Pioneering educator-activist and Salt Lake City native dies at 79 after a life of saving lives and landscapes.
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Rick Reese, who influenced a generation or two of environmental activists, outdoor educators and mountaineers in his native Utah and beyond, died Jan. 9 at his home in Montana. During his 79 years, he built a conservation legacy that celebrated a broader view of what environmental protection means and led to the creation of Utah’s beloved Bonneville Coastal Trail.
While Reese was best known for his activism in Montana, as co-founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, he was one of the native sons of Salt Lake City who pushed the boundaries of Wasatch climbing when the sport was in its infancy, according to longtime friend and climbing partner Ted Wilson.
Wilson remembers first meeting young Reese when Reese was still a student at East High School and had just returned from climbing Mount Rainier in Washington. That was in 1959 and they have remained close friends ever since, sharing many adventures and occasional disagreements.
Over the years of setting up routes in the Wasatch, Wilson observed how Reese combined courage and physical strength with caution.
“He could do both at the same time. He approached life that way,” said Wilson, who became mayor of Salt Lake City. “He was strong, but he understood that there were forces bigger than himself, in life and in climbing, that he had to honor. He did it with pure principles.
Reese was born in Salt Lake City in 1942. Fresh out of high school, he joined the National Guard and was deployed to Germany during the Berlin Airlift, according to Reese’s obituary. He returned home to study political science at the University of Utah, where he met his wife Mary Lee, and later graduate school at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. .
Reece would later serve in the United States as Director of Community Relations. While pursuing his undergraduate studies, he worked summers as a climbing ranger at Grand Teton National Park and later pioneered routes in the Wasatch that remain unmatched to this day.
“The thinnest line of the Wasatch for traditional climbers and the most natural line is Triple overhangs which he created in the 1960s in the Lone Peak Circus” with Fred Beckey and Bob Irvine, said Peter Metcalf, co-founder of Black Diamond Equipment. “But when it comes to conservation, his legacy is incredible. He was one of Utah’s greatest conservationists, if not the greatest in Utah history, not to mention a pioneer mountaineer.
As park rangers in the 1960s, Reese and his colleagues invented the techniques, virtually on the fly, to rescue people in vertical terrain. Along with Wilson, Pete Sinclair and four other rangers, he pulled off what is considered “the most advanced, technical, daring and courageous rescue” on the Grand Teton North Face in 1967, according to Metcalf. This feat was commemorated in a 2013 film, The great rescue, by Wilson’s daughter Jenny Wilson and Meredith Lavitt.
“Reese was known as the best climber on the team,” said Reece’s biography for the film. “It was not just his ability to move quickly over mountainous terrain that set him apart, but also his calmness when things got serious.”
The Rees then moved to Helena, Montana in 1970 with their children Paige and Seth while Reece taught at Carroll College. In Montana, the couple were recruited to lead the Yellowstone Institute by Yellowstone Park Superintendent John Townsley.
It was this experience that helped Reese refine his famous idea of a “Greater Yellowstone”.
“When we were Jenny Lake rangers, he was like, ‘Yellowstone and Teton [national parks] are great places, but they need to be bigger. These animals do not stop at the border; they graze, the grizzly is threatened. We have to protect their food sources,” Wilson said. “And he went on and on about it, and he just kept talking to people. He met with the Park Service folks and expanded the idea.
This led to the creation of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in 1983, promoting the concept that protecting Yellowstone also means protecting the ecosystem surrounding the two national parks.
“He made it a strength for a new wilderness,” Wilson said. “There’s a lot of new wilderness up there because of Rick.”
It was this kind of thinking that inspired the designation of vast Western national monuments—Missouri River Breaks, Basin and Range, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and Bears Ears—that sought to protect entire landscapes.
Reese confused later mountain diary with journalist Todd Wilkinson, who continues to report on the relationship between the people and the land of the Greater Yellowstone region.
Reese also served as a mentor and advisor for Save Our Canyons, according to executive director Carl Fisher, who relied on Reese’s advice to push back development in the Wasatch Central Range.
“His love of Western landscapes is rooted in the Wasatch,” Fisher said. “He went on to accomplish great things.”
Among these was the creation of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail Committee in the 1990s with Jim Byrne to develop the now famous path following the contours of the former Bonneville lake. Today, the trail is used daily by thousands of Wasatch Front residents seeking respite from nature on the edge of Utah’s bustling cityscape.
Celebrations of Reese’s life will be held this spring in Bozeman, Montana, and Salt Lake City.