Dubbed the “Summer of Lee”, the months of June, July, August, and September are full of events celebrating the Lee Metcalf Wilderness and its namesake.
Four units of wilderness comprise the “Lee”, which was designated by Congress in October of 1983. Encompassing 259,000 acres of land in the Madison Range, 28 trailheads and 70 alpine lakes, the wilderness was named after former Montana Senator Lee Metcalf.
Metcalf served in the U.S. Congress for 25 years representing Montana after serving in the State House of Representatives and functioning as assistant attorney general of Montana. Eighteen of those years were as a Senator and the other seven as a Representative. He was born in Stevensville, Montana in 1911. Metcalf helped pass the 1964 Wilderness Act, which supported the creation of the Great Bear and Absaroka-Beartooth Wildernesses, the National Wildlife Refuge System, and stream protection legislation.
“We are fortunate to have the Lee Metcalf Wilderness in our backyard,” Ennis resident Jonathan Klein said. “We see it through our windows at home and when we drive through town. It is a great resource, especially for locals.”
The Bear Trap Canyon Unit is the smallest of the four in the Lee. It rests alongside the Madison River near Norris. South of that is the Spanish Peaks Unit. Its eastern edge hugs the Gallatin River near Big Sky. The Taylor Hilgard Unit is the largest. It runs north and south for about 28 miles parallel with U.S. Highway 287. The Monument Mountain Unit is about 10 miles from West Yellowstone and borders Yellowstone National Park.
Summer of Lee events include guided hikes and volunteer trail projects, a citizen science survey of high alpine lakes, community celebrations, and photo and video contests. Co-sponsor Bridger Brewing in Bozeman has even created a Lee Metcalf Summer Ale. The celebration culminates with a wrap party on October 4 at Buck’s T-4 in Big Sky.
Klein, who is retired from the Forest Service and was a BLM wilderness ranger in the Bear Trap Canyon, said the Lee offers a variety of great opportunities both recreationally and spiritually.
Jared White of the Montana Wilderness Association, which is a sponsor of the Summer of Lee, said this summer is all about getting people out in the Lee and doing more outside. The Montana Wilderness Association, USDA, Forest Service, The Wilderness Society and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition sponsor the Summer of Lee. Co-sponsors include area non-profits and businesses that share that goal by either outfitting people for hiking, camping, and other recreation activities, or promoting the outdoors and wilderness.
Bruce Gordon of Colorado-based Eco Flight piloted a six-seat airplane over the Lee last Wednesday morning. He has been doing conservation flying for more than 30 years and founded Eco Flight in 2002 with the mission to educate and advocate the environment using small planes to help people learn more about their landscape.
Although seemingly expansive and broken up into the four units, Gordon’s plane flew over the Lee west to east in less than a minute. From the sky, the scars of last summer’s Bear Trap fire were visible, as was the close proximity of human development.
Klein and others believe that the Lee is an essential wildlife habitat under a constant squeeze from growing populations and development.
“The Gallatin Valley’s population has doubled since 1983 and there is an increasing amount of pressure on the landscape to provide for human needs,” Klein said. “It’s not going to come back from housing and golf courses. It will be harder and harder.”
Visit summeroflee.com or the Summer of Lee Facebook page for information on events and contests.