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Members like Back Country Horsemen

Supporting the mission of wilderness preservation—and its heroes—like the Back Country Horsemen of America

Blazing the trails so that others may ride


Almost fifty years ago, four men sat around a campfire, formulating a plan to keep the wilderness and backcountry trails (for public use) open for both people and stock. For those who pass through the wild green expanse of Northern Montana—whether it’s the forests and mountain of the Bob Marshall Wilderness or other backcountry—and who need supplies, this organization is responsible for ensuring access to bring horses, mules, or whatever pack or riding animals (known as “pack and saddle stock”) they may need for their journey.



“The only power I have is right there, with you. Because now, if I can teach you to love the wilderness, you’re going to be our strongest advocate.”


BCHInterview3.pngKen Ausk, Dulane Fulton, Dennis Swift, and Roland Cheek not only manifested the Back Country Horsemen of America (BCHA) right here in the Flathead but created a non-profit organization that would expand to 32 states, clock over 200,000 volunteer hours, inspire programs like Tread Lightly and Leave no Trace…and all the while providing a responsible sense of stewardship for the very land they aim to protect. “We began by participating in agency meetings and land use planning and regulations and have become a strong voice for responsible equestrian use and continued access in our backcountry,” reads the organization’s website.

Having just celebrated its fiftieth birthday in grand style last year, the BCHA is strong and expanding its reach further every year. These hardworking folk are determined stewards of the very land that they love and want to preserve it.

When other states wanted to join—including Arkansas and Missouri, among others—one question always emerges: What’s their backcountry? As it turns out, pretty much every state has its own backcountry—a wilderness as varied and different from its brother and sister states as you can imagine, from one coast to the other. And they want to preserve it.

“The wilderness needs protecting, and it needs other people to understand that it needs to be protected,” says founding member June Burgau.

This passion for the backcountry—and the drive to not only see the wilderness preserved but to be loved (for don’t we care more for those things we love and feel strongly about?)—is the driving force behind BCHA’s work. Smoke Elser has been a wilderness guide and instructor for 58 years, as well as a founding member.



“I don’t sell anything in the backcountry other than the hush of the land.”


“I don’t sell anything in the backcountry other than the hush of the land,” he says of the experience. “It takes my guests three days to slow down—from a thousand miles an hour to three miles an hour. It’s amazing what you can learn just by sittin’ quiet.”

But times are changing, and quickly. We’re all in a hustle these days to do more, to see more, to be more. And with more and more people now seeking out authentic experiences and looking to explore the breathtaking wilderness of Montana, things are only getting busier, and that provides challenges for groups aiming to preserve those enormous spaces.

“The biggest change is that there’s been too many people,” points out Elser.


BCHField1.pngThe BHCA is investing not just in their organization and seeking out funding and donations; they’re also investing in youth—because, through the coming generations, they can foster respect and a love for the land that will initiate the next generation of stewards.

“We coordinate with conservation corps and youth groups, United States Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management to ensure tomorrow’s leaders have outdoor and wilderness experiences,” reads the BCHA site, who encourage youth to work with the organization and create a sense of stewardship as well as an opportunity to learn more about themselves and their capabilities.

“The only power I have is right there, with you,” says Elser to a group of younger folks who listen to him intently. “Because now, if I can teach you to love the wilderness, you’re going to be our strongest advocate.”

But if the land is strong, its soul is stronger.

Out here, there’s no escaping the vibrant greens of the evergreens, upright and stretching right into the wide blue skies overhead. Seemingly untouched, unbothered by civilization and the hands of humankind. Here is where we are reminded that the land, the very earth, does remain and has done so for millions upon millions of years. We are just a blink, a mere moment in our planet’s history—even as we try to leave an impact as devastating as possible.

But right now, the soil beneath your feet endures. The sweet, fresh air you breathe endures. And for those charged with protecting the very wilderness that’s existed so long…hope endures as well. 


Says founding member Stu Sorensen (who passed on last year), “It’s very spiritual when you go back there—because it’s God’s hand everywhere you look.”

To learn more about the BCHA, its mission, and its impact, visit its website.


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