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The Climber-Conservationist Who Literally Put Greater Yellowstone On The Map

As advocates for the Yellowstone region go, Rick Reese ranks right up there with the most impactful of all time. His legacy is written in the abundant wildlife and healthy landscapes we value today

Rick Reese on top. A few years ago, Black Diamond shared this photo of Reese along with the caption and using it as an opportunity to praise him for his conservation work, including working to protect fragile geological formations in his native Utah. This photo, however, was taken in the Tetons.  Wrote Black Diamond: "Local Badass. Climbing Legend. Supporter of conservation Rick Reese (then 73 years old) gears up with Steve Moore for the CMC route on Mount Moran in Grand Teton National Park. In 1976, Rick was referred as the team's strongest climber for the Jenny Lake Climbing Rangers and he's still getting after it." Photo courtesy Savannah Cummins
Rick Reese on top. A few years ago, Black Diamond shared this photo of Reese along with the caption and using it as an opportunity to praise him for his conservation work, including working to protect fragile geological formations in his native Utah. This photo, however, was taken in the Tetons. Wrote Black Diamond: "Local Badass. Climbing Legend. Supporter of conservation Rick Reese (then 73 years old) gears up with Steve Moore for the CMC route on Mount Moran in Grand Teton National Park. In 1976, Rick was referred as the team's strongest climber for the Jenny Lake Climbing Rangers and he's still getting after it." Photo courtesy Savannah Cummins

EDITOR'S NOTE AND UPDATE:  Rick Reese passed away on Sunday, January 9, 2022 and our condolences are with his family and friends. If you've worked with Rick Reese, climbed with him or joined him in the cause of protecting Greater Yellowstone, we'd like to hear your anecdotes. We'll share them at the bottom of this story. Please send them along by clicking on this link.

by Todd Wilkinson

Rick Langton Reese may not be a household name to Mountain Journal readers familiar with the famous constellation of conservationists synonymous with Greater Yellowstone. Frankly, if true, the lack of association is ironic considering that one of the reasons MoJo exists as a watchdog of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is owed to him.

After 35 years of reporting, I’ll assert now that it’s important to provide context for how the term came to be. 

Scores of young conservationists working for various non-profit organizations and land management agencies in our region today do not know the history of its rise into common parlance.  Many may not be aware of the fact that, for decades, agencies like the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management stubbornly refused to use the word “ecosystem” in describing the region because of fear it might undermine their bureaucratic jurisdictional authority. 

Indeed, readers here may also be unfamiliar with Reese as an influential elder, but he and his cohort of conservation contemporaries literally put the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem on the map—a feat taken for granted but in its day globally momentous. 

Reese has played not only a seminal role in popularizing the modern concept of “Greater Yellowstone”—he was the first to write a book about it—but for decades he has insisted that whenever possible the three words should always be presented fully in tandem.

Greater” as in signifying there is much more happening beyond the primary focal point.

Yellowstone” as in it being our first national park, the cradle of an American conservation ethic that has been emulated around the world, and that its health is dependent not only on interior factors but forces occurring around it.

Lastly, “Ecosystem,” indicating this region of seamless, interconnected mountain ranges, rivers and vales, wildlife migrations, and scenic landscapes that stir our imagination, is analogous to a human body.  The rivers of Greater Yellowstone are like a circulatory system moving around water, the essential lifeblood; wildlife migrations are equivalent to a pulmonary system and mountains and vales, encompassing public and private lands, serves as essential bone and connective tissues. Underlying all of this is a geo-hydro-thermal system that is manifested as geysers, hot springs and fumaroles, some 10,000 in Yellowstone, that represent the largest still-functioning congregation of those phenomena on Earth.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem encompasses all of the above and many other moving and stationary parts. What’s extraordinary is that such things only persist in an interrelated way because they have not yet been impaired by various kinds of human activity.

One of Reese’s favorite taglines, that he has uttered innumerable times to anyone who will listen, is that “the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the last biologically and topographically-intact ecosystems in the temperate zones of the Earth.” It’s safe to say that Greater Yellowstone never had a more tenacious, headstrong and enthusiastic cheerleader.
It’s safe to say that Greater Yellowstone never had a more tenacious, headstrong and enthusiastic cheerleader.
The first thinkers in modern times to reference the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem were the late grizzly bear biologists Frank and John Craighead who employed it as a metaphor showing that bears do not recognize human boundaries drawn on maps.  A healthy population of griz cannot exist in Yellowstone alone and depends upon bruins being able to move widely. The same applies to all of the other species.

Back in 1983 Reese and a plucky continent of citizens from the three-state intersection of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho came together and founded the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. The idea of forming a group started with Ralph Maughan, a conservationist and political science professor at Idaho State University in Pocatello. It was Reese’s book in 1984 and subsequent editions that made Greater Yellowstone palpable—a focal point that had previously been lacking.
Reese's 1984 book brought a national centrifugal focus on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as the cradle of modern landscape conservation in the Lower 48. Just a few years after its publication, the Congressional Research Service launched an investigation into how federal land management activities occurring on adjacent national parks, forests, and BLM lands were often in contradiction with each other in terms of stated goals. And often, wildlife and the habitat it needs to survive was being sacrificed to industrial activities such as logging, mining and fossil fuel development.
Reese's 1984 book brought a national centrifugal focus on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as the cradle of modern landscape conservation in the Lower 48. Just a few years after its publication, the Congressional Research Service launched an investigation into how federal land management activities occurring on adjacent national parks, forests, and BLM lands were often in contradiction with each other in terms of stated goals. And often, wildlife and the habitat it needs to survive was being sacrificed to industrial activities such as logging, mining and fossil fuel development.

Reese was born in Salt Lake City in 1942 and raised in the Jesus Christ Church of Latter Day Saints. While his involvement with Mormonism lapsed over the years, he often mentioned how love of nature is a value embraced by many of the faithful—people he forever welcomed into the fold of conservation.

Right after graduating from East High School, he joined the National Guard, his service coinciding with the Berlin airlift crisis. Upon returning to the states, he earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Utah and then completed a graduate degree program as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.

While he would go on to teach political science as a professor at Carroll College and serve as director of community relations for the University of Utah, one of his favorite passions was rock climbing and mountaineering which began during his youth along the Wasatch Front. He was recognized as a skilled and precocious young alpinist.

Reese became a member of the crack Jenny Lake Climbing Rangers in Grand Teton National Park, taking part in several dramatic rescues, none more legendary or harrowing than his involvement with six friends who rescued a severely injured climber and his companion on the North Face of the Grand Teton. 
Above: the treacherous North Face of the Grand Teton, where climbers are constantly dealing with falling rock, was a perilous place for a three-day, two-night rescue. It is remembered in a film. Just above: Reese and five of his six legendary climbing amigos—not pictured is Leigh Ortenburger who took the photo. Photo of North Face of Grand Teton courtesy National Park Service
Above: the treacherous North Face of the Grand Teton, where climbers are constantly dealing with falling rock, was a perilous place for a three-day, two-night rescue. It is remembered in a film. Just above: Reese and five of his six legendary climbing amigos—not pictured is Leigh Ortenburger who took the photo. Photo of North Face of Grand Teton courtesy National Park Service

The event featured in a documentary, The Grand Rescue, that appeared on PBS stations across the country.  You can view it at bottom of this story. His close alpinist friends who took part were Pete Sinclair, Leigh Ortenburger, Ralph Tingey, Mike Ermarth, Bob Irvine and Ted Wilson who went on to become mayor of Salt Lake City. Reese himself has gone on climbs around the world and is considered a mentor to people one, two and three generations younger.

It was in 1980, however, that he and his wife from New Mexico, Mary Lee, made a life-changing decision that brought them squarely into the center of saving the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. That year the couple was recruited by Yellowstone Park Superintendent John Townsley to serve as co-directors of The Yellowstone Institute (today Yellowstone Forever), which offered outdoor education opportunities to park visitors. It led to a close friendship with Townsley and every superintendent since but most importantly discussions of how to protect the integrity of Yellowstone and lands around it.

Just a few years later the Reeses were part of meetings held in Jackson Hole, Bozeman and at the ranch of John and Melody Taft in the Centennial Valley where the Greater Yellowstone Coalition was born, in 1983. Reese served as founding president for two years and has remained a lifelong supporter, including serving as GYC's interim executive director.

Among his many honors is a lifetime achievement award from GYC and his papers, correspondence and documents relating to his life as a conservationist and climber are today part of the Montana State University Library’s Special Collections
Reese in the Andes of Patagonia in 2005
Reese in the Andes of Patagonia in 2005

If you’ve been following the news, America lost both Edward O. Wilson and Thomas Lovejoy in this last week of 2021, giant thinkers of large landscape conservation within hours of one another. Not long ago, we lost Michael Soule, godfather of conservation biology; and around the Greater Yellowstone region within the last year or so we’ve mourned the passing of Jean Hocker (pioneering figure in the land trust movement), Joe Gutkoski (civil servant, wilderness, river and bison defender), Bert Raynes (Jackson Hole naturalist), Tad Sweet (resident of Henrys Lake, Idaho who advocated for protecting the Centennial Valley), Blackfeet elder Earl Old Person, conservationist-public radio talk show host-social critic Brian Kahn, Jim Posewitz (civil servant, and quintessential sportsman who, among other things, stopped a dam from being built that would have swamped under Paradise Valley, Montana). There are others too numerous to mention.

So many conservation heroes worthy of emulation never enjoy the full praise they deserve for the contributions they make while they are alive. 

Being an advocate for nature, staking out tough positions often unpopular with the status quo, can be an unpleasant space to inhabit in a world full of conflict-averse citizens contented to do nothing, or take the course of least resistance. While Reese has lead by keeping his cool, being an idyll of poise and gentle persuasion, he has a thick spine and says that none of the monumental achievements that make Greater Yellowstone extraordinary would exist without conflict.

“People who don’t understand the value of wild country, or who don’t care, or who want to capitalize on it for their personal gain, will take as much as they can get. They are always demanding more of something that is finite,” Reese told me. “The takers need to be met with an equal amount of resistance from people who are not willing to surrender or give away things that, once gone, cannot be replaced.”

The first time I met Reese was at Lake Lodge in Yellowstone where the Greater Yellowstone Coalition was holding its annual meeting. I was a young journalist.

Saying no to thoughtless development can earn one enemies, derision and alienation even though, in the eyes of future generations, you are much revered as an ancestor, he told me. Reese often reflects on the actions of US Sen. Lee Metcalf of Montana, who was a friend of Reese’s, and who pushed for creation of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness that straddles Montana and Wyoming and would have been half as large, or less, unless Metcalf had been an advocate for more. There’s also a wilderness named after Metcalf in the northern reaches of the Madison Range.

What the public today does not understand, Reese says, is that Metcalf pushed for more wilderness protection because citizen advocates gave him the cover to act and think boldly. Conservationists did not kowtow to the forces who wanted to settle for less. In recent years, Reese the elder helped jumpstart a growing groundswell of citizen support for protecting 230,000 acres of the Gallatin Range as federal wilderness. 

Everywhere he went in Greater Yellowstone, Reese inspired others.
Reese on the Lake Bonneville Shoreline Trail that wraps around Salt Lake City along the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains. Reese was an instrumental advocate in getting the trail established. He loves Utah and Reese says Utahns love Greater Yellowstone, with many wanting to support protection of its wild character. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
Reese on the Lake Bonneville Shoreline Trail that wraps around Salt Lake City along the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains. Reese was an instrumental advocate in getting the trail established. He loves Utah and Reese says Utahns love Greater Yellowstone, with many wanting to support protection of its wild character. Photo by Todd Wilkinson

A few autumns ago, as a founding MoJo board member, Reese and I and a group of his board colleagues went to his original hometown of Salt Lake City.  

Among the delights was spending time with Rick as he offered a guided tour of the Lake Bonneville Shoreline Trail that skirts the Salt Lake metro along the outline of ancient Lake Bonneville, a late Pleistocene paleolake. While he was working at the University of Utah, Reece helped lead the effort to get a recreation trail established that would enable people in Greater Salt Lake to stay fit and rub up against nature. 

People will protect what they love but love comes from being familiar with a place or a creature, he said as part of the belief system that he and Mary Lee had evolved while they were leaders of the Yellowstone Institute. Long before E.O. Wilson popularized Erich Fromm's term biophilia—humankind’s love of nature—the Reeses witnessed it firsthand while overseeing the operations of the Yellowstone Institute devoted to educating visitors about the natural history of Yellowstone.

Reese also helped fledge an entity called the Yellowstone Business Partnership designed to show how conservation stewardship of natural resources and not maximizing their exploitation was good for ecology and economy. He has constantly been cloud seeding conservation and even helped ecologists Lance and April Craighead secure funding to complete a wildlife assessment in the Gallatin Mountain Range which concluded that native animals will need plenty of space in the future as the effects of climate change and human impacts deepen.
From the early concept of Greater Yellowstone that conservationists and scientists pioneered in the 1980s to today, the threads of biological connectivity in the ecosystem, as with elk migrations, have become far better understood. Reese has warned it's essential that citizens rally to protect as much of Greater Yellowstone as possible, particularly when pressures have never been more daunting. Long before this excellent map was created, Reese, a quarter century earlier, has referenced migrations and other transboundary aspects of Greater Yellowstone in his book—see below. Map above created by Wyoming Migration Initiative (migrationinitiative.org). Map below appeared in Reese's book.
From the early concept of Greater Yellowstone that conservationists and scientists pioneered in the 1980s to today, the threads of biological connectivity in the ecosystem, as with elk migrations, have become far better understood. Reese has warned it's essential that citizens rally to protect as much of Greater Yellowstone as possible, particularly when pressures have never been more daunting. Long before this excellent map was created, Reese, a quarter century earlier, has referenced migrations and other transboundary aspects of Greater Yellowstone in his book—see below. Map above created by Wyoming Migration Initiative (migrationinitiative.org). Map below appeared in Reese's book.
I owe much of my Greater Yellowstone education to Rick. We all do.  He's been ahead of his time and a messenger just right for ours. Reese played a key catalytic role in the creation of
Mountain Journal. Five winters ago, he and Mike Clark, former executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and a conservation advisor, approached me about launching a new journalism entity focused on Greater Yellowstone and using it as a lens for thinking more broadly about wild nature in the West.

The concern expressed then by Reese and Clark was that the conservation movement was going soft and losing its ability to inspire. Just as people won’t protect what they don’t love, Reese said journalism plays a vital role, as an important as any conservation entity, in making the public aware of threats.

Covering these things has been a priority of MoJo. “Journalism plays an important role in not only alerting readers to problems and explaining why, but waking people up,” Reese says. 

Reese astutely believed that MoJo would draw a crowd of avid readers, but he and Clark had no idea how large our audience would be or how much resonance our stories would have with lovers of Greater Yellowstone coast-to-coast and around the world.  Even they are amazed at MoJo having 230,000 followers on Facebook, readers in 200 countries and stories that have been circulated in front of tens of millions.

As we lionize people like EO Wilson, who, by the way, became a fierce advocate for protecting the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem thanks to groundwork laid by Reese and others, Reese deserves his own place in the pantheon, alongside others like the Muries of Jackson Hole, Len and Sandy Sargent of Cinnabar Basin, river conservationist Bud Lilly, the Craigheads and many more fearless advocates.

History is destined to remember Rick Reese as a person who always looked ahead past the span of his own life to see the higher purpose. He has not fought for wild country because it’s popular in the short term, but because it is right. We all owe him a debt of gratitude for helping us see the brilliance of a Greater Yellowstone.

Words from Reese friends:

From Meredith Taylor

There are so many memories of Rick Reese. Thanks for this memorable account of Rick's life and legacy. In thinking like an ecosystem, I'm glad to have known Rick and worked with him at Greater Yellowstone Coalition. Rick taught us all so much about the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. He was a mentor to many of us who care about Wilderness, Wolves and Women.

Wilderness shaped me into the person I am, wolves taught me tenacity and patience and so many women I am honored to have known, like Mardy Murie and Jane Goodall, lead the way with courage and strength for wilderness and wolves and all wildlife.
Rick Reese was right there defining and defending the GYE's big picture landscape to ensure that Greater Yellowstone remains the largest intact ecosystem in the temperate zones of the Earth. Only this will sustain the wilderness as permanent habitat for all flora and fauna. Thanks to Rick for leaving us this powerful legacy and life's lessons.

Meredith Taylor is a conservationist, biologist, naturalist, horsewoman, and longtime backcountry outfitter with her husband, Tory, in Dubois, Wyoming

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From Stephen Trimble

I treasure one dramatic moment with Rick. He pretty much introduced me to the Bonneville Shoreline Trail—after pretty much inventing the Shoreline Trail himself. The hike along the trail that I took with Rick many years ago opened my eyes wide to this astonishing resource in my backyard. I especially remember coming back toward the Bonneville bench after walking up from Dry Creek, with Rick narrating the transition from the near-wilderness feeling of being embraced by the foothills to the jolt of the big view over the valley and city. We were both thrilled.

Here's the quote from Rick that I used in the piece I wrote about the trail: ""Down in the valley, a million people live within a half-hour of this trailhead, and yet where the trail turns into the hills you can't see or hear the city. You might as well be in Alaska's Brooks Range."

Walks on the trail became a consistent and soothing part of my life in the years since. Rick’s vision, dedication, and joyful enthusiasm for that pathway through our nearby wildlands was inspirational and infectious. I’m grateful.

Stephen Trimble is a devoted conservationist, naturalist and an award-winning writer and photographer who makes his home in Salt Lake City where, among other leadership roles, he taught in the Honors College at the University of Utah and served as a Wallace Stegner Centennial Fellow at the Tanner Humanities Center.

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From Joe Lamson

Rick and Mary Lee Reese were some of the very first people Laurie and I had the good fortune to call friends when we moved to Helena in 1974. Bolstered by a new Montana Constitution, Helena was a whirlwind for progressive citizen change. And at the center of that whirlwind were Rick and Mary Lee.  
Rick's visions and work matched the sweep and grandeur of the region he has fought tirelessly to protect and make a better place for all who know and love it.  

—Joe Lamson in Helena, Montana is a career policy expert, who served recently as deputy director of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and who earlier was a senior campaign advisor to several Democrats who successfully won higher office

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From Ralph Maughan:

In 1980 when I was just getting started building my great plan to create an organization to care for the Greater Yellowstone, I was introduced to Rick Reece. From then on his help, ideas, and leadership made things go must faster. Rick and me, Hank Phibbs, Meredith Taylor, Joan Montagne, Keith Becker, and others produced the Greater Yellowstone Alliance, which was a few year later renamed and somewhat remade as the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor of political science emeritus at Idaho State University in Pocatello. For four decades he has been a thought leader on issues pertaining to Greater Yellowstone and is credited with being the catalyst for founding a new organization devoted to the bioregion. In addition to being known as a venerable conservationist, he iis a gifted writer and avid conservationist.

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From Dr. Robert "Bob" Smith:

The MoJo story on Rick Reese is a wonderful article on my long time friend Rick Reese.  I have known Rick since the 70s, climbed with him in the Tetons, helped at the Gardiner house, taught for him at the Buffalo Ranch many years ago, helped and lectured for him when he formed the GYC, hosted he and his colleagues on the Grand Rescue and have since been we have very great friends and committed together in our goal of sustaining the whole of Yellowstone. BestBobPic of Rick at Alta a month ago where I took him as he was completing his Huntsman treatments. He was feeling quite good and Mary Lee was happy for his treatments.  Now of course we hope and pray for him. Here iis a picture I took of Rick when we ventured recently to Alta. He stood in awe of the view for at least three to four minutes, not saying anything, until he turned to me and in great seriousness, said "This is where I grew up!"


Dr. Robert Smith, who divides his time between Jackson Hole and Salt Lake City, is a geophysicist with the University of Utah known foremost for his research into Yellowstone Supervolcano, tectonics of the Greater Yellowstone region, and geophysics of mountain regions. Besides receiving multiple honors and writing books, Bob early in his career served as Director of the University of Utah Seismograph Stations and implemented the first UUSS dedicated real-time computer system. A commissioned Air Force officer, he, graduated in first USAF all-jet pilot training class of 62G and conducted geophysical and geodetic surveys of the world in support of Air Force missile guidance systems. Bob’s research in Yellowstone began in 1956 and he was present for the 1959 M7.5 Hebgen Lake, MT, earthquake, an experience that triggered his interest into a career in geophysics. 

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From Doug Leen:

I first met Rick Reese at the Jenny Lake Ranger Station in 1967—the year of the Grand Rescue--however we climbed a little earlier in the year, and on the other side. Rick signed us out and was the epitome of a park ranger; professional and very knowledgable about the mountains. We had a great climb (complete Exum ridge) but, being beat, decided to camp at the saddle and walk down in the morning. And who should greet us upon our descent but Rick and Bob Irvine; who claimed they were looking for us "lost sheep." I decided, then and there, that I would be a Jenny Lake Ranger and three years later, I was.  

Rick has always been an inspiration to me; especially with his intellect and drive for conservation. I attended that founding meeting of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in 1983 and and hitched a ride back to Jackson with geologist Dave Love—who also should be included in this cohort. Without Rick, this meeting would not have taken place.  

Years later—2001—Rick (and Ted Wilson) joined me crewing up to Alaska on an 1899 tugboat and what a trip that was. Like a teammate on your climbing rope, I really got to know Rick better and 20 years later, he crewed back south to Seattle with me. There are no finer friends!

Doug Leen is an alum of the vaunted Jenny Lake Climbing Rangers in Grand Teton National Park and a lifelong conservationist. After serving in the US Navy as a member of the Seabees during a two-year stint in Vietnam, he got a college degree in geology, then worked as a rescue climber and went on to become a dentist in the heart of Seattle's Pike Place Public Market.  After that he took time off to sail the oceans, refurbished a tugboat, Katahdin, and brought his dentistry skills to Alaska. Famously, Leen also resurrected the printing of historic WPA-era posters celebrating the national parks, donating posters and some of his profits to support conservation. Among the recipients has been Mountain Journal. 

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From Norm Bishop

Rick: I found this article from Mountain Journal quite heartwarming and, and a reminder of good times past.  You’ll live in my memory as long as I have one.  

Norman Bishop was a national park ranger for 36 years, at Rocky Mountain National Park 1960-62, Death Valley 1962-64, Yosemite 1964-66, Mount Rainier 1966-72, Southeast Regional Office 1972-1980, and Yellowstone from1980 to 1997. He was a reviewer and compiler of 1990 and 1992 "Wolves for Yellowstone?" and the 1994 Environmental Impact Statement titled The Reintroduction of Gray Wolves to Yellowstone National Park and Central Idaho, and was the principal interpreter of wolves and their restoration at Yellowstone National Park from 1985 until 1997, when he retired to Bozeman. He has received numerous awards including the Stephen T. Mather Award from the National Parks Conservation Association and recognition from the International Wolf Center.

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From H. Wayne Phillips:

Rick Reese and the Save Mt Helena Committee

As I was coming down off of a hike on Mt. Helena, in May of 1973, I was stopped by a passer-by, who introduced himself as Bob Adams. He said, “I see you’ve been hiking on Mt. Helena. Did you notice the erosion from the motorbikes and other vehicles going up and down the mountain?” I replied, “Yes, it’s a very big concern of mine, too!” Bob then said, “A group of citizens concerned about this issue are meeting next week at Rick Reese’s house to discuss what we should do to resolve this. Would you be interested in attending?” I said “Yes, very much so.”

Rick Reese was the host and chairman of the meeting of concerned citizens, who adopted the name “Save Mt. Helena Committee,"  and developed a plan to present to the City of Helena. In June, 1973 the committee had a conference with the City in which Rick Reese presented our concerns and plan for resolution. The City was very receptive, and began to enforce an ordinance, already in place, that dis-allowed motorized vehicles on City Park Lands. They also elected to cancel the horse grazing permit on the Mt. Helena City Park.

Over the next few years, the Save Mt. Helena Committee, chaired by Rick Reese, worked with the City to repair the erosion damage, improve access, and design new trails for the Park. Through their work in restoring the mountain, and the associated media reporting on this activity, the citizens of Helena suddenly became acutely aware that Mt. Helena was a public city park, open for recreation use, and not a private horse pasture. While popular as a city park in the early 1900’s, the huge city park had become neglected and largely forgotten as a public park by 1970.  

In the process of the committee’s work on Mt. Helena, Rick Reese made a personal contact with Mrs. Ben Burgess, the owner of a private in-holding on the mountain. As Rick began to explain to Mrs. Burgess the work of the Save Mt. Helena Committee, she became very excited and said: “My husband won a race to the top of Mt. Helena in 1916. Would you like to see the medal he won and the clipping?” Well, of course he did!

That weekend, as Rick and I were driving up to Glacier to ski into Bowman Lake, Rick told me about his contact with Mrs. Burgess. Rick then asked me if I thought we could generate enough interest in Helena to re-enact the 1916 Mt. Helena Run. Rick thought that the race would help bring even more attention to the conservation needs and opportunities of the huge city park. I agreed that we should try. Under Rick’s leadership the Mt. Helena Run was re-enacted in 1975 with Mrs. Ben Burgess firing the starting pistol. The race has been run every year since 1975, and has brought great awareness to the recreation trail opportunities on Mt. Helena City Park.  

On February 9, 1978 the Helena Area Chamber of Commerce presented a special “Beautification Award” to the Mount Helena Committee for “excellence in the Care of the Environment Creating Harmony Between Man and Nature regarding their Mount Helena Beautification Project.”

Because of Rick Reese, and those of his Save Mt. Helena Committee, the vehicle erosion scars have long since healed, and Mt. Helena City Park has become a much loved and cared for City Park; an extremely popular recreation resource for the citizens of Helena.  

H. Wayne Phillips, retired Forest Ecologist, U.S. Forest Service; instructor at Yellowstone Association Institute 1982-2019; author of Central Rocky Mountain Wildflowers 1999/2012, Northern Rocky Mountain Wildflowers 2001/2012, Plants of the Lewis and Clark Expedition 2003; long-time friend and sometime mountain climbing partner of Rick Reese

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From James McBride

In the mid-1960s I worked on a rescue with Rick Reese in the Tetons. He was very professional and highly skilled.

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Here is a link to Reese's obituary written by his family.



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NOTE: Below you can view a short video clip for The Grand Rescue and Reese receiving a lifetime achievement award in conservation from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition presented by Peter Metcalf and Caroline Byrd.


Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal,  is author of the summer 2022 book Ripple Effects: How to Save Yellowstone and American's Most Iconic Wildlife Ecosystem.  Wilkinson has been writing about Greater Yellowstone for 35 years and is a correspondent to publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian. He is author of several books on topics as diverse as scientific whistleblowers and Ted Turner, and a book about the harrowing story of Jackson Hole grizzly mother 399, the most famous bear in the world which features photographs by Thomas Mangelsen. For more information on Wilkinson, click here. (Photo by David J Swift).
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