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Frank Vitale Gives A Voice To Wild Places
Montana Senior News, June/July 2015
It seems fitting that a man who coaxes iron into custom-sized horseshoes can also help forge an alliance among wilderness adversaries. But that won’t come as a news flash to anyone familiar with Frank Vitale—farrier-muleskinner-hunter and longtime veteran of the public-lands’ wars. He has found the same patience and strength required to wield hammer and tongs and to deal with sometimes-stubborn mules have proven invaluable when collaboratively crafting land-use proposals.

“As I get older, I’ve become more vocal. I speak from my heart about roadless lands and don’t worry about saying what’s on my mind,” admits this Flathead Valley resident. “We’re not making more wilderness and we keep losing what we have. Our public lands are under attack, particularly because of the quest for cheap energy. I feel compelled to say what I feel and convince people to take a second look at the value of this landscape with trees and diversity.”

For over 35 years, Frank has eloquently and urgently pleaded the case for preserving Montana’s remaining wild country. He has steadfastly battled alongside other concerned Montanans to protect vulnerable tracts of the Treasure State’s undeveloped lands. And through thoughtfully penned guest editorials and participation at countless public meetings and hearings he has tirelessly spoken out on behalf of wild lands.

“Wilderness is the best resource, the best wealth we have, even better than any oil.  It’s a huge economic engine, a big attraction to hunters and fishermen. If we take care of it and respect it, it will be there forever. That’s where Montana’s future lies long-term,” says Frank. “Oil and logging only benefit in the short-term. Economically, it makes sense to preserve it. There are places for logging, too, but not to cut and run.”

Although he doesn’t lead pack trains into the backcountry to earn his living, Frank volunteers this service several times annually to support the National Forest Service and the Bob Marshall Wilderness
Foundation. With his six sure-footed mules, he hauls in food, tools, and supplies for volunteers donating muscle-power on trail and weed-clearing crews. You would have to scour the state from Superior to Sidney to find anyone more knowledgeable about the joys and challenges linked to these remote territories.

“Wilderness can come in many forms. It’s a psychological and spiritual thing. Kids discovering nature tend to think of it as the wooded lot down the road. In the conventional sense, it’s a landscape unaltered by man,” explains Frank. “Americans think of it as untouched landscapes but man has not been excluded. Man is part of the whole scheme. To me, wild country is liberating. You cut the strings on technology and meet nature on its own terms.”

Despite Montana’s stewardship skirmishes being far from over, Frank counts some important battles as won. Thanks to the joint efforts of ranchers, outfitters, landowners, conservation organizations, and a host of other foot soldiers, the North Fork Watershed Protection Act and the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act were signed into law in 2014. Together, they preserve over 650,000 acres in the Crown of the Continent. This includes 65,000 acres of designated wilderness, the first to be protected in Montana under that legal mantle in the past 31 years.

“Preserving these landscapes as wilderness where nature can play itself out is important to sportsmen and to inner-city kids, who have never heard the hoot of an owl or the bugle of an elk. It means a vibrant wildlife population and a sanctuary to find or lose oneself,” comments Frank. “People are craving this experience. They want to use these lands.”

Unfortunately, another landscape Frank has long championed in the Whitefish Range remains at risk of being changed forever. So he stalwartly continues to explain through the written and spoken word why the pristine character of this acreage should be retained and why mining and clear-cuts should be banned.

“You don’t have to hike in the Bob or the Whitefish Range to care about these areas. You just have to care about protecting them for future generations,” sums up Frank. “We are blessed with open spaces, clean air and water. People take it for granted. We had better be careful because it’s going fast. We had better not squander it.”

One sign of encouragement Frank has noted is the collaborative approach to land preservation that has cropped up throughout the West. As a member of the Whitefish Range Partnership, a coalition of foresters, conservationists, snowmobilers, bicyclists, and area landowners Frank engaged monthly in round-table discussions for 13 months to help create a management plan for the National Forest Service’s consideration.

With consensus and civility as their guidelines plus oversight by former state senator Bob Brown, the group eventually agreed on recommendations that represented all of their interests. Their proposal covers everything from weed control and boundary settings to snowmobiling and biking, along with timber management. It also proposes earmarking 83,000 acres of this 300,000-acre region above Columbia Falls and Whitefish as wilderness.

“Through these meetings we understood each other’s feelings. Some folks came to realize that wilderness won’t be so bad,” remarks Frank, “and we made concessions with boundary adjustments. You have to be able to move beyond impasses for this process to work. It’s a compromise.”

Last year, the Montana Wilderness Association honored Frank with their Brass Lantern Award for exceptional service on behalf of wilderness preservation. As MWA spokeswoman Amy Robinson says, It was well deserved. Frank took a leadership role in the Whitefish Range Partnership. He is fearless and persistent in his desire to protect wild country. We wanted to recognize him not only for his dedication and work in the North Fork of the Flathead but also because he can see the big picture of landscape preservation in the state.  He understands we need to protect these lands in a pragmatic way and supports the collaborative approach to accomplish that.”

As far as Frank’s future, he considers safeguarding wilderness a lifetime goal.

“I want to bring people to a different level of consciousness about wilderness; to help educate them to initiate their own inquisitiveness and learn more; to pause and think,” says Frank. “My work’s not completed until I die.”
 
For more information:
The Bob - 406-387-3808,  trails@bmwf.org
Montana Wilderness Association - 406-730-2006,  mwa@wildmontana.org