The Lifetime Conservation Award

Smoke and Thelma Elser - 2013

Smoke and Thelma Elser
Smoke and Thelma Elser

Smoke and Thelma Elser have helped thousands of their fellow citizens experience wilderness at ‘3 miles an hour’ on horseback, instilling in them a love for wild lands that has helped to protect those lands from development.

Thelma was born in a two-room log cabin near Helena, and grew up hiking, biking, rock climbing, and enjoying the wildlife of her rural home. Her family moved to Helena where she began office work while still in high school, building useful life skills. The summer she graduated from high school she met Smoke who had come from Ohio to attend the University of Montana. Smoke had a summer job with the Forest Service but soon started working at Ovando’s Whitetail Ranch as an outfitter and guide. Soon they were married and moved to Missoula where Smoke studied biology and forestry at UM and worked at a sawmill while Thelma applied her office skills. Soon they were juggling parent duties for daughters Tammy & Vickie. When Smoke graduated from college, they started their legendary outfitting partnership which drew on the skills of both.

The Elsers were early adopters of low impact camping, using lightweight equipment that reduced the number of pack animals needed and securing horses to high lines rather than to trees. They offered horse-packing classes at the University of Montana, and their campfire stories and urging their guests to ‘listen to the land’ inspired many of their guests to become advocates for protecting wild country.

One of their guests, Missoulian reporter Dale Burk, reported on US Forest Service plans to develop the Middle Fork of the Flathead. And the wilderness advocates nurtured by the Elsers raised their voices, contributing to the designation of the Great Bear Wilderness and the Scapegoat Wilderness near the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

Smoke’s conservation advocacy has been recognized by many awards including Distinguished Alumnus of UM’s Forestry Alumni Association, the Backcountry Horsemen of America’s Legacy Award and induction into the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame and the Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame. Thelma served as a Campfire Girl leader for many years, instilling a lifelong love of the outdoors through hikes and camping trips. Smoke credits his time in scouting as one of things that made him who is today, and he returns that gift by teaching wilderness skills to scouts.

The Montana Conservation Roundtable recognized the Elser’s outstanding partnership with a Lifetime Conservation Achievement Award in 2013. Smoke and Thelma continue to teach the skills needed to experience the magic of wildlands and continue to inspire a new generation of conservation advocates.

Biography by Vicki Watson

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