Senator Lee Metcalf: Champion of Conservation, Montana Legend


Perhaps no U.S. Senator ever was more faithful to sensible, proactive resource management than Lee Metcalf.

The national conservation organization Sierra Club, in a special acknowledgment to Metcalf shortly after his death on June 12, 1978, summed up his legacy:

“Lee Metcalf was a champion. We shall not soon see his record of courage and commitment equaled.”

Lee Warren Metcalf was born in Stevensville, Montana, on January 28, 1911. He attended grade and high schools there. When discussing land or resource issues, he often referenced his early years in his dearly loved Bitterroot Valley. He said more than once that his upbringing nurtured his attachment to land, soil, and nature. He graduated from Stanford University in 1936, receiving a law degree from Montana State University Law School, and began practicing that same year.


Political Career

Metcalf had a long and successful political career, beginning with his election to the State House of Representatives in 1937 at the age of 26. Friends and foes alike described Metcalf as resolutely independent, hot-tempered, patient, empathetic, and, most of all, fair.

After a stint in the State House of Representatives, Metcalf served as assistant attorney general of Montana from 1937 to 1941.

In December 1942, he enlisted in the Army, heading overseas in 1944, and participating in both the Normandy Invasion on June 6, 1944 and the Battle of the Bulge during the winter of 1944-45.

After he was discharged from the Army as a first lieutenant in April 1946, Metcalf was elected associate justice of the Montana Supreme Court, from 1946 to 1952.

In 1953, he was elected as a Democrat to the Eighty-Third Congress, and then reelected to the three subsequent Congresses. He was voted in 1960 to the United States Senate, and reelected in 1966 and 1972.

In 1977, Metcalf announced he would not seek reelection a fourth term in the Senate. Metcalf said that he wanted to return to Montana.

“I want to go home, I really want to go home,” Metcalf said during his final term in office. “For 30 years, except for the war, I have been running for public office in difficult, complex, and involved political activities. And I think 30 years is long enough.”

Montana Senators Lee Metcalf, Mike Mansfield, and Max Baucus on the steps of the capitol building in Washington DC.

Montana Senators Lee Metcalf, Mike Mansfield, and Max Baucus on the steps of the capitol building in Washington DC.

Metcalf earned a reputation as a deep populist, a man sworn to protect the interests of the “little guy,” who spoke in the language of the common man. Hailed as “a pioneer of the conservation movement,” Metcalf worked to protect the natural environment and pass utility rate reforms.

He helped pass the Wilderness Act of 1964, and supported the creation of the Great Bear Wilderness and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

In 1962, he introduced a “Save Our Streams” bill to preserve natural recreation areas and protect fish and wildlife from highway construction. He was a longstanding member of the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission and, along with fellow Montana Senator Mike Mansfield, established the Peace Corps.

Metcalf died of natural causes, in Helena, Montana, on January 12, 1978, at the age of 66. His ashes were scattered throughout his favorite wilderness areas in the state, including the Great Bear Wilderness and Absaroka-Beartooth.



Upon signing the Great Bear Wilderness Bill in 1979, President Jimmy Carter paid special tribute to Metcalf and his love of the region, calling him “a tireless and dedicated conservationist.”

In November 1983, by act of Congress, the Lee Metcalf Wilderness was created in southwestern Montana in his honor. Established as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, the Lee Metcalf Wilderness consists of 259,000 acres spread across the Madison Range in southwest Montana.

The wilderness contains four separate components: the Bear Trap Canyon unit of 6,000 acres and three divisions in the Gallatin and Beaverhead-Deerlodge national forests: Spanish Peaks, 76,000 acres; Taylor Hilgard, 141,000 acres; and Monument Mountain, 33,000 acres.

The Lee Metcalf includes a stunning mixture of physical and biological diversity, ranging from the low-elevation Bear Trap Canyon on the Madison River, to alpine crests and 11,000-feet summits.

Metcalf was one of the most qualified Montanans ever to be elected to a U.S. political seat, his legacy a synonym for conservation. He taught us that we can believe in the extraordinary and achieve it.

“He was one of only a few national leaders who foresaw this nation’s crises in natural resources, environmental protection, and energy,” said Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, founder of Earth Day. “And, he was one of a handful of legislators who, early in the 1960s before it became fashionable or politically acceptable, spoke out strongly and repeatedly for conservation and environmental protection legislation.”

His close friend in the Senate, Jennings Randolph of West Virginia, eulogized Metcalf this way: “This gentle man from Montana loved the earth and all its living creatures.”

Read Brian D’Ambrosio’s accompanying piece about the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge


Read more of Brian’s stories about the fascinating places and personalities that shape Western Montana in his blog archive.


Missoula writer Brian D'Ambrosio, his dog, and a beautiful view.

Brian D’Ambrosio is a Missoula writer, editor, instructor, and media consultant. D’Ambrosio’s recent articles have been published in local, regional, and national publications, including High Country News, USA Today, Wisconsin Trails, Bark Magazine, Montana Magazine, and Backpacker Magazine. His latest book about legendary vigilante screen actor Charles Bronson, Menacing Face Worth Millions, A Life of Charles Bronson, is available for purchase on Kindle. He is also the author of Montana Summer: 101 Great Adventures in Big Sky Country. It’s available now for $2.00 as an eBook on Smashwords.