October 10, 1936 – September 16, 2020
Longtime journalist, author, photographer, editor, wilderness advocate, and citizen of Montana, Stoneydale Press publisher Dale Burk has passed away, but the impact of all that voicing, all that writing that he did over so many years, is going to continue to have an impact for a long, long time to come. His was a “good, thinking, articulate and often passionate,” voice. That’s how he himself describes the “multitude of voices” that can be heard speaking out in a recently published book that he co-authored with Wayne Chamberlin: “A Wild Land Ethic – The Story of Wilderness in Montana.” Burk always saw himself as “just another voice” among others, another reporter among others, another editor among others and loved working in collaboration with other thinkers and write
Having started a newspaper in the small town of Stevensville back in 1985, it is not surprising that I should quickly become acquainted with Stevensville resident Dale Burk. He was the first Montana writer to receive the prestigious Nieman Fellowship for Professional Journalists to Harvard University in 1975-76 and was running his small regional book publishing company Stoneydale Press with the help of his wife Patricia located behind their home in Stevensville. He always had a lot to share about the newspaper business and the importance of the press in American politics.
One thing I noticed in Dale as we got to know each other was how important it was to him that journalism be founded on some sort of ethics. There was an ethical imperative to report honestly, truthfully and fairly on things. Your work had to be founded on respect for individuals and for the community and all the entanglements and contradictions that involves.
It wasn’t too long before I saw how ethics played a leading role in all aspects of his life. He was not just a journalist with integrity, he was a person of integrity. It’s plain to me now why he put the word “good” in front of “thinking, articulate and passionate” voices. It’s the word he put in front of just about everything he did. It didn’t matter whether it was journalism, or magazine writing, book publishing or hunting and fishing, whether it was practicing a profession or a religion, or out hunting in Montana’s wildlands, he had to be able to articulate a moral case for his involvement. With that proviso, he was ready, willing and able to pitch in and give us a thoughtful elaboration, articulated with clarity and passion, of the facts of the matter as a reporter.
Dale fervently believed in American democracy and sought the same kind of forthrightness, truthfulness, honesty and transparency in his government as he did from his community. He was not beyond demanding it from local government, or state government. He would even take some demands to the halls of Congress and become a key player in the passage of the National Forest Management Act, an act that was going to address the years of forest mismanagement that had brought the Bitterroot valley and the nation to a crisis that we are still dealing with. He became a key player in the establishment of a wilderness ethics that was going to transform the nation and the world. One thing I know he was most proud of was the hand he played in getting one idea placed explicitly in the new Montana Constitution that was adopted in 1972, proclaiming that all citizens of Montana have “the right to a clean and healthful environment.”
Dale’s lessons in wilderness ethics had some simple beginnings. First of all, he learned some basic, but very important things from his grandmother about travelling in “untrammeled” places. Later on, he learned a lot from a fish he once caught that got away. He took these learning experiences to heart and it began to form the backbone of his own personal “wilderness ethics” before he even had the terms for it. It then became something that he wanted to share with the world.
Following the tragic death of one of his sons in an automobile accident, Dale found some solace in the solitude and silence found deep in the wilderness that allowed for a recovery and a revival in his own life. He truly believed what John Muir is known for saying, “In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.”
Although he proved himself to be a major force in national affairs, Burk was always loyal to his hometown and the Bitterroot Valley. His “good” always had to be brought into conformity with the “greater good,” that is the good for his friends and neighbors, and other “citizens” of the land. A civic event could not take place in Stevensville without Dale Burk having some sort of say in it. He had a way of adding a great depth to these small-town civic celebrations, a way of calling up our history and reminding us of what it means to live here, what it means to inherit a place and all the responsibilities that go along with it.
Dale’s voice will be missed here in Montana and especially in Stevensville where he and his wife Patty settled in. Dale garnered lots of honors and recognition across the country for his work as a journalist, including the Nieman Fellowship Award. He was inducted into the Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame in 2018 for many things, but with an emphasis on the passage of the National Forest Management Act and his role in the creation of the Great Bear Wilderness, and for his volunteer work for Montana organizations such the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation which he helped found, and the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association that he also helped found, one of the oldest hunting and fishing clubs in the state. He was inducted into the Montana Hunting Hall of Fame in 1995. He also received awards for his business, Stoneydale Press and another personal award from the Bitterroot Chamber of Commerce.
Dale once confided in me that, although he was very proud of the national and state-wide awards that he has received over the years, he especially cherished the local ones. He said being recognized by the Civic Club as Stevensville Citizen of the Year in 2004 was one of the proudest moments of his life.
We will miss Dale, here in Montana and in the Bitterroot, but especially here in Stevensville. Lucky for us Dale showed us in a big way how to properly recall things, with great respect and humility.
A graveside ceremony is planned for Thursday, September 24th at 1 p.m. at Riverside Cemetery on Eastside Hwy south of Stevensville. It is open to the public; some chairs will be available for those who are in need. A celebration of his life will follow at the American Legion Hall, 754 Middle Burnt Fork Road, Stevensville. All are welcome to attend.