Wilderness Society mourns loss of Stewart Brandborg, conservation visionary, former executive director

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The Wilderness Society is deeply saddened by the death of its former executive director Stewart Brandborg who led the organization during a critical time for the wilderness movement, from 1964 to 1976. He passed away yesterday.

Statement by Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams:

“Brandy was a passionate and tireless advocate for protecting America’s wilderness.  His ability to mentor advocates and galvanize citizen action was unmatched. He took up the leadership of The Wilderness Society right after the untimely death of Howard Zahniser, the author of the Wilderness Act, and Brandborg led the organization through a critical time for America’s conservation movement. His talents and passions, which never ebbed, have contributed greatly to conservation and preservation of America’s wilderness.”

A wildlife biologist by training, Stewart Brandborg was elected to the governing council of The Wilderness Society in 1956 while he was serving as assistant conservation director at the National Wildlife Federation. He joined the small Wilderness Society staff in 1960 as a special assistant to Howard Zahniser, the executive director, to manage grassroots organizing, membership and fundraising.

Zahniser pushed the Wilderness Act through dozens of drafts and hearings between 1956 and 1964, when the bill was finally won approval in Congress and was signed into law by President Johnson. Tragically, Zahniser died in May of 1964, just months before the law was signed. 

Brandborg was elected to fill Zahniser’s role at a critical time for the Wilderness Act and the conservation movement.  The Act laid out a 10-year time frame for securing wilderness recommendations from federal agencies. It fell to Brandborg to push for review, positive recommendations by federal agencies and congressional approval of wilderness designations for dozens of areas in the national forests and wilderness-quality lands in the national parks and wildlife refuges.

In 1966, Brandborg wrote “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.” 

During his tenure as executive director at The Wilderness Society, Congress approved more than 70 new wilderness areas in 31 states.

After leaving that position, he served at the National Park Service and never stopped mentoring activists nationally and in Western Montana where he lived for many years. In a recent conversation, he described his life’s work as “building the circles” – mobilizing local support by putting people into working circles.  He described it as a long, laborious process that determines the fate of conservation efforts. 

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