A force of nature has transitioned. Stewart Brandborg, 93 years along and one of the last of the old breed of American conservationists, clung to life and all that he had to offer it like a mountain goat clings to a cliffside ledge. Life’s slippery slope caught up, and he died at his home in the lower Skalkaho outside Hamilton, Montana on Saturday evening, April 14, surrounded by his five children, his trusty dog, the spirit of his wife, and beloved friends.
Stewart – or “Brandy”, as he is better known – was the son of Guy (“G.M.”) Brandborg of Hamilton, Montana and Henning, Minnesota and Edna Stevenson of Radersburg and Marysville, Montana. He was born on Feb. 2, 1925 in Grangeville, Idaho, where his father was the Supervisor of the Nez Perce National Forest.
His childhood was packed with adventures. He loved to hook a borrowed burro to his wagon, ride to the Grangeville dump and haul home “all sorts of wonders.” The burro was picketed in their yard and regularly escaped. He’d laugh, recalling his mother driving slowly through the small town with him, looking for Burro, who was always found munching the yards of neighbors.
As soon as Brandy was old enough to ride, his parents took him on pack trips into the Salmon and Clearwater River country. He remained attached to that swath of wild landscape for the rest of his life.
G.M. transferred to Hamilton as supervisor of the Bitterroot National Forest in January 1935. Brandy explored, fished, and hunted the valley’s every creek and slough with his pals, and hiked and rode every canyon and ridge. When he was 16, his Dad sent him to man the Ward Mountain lookout. He said “it sure was lonely,” as he looked down at the sparkling lights of Hamilton. But there was still adventure and connection with all things wild. He manned that lookout for two summers.
Brandy was a man full of stories, and he told them with gusto and grand humor. Some involved projects with the Forest Service and the CCC boys in the Selway. Those “boys” named a creek after him, Stewart Creek, which his children have always suspected is loaded with rattlesnakes.
Having lost a dog to a rattlesnake bite, Brandy was determined not to let the same happen to his children. So, every Spring, he would pull out the rattlesnake bite kit: a red, hard rubber container that at one time contained a razor blade, later substituted with a pocket knife. He’d gently take the nearest child’s arm, then explain how he’d make small xx’s with the blade and suck the poison out. His children have a healthy respect for rattlesnakes.
He passed on other knowledge as well. While Christmas tree hunting with his Dad on Skalkaho Creek, Brandy’s cocker spaniel fell through the ice and was swept away. Ax in hand, they ran listening to her yelps under the ice. She caught on a rock, and with his Dad holding his feet, Brandy stretched under the ice and grabbed a handful of fur to bring her out. The children have a healthy respect for thin ice.
Brandy entered Montana State University in Missoula in 1944, mailing his laundry home every week. He became acquainted with the girl who sat behind him in freshman English class and whose big feet intruded into his space. She was Anna Vee Mather from Glasgow, and big feet or not, she was captivating and smart. “I was big dumb lucky that I got her,” he said. They married Aug. 8, 1949, in Missoula.
In the late 1940s as a graduate student at the University of Idaho and in the early 1950s as a wildlife biologist with the Idaho Fish and Game Department, Brandy studied the life history and habitat of the mountain goat in the Salmon River country, following them into far-flung nooks and crannies. It was the first comprehensive scientific study of mountain goats and their use of habitat, and it remains a wildlife classic to this day.
In 1954, Brandy left the mountains and forests of the Northern Rockies for Washington, D.C. and a staff position with the National Wildlife Federation. Although he returned to Montana each year, often for weeks at a time, he and Anna Vee would live, work, and raise their family in Maryland and Washington, D.C. for the next several decades. He rose to national prominence as an inspirational spokesman for the wild country, promoting local activism and mentoring “citizen leaders” who would champion the cause of wilderness conservation in every corner of the nation.
While serving with the National Wildlife Federation, he was elected to the governing council of The Wilderness Society in 1956, then joined its staff in 1960 as a special assistant to Howard Zahniser, the executive director.
As Zahniser’s chief assistant, Brandy traveled extensively in the West to build support for a national wilderness bill and testified at hearings on the Forest Service’s reclassification of its primitive areas. His father accompanied him on some of these trips, working to develop local wilderness committees with the Montana Wildlife Federation — an idea that, in 1958, sparked the creation of an influential grassroots organization, the Montana Wilderness Association.
The Wilderness Act was written by Zahniser, who pushed the bill through dozens of drafts and hearings between 1956 until 1964, when the bill finally won approval in Congress. Zahniser died in May 1964, just months before the bill was signed into law by President Johnson. Brandy was elected to fill Zahniser’s big shoes at a critical time for the Wilderness Act and the conservation movement. He served at the helm of The Wilderness Society from 1964 to 1976, where his inspiration and endless toil galvanized action and secured a wilderness legacy in America for generations to come. During his tenure, more than 70 wilderness areas in 31 states were protected by Congress.
Their children remember these years as annual car trips to the Bitterroot and other wild places, always with multiple dogs, sometimes with a racoon; a mountain of Congressional Records by the back door at risk of avalanching upon them; and an exhausted father returning home from a long day’s work to be mobbed by kids wanting to be tossed around like sacks of potatoes, which he joyfully did. There were backyard baseball games, with home runs guaranteed if he was on your team, and tackle basketball.
Each time he returned from a trip, he’d find more wildness in the house, something new in the collection of raccoons, squirrels, crows, and other animals that Anna Vee raised for the Humane Society. One evening, he brought home an enormous snapping turtle he’d saved from being run over on the road, and tucked it into a small enclosure so it could be observed until taken to a safer place. It escaped, and the children avoided the woods and their creek on Turkey Foot Road for about a month.
Each summer, the family journeyed by car back to Montana for an extended stay, often trekking up into the Selway-Bitterroot wilderness. On one trip, daughter Lisa and son Dan got thrown off a pinto horse that jumped a log at the start of a two-week trip to the backcountry. Brandy took Lisa out to his friend, a PhD, but not a doctor, who stitched up her head wound. They rode back the next day and eight days later, Stewart and Anna Vee pulled her stitches by lamplight without their glasses. The children have a healthy respect for appropriate health care.
Meanwhile, back in Washington in 1976, with funding lagging, environmental organizations had hard choices to make. For Brandy, in spite of all that he had accomplished, the choice did not go well. He was booted from the Wilderness Society by an insurgent board focused on lobbying through big money groups and dismissive of the value of grassroots organizing. It would take another 30 years for the Wilderness Society to make amends for its miscalculation.
Undeterred, he took on new challenges as a conservation leader, serving at the National Park Service under President Jimmy Carter and organizing training for activists. He remained no less committed to wilderness advocacy and mentoring, describing his life’s work as “building the circles” to mobilize local support and put people into working groups.
In his book, The Promise of Wilderness, historian James Morton Turner describes Brandy as “a bear of a man… deep voiced, and devilishly charismatic. He could give a busy taxi cab driver reason to care about wilderness and he could hold the attention of a senator on a street corner.” Friend Kathy Roubix tells of a dinner out where a man unknown to the group walked across the dining room and said, “I’ve never seen a man more alive than you are.”
Anna Vee and Brandy moved home to the Bitterroot in 1986, first to Tin Cup Road in Darby, then to Hamilton. They continued their life of environmental activism by creating and nurturing the nonprofit organizations Friends of the Bitterroot and Bitterrooters for Planning, groups promoting fairness and common sense in dealing with the push and shove between people and environment at a local level.
Under his leadership, BFP became a force to be reckoned with in Ravalli County. For 20 years, Brandy secured funding, published a newsletter, built a significant membership base, and led the organization in educating the public on the problems with unfettered development and the need for action to address those problems. Along the way he inspired and gave hope to multiple generations of current and future activists. He never, ever, gave up. And if you showed signs of fading, you were sure to hear that voice: “What are you doing? Who’s going to do it? When are you going to do it? What are you going to do next?” and “Well, what else do you have to do that is more important?”
He was awarded the Robert Marshall Award from the Wilderness Society in 2000; an Honorary Doctor of Science from the University of Montana in 2010; the Lifetime Conservation Achievement Award by the Conservation Roundtable, which has found only four recipients in its 25 years; and his work is described in several books authored by Frederick Swanson and Michael Frome.
In 1966, Brandy described the challenge of “bringing up new leaders to carry the Wilderness Preservation System into the far future – when there may be challenges unheard of – and solutions undreamed of now.”
Those observations ring true today. He said, “These coming years … will test our power to the limit, our ability to communicate the need for preserving wilderness, our depth of conviction and willingness to follow through on our commitments as citizens, and above all our basic faith in the American people, who are moving so fast and crowding so closely, and needing wildness so much more today than ever before.”
His family includes daughter Beki, her partner, Gene Leuwer, and a bunch of pugs of Helena; son Dan, his wife, Becky Marie, and their son, Flynt, wife Rita, and great-grandchildren Levi and Josie of Missoula; daughter Betsy, her husband, Brent Costain, and their children, Tucker and Rosie, of Helena; daughter Lisa and husband, Tim Orshoski, and their children, Clay, Tim and Brandi; daughter Fern, her husband, Bryon Schreckendgust, and their children, Jenni, Cole and Guy, of Hamilton; and his Pomeranian, Teddy. Nephew, David Simons, his wife, Angelica, and their children, Brenn and Kael; nephew Dana Simons and nephew Robert Simons, his wife Patti and their children Dylan and Matthew. Special pal Loretta Bundy kept the gang afloat during the final years.
Tributes to Brandy can be made by participating in the public process, engaging in the conversations, writing letters and making phone calls to our elected officials; fighting to protect the Wilderness Study Areas; and going into the wild.