MISSOULA – The Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
The 28,000-acre recreation area and its adjoining 33,000-acre wilderness 4 miles north of Missoula got off to a rocky start, but passed muster with Congress and was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on Oct. 19, 1980.
Pat Williams, a nine-term congressman for Montana, introduced the bill creating the area as a young freshman lawmaker from Butte. He had only been in office a few months when the University of Montana’s dean of forestry, Arnold Bolle, invited him over for breakfast to talk about the idea.
“His theme, interesting enough for a forester, was unusual,” Williams said. “He wanted preservation, but what was really important to him was access for people in one of Montana’s largest communities to a wild place.”
Back then, the Northern Rockies were just starting a significant period of economic transition. Montanans making their living in timber, mining and other extractive industries were starting to worry about their jobs and the future, and the debate over new wilderness in Montana was reaching a crescendo.
“The word ‘wilderness’ became the linchpin in that economic struggle for many Montanans,” Williams said.
Ownership of the wilderness and recreation area near Missoula at the time was mixed. The Montana Power Co. controlled nearly half of the property, but Rattlesnake Creek also was Missoula’s municipal water supply and many recognized the need to protect it from any detrimental development.
In March 1980, Williams and Arizona Rep. Morris Udall were met by an ugly scene in Dillon for Montana’s first hearing on a controversial study looking at which national forest lands should be considered for wilderness designation. The sheriff accompanied them to the hearing, where people shouted at them, waved placards and even spit on them, Williams said.
“At that time, there was a huge misunderstanding by some about what wilderness even was,” he said. “One man asked us how much it was going to cost for the bricks and barbed wire. He truly thought we were going to build a fence around the area so people couldn’t use it.”
The reception in Missoula, Williams said, couldn’t have been more different.
“It was unique,” he said. “People (in Missoula) did understand it and they need why they wanted the wilderness. I think the Friends of the Rattlesnake were responsible for that.”
These days, “I think it’s safe to say Missoula has one of the best back yards in the nation,” Williams said.
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