generated controversy in the Bitterroot Valley as well as attracting devoted supporters. He described Brandy as “a man with who speaks with the authority of an experienced forester” and depicted him walking among young ponderosa pine which had been planted decades under his watch. The new clearcutting methods, Brandborg felt, were symptomatic of an agency-wide betrayal of its historic commitment to sustained-yield, low-impact forestry. When Brandy had been in charge of the Bitterroot Forest from 1935 to 1955, he had favored a program of harvesting only selected mature trees on an even, regular basis—part of his aim to maintain small, independent mills in the Bitterroot Valley. It was the departure from this small-scale, locally oriented timbering program that so angered many of the valley's old-timers.
Burk’s Bitterroot series set off an acrimonious debate in western Montana, with pro- and anti- timber industry players squaring off over who would control the public’s forest resources. Some industry lobbyists demanded that Burk be fired, but Missoulian publisher Lloyd Schermer and editor Ed Coyle back their young reporter down the line. Still, Burk professed some fear for his job—after all, he was barely in his mid-twenties, and had just stirred up a controversy that would soon reach the front pages of newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post. “At first I felt intimidated,” he told me in one of our first telephone conversations. “Then I was angry.” He credited Brandborg's wife, Ruth, for counseling him not to back down from his reporting.
Similar controversies over clearcutting were erupting on other national forests in the West as well as on the Monongahela in Virginia. The story was much the same in each place: rather than being fomented by paid environmentalists, it was local people, often sportsmen and women, who decried the sacrifice of the woods they had known all their lives for the assumed wonders of modern, scientific forestry. Their protests--and a timely lawsuit filed by the Izaak Walton League of West Virginia--led Senators Frank Church of Idaho and Lee Metcalf of Montana to co-chair a special committee hearing on the issue in 1971. Burk was a key witness at the hearing, which resulted in nationwide USFS guidelines limiting the practice of clearcutting. Metcalf pressed for new legislation--the National Forest Management Act of 1976--that would reset the agency's mission so that wildlife and watershed concerns were on an equal footing with timber.
Dale Burk was a key source and guiding inspiration for my book on G. M. Brandborg and the Bitterroot National Forest clearcutting controversy. In 2010 Dale drove all the way down to SLC to attend a talk I gave at the University of Utah.
When I met Dale in the summer of 2007, his Bitterroot series was nearly forgotten, discussed mostly in texts on environmental history. He had long since left his journalism career to start Stoneydale Press, a joint venture with his brother, Stoney Burk, which publishes homespun books about big game, fishing, Montana history, and the sporting life. The outdoors had been part of Dale since his boyhood in the deep forests of northwestern Montana. He continued to go on wilderness hunting trips well into his seventies, even after a nasty fall on one of those hunts left him nearly crippled for a time.
In long telephone conversations and on field trips in his creaky old Chevy Suburban, Dale recounted the varied cast of characters in the Bitterroot clearcutting controversy. He reserved his highest praise for Guy and Ruth Brandborg, with whom he formed another of his fast friendships. Dale called him a“Renaissance man” whose influence on Montana’s progressive causes, especially education, was “profound.”
Brandborg's opposition to the modern-day Forest Service was based not on the aesthetic intrusiveness of clearcutting, but on how the agency favored large, well-capitalized timber companies with few ties to local communities. Dale had grown up in several such timber towns in northwest Montana, where a logger’s or sawmill worker’s paycheck could sustain a family. His father had been an independent “gyppo” logger, and he eventually admitted to his son that the mill bosses had cut themselves and his fellow workers out of their jobs.
On one of my field trips with Dale, we passed the site of a lumber mill which had been active in Brandy’s time. It had closed, but before this happened the owners had plastered a huge sign on it that read “This Mill Closed By Burk and Brandborg.” The accusation was untrue, for mill closures were the inevitable result of too many decades of overcutting, as well as manipulations by junk bond holders with no interest in permanent forestry. But I think Dale was a little bit proud of that sign, although he believed that woods work was an honorable profession that ought to continue.
This was a realization that came too late in western Montana. Good journalism can raise flags and spur action, but it cannot buck great societal and economic trends, among which is capital’s relentless quest for fresh, cheap raw materials and compliant workers to exploit. Dale knew the score on that, but neither he nor his many compatriots in Montana’s conservation movement had enough power to resist it. The state’s residents live today with the scraps of a once-powerful logging- and mining-based economy, and not even the influx of large numbers of well-off recreationists is going to bring back the old jobs or the old, close-knit communities.
Dale was rarely pessimistic, to my knowledge. There were always issues that needed attention, from shutting down game farms to ensuring the public’s right to stream access, and he played key roles in each of them. There were always the woods and the fields, where he made sure his children enjoyed some of the same experiences he had known. He was one of those Montanans who knew, as his old forester friend put it, that all wealth comes from the land.
Knowing Dale Burk has left me more determined than ever to ground my values deep in the land--in the mountains, the forests, the still-undammed waters, and the wild creatures that live in or on them. In all things that flow free and wave in the wind, forever.