The Northern Rockies are America’s epic mountains, a bastion of grizzlies and other wildlife, and the awe-inspiring terrain that Lewis and Clark explored and chronicled two centuries ago. In Travels With Charley: In Search of America, John Steinbeck called Montana “a great splash of grandeur. The scale is huge but not overpowering. The land is rich with grass and color, and the mountains are the kind I would create if mountains were ever put on my agenda.”

It’s a landscape whose wild spirit draws backpackers, hunters and anglers—and that spirit appears on every page of Where Roads Will Never Reach: Wilderness and Its Visionaries in the Northern Rockies, Frederick Swanson’s history of wilderness-preservation in the region. The book is scrupulously footnoted, yet accessible to the general reader, with maps to show where the writer is taking us.

When you love a place, you want to save it—not just for yourself, but for others. You cherish memories of a backpacking trip into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area or a horse-packing trip into the great complex of the Bob Marshall, Great Bear and Scapegoat wilderness areas. We’re talking big landscapes here—more than 7.4 million acres preserved in 17 wilderness areas.

Such preservation does not come unbidden, like a wind across the plains. It reflects hard work by people who passionately love a favorite wild landscape. This is the story Swanson sets out to tell, by getting into the hearts of those people, interviewing many who were there at the creation.

Swanson begins with a full disclosure: “My heart is, and always has been with the preservationists.” I plead guilty here, too, for I had a role in some of the successes recorded in this book. But my role was minor; the preservation of wilderness areas requires—requires—that the local congressional delegation be behind any proposals for them to succeed. That can only happen when there is broad grassroots support.

And that, in turn, means support not so much from environmental groups, but from the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker—and the hardware dealer: Cecil Garland, for example, a thickly accented North Carolina native who owned a store in Lincoln, Mont. Hearing that the Forest Service planned to log his favorite hunting area, Garland just said, “Nope.” As the ink dried on the 1972 law establishing the 256,647-acre Scapegoat Wilderness, the regional forester groused: “Why should a sporting goods and hardware dealer in Lincoln, Mont., designate the boundaries? If lines are to be drawn, we should be drawing them.”

Wrong. The 1964 Wilderness Act, which chartered our national program of preserving the wildest, most natural portions of our national forest and other federal lands, gave that boundary-drawing authority to Congress. But it took devoted, hard-working volunteers to motivate their elected officials to push wilderness-protection bills through Congress, with the help of legislative giants like Sens. Frank Church, D-Idaho, and Lee Metcalf, D-Mont.

This is the heart of Swanson’s story, and here, he makes a unique contribution, by introducing us to unlikely heroes like Doris Milner, a housewife from Hamilton, Mont., who noticed trees marked for logging in the wild country where she and her family loved to camp. When asked why she got involved, she seemed puzzled by the question: “I just got mad!” And she got her senators involved. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the law, adding Milner’s magical place to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area.

Among those who worked with Sen. Church on the huge River of No Return Wilderness Area were his longtime Idaho camping cronies, led by Ted Trueblood, an editor ofField and Stream. Environment groups joined in and national lobbyists provided advice, but the real power lay with the Cecils, Dorises, and their like across the country.

Well into the 1970s, the leadership of the U.S. Forest Service was on the wrong side of the wilderness. In part, this reflects the agency’s deference to its corporate logging clientele, and in part, a strong dislike to giving up its discretion over the lands under its care—in this case, the decision regarding which should be protected as wilderness, and what boundaries might be folded back to accommodate roads into wild country.

But a balance has been struck in the Northern Rockies. Wilderness has done well, without destroying the region’s economy. After long struggles, a sustainable timber industry is emerging. “A century hence,” Swanson writes, “the Northern Rockies could be a place where generations of loggers still work in the woods, passing along their knowledge of good practices; where families can drive to and camp by peaceful lakes and clear, undammed streams; where agricultural lands fill verdant valleys.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Where Roads Will Never Reach: Wilderness and Its Visionaries in the Northern Rockies

By Frederick H. Swanson

University of Utah

376 pages, $24.95