A climber turned conservationist, Rick Reese leaves a monumental outdoor legacy

Pioneering educator-activist and Salt Lake City native dies at 79 after a lifetime of saving lives and landscapes.

(Todd Wilkinson | Mountain Journal) Rick Reese, pictured on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail above Salt Lake City, was a pioneering environmental activist, outdoor educator and alpinist. The Utah native, who helped found the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Utah nonprofit that established the famed trail along the shore of the ancient Lake Bonneville, died Jan. 9, 2022 at 79.

Rick Reese, who influenced a generation or two of environmental activists, outdoor educators and alpinists in his native Utah and beyond, died Jan. 9 at his home in Montana. Over his 79 years, he built a conservation legacy that celebrated a larger view of what environmental protection means and led to the establishment of Utah’s beloved Bonneville Shoreline Trail.

While Reese was best known for his activism in Montana, as a co-founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, he was one of Salt Lake City’s native sons who pushed the limits of Wasatch rock climbing when the sport was in its infancy, according to his longtime friend and climbing partner Ted Wilson.

Wilson recalled meeting the younger Reese for the first time when Reese was still a student at East High School and had just returned from a climb up Washington’s Mount Rainier. The year was 1959 and they have been close friends ever since, sharing numerous adventures and occasional disagreements.

Over the years of putting 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 went on to become a Salt Lake City mayor. ”He was strong, but he understood there are forces bigger than him, in life and in climbing, that he had to honor. He did that with pure principles.”

Reese was born in Salt Lake City in 1942 and joined the National Guard out of high school. He returned home to study political science at the University of Utah, where he met his wife Mary Lee, and later in graduate school at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, according to Reese’s obituary.

Reese would later serve the U. as director of community relations. While pursuing his undergraduate degree, 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 finest line in the Wasatch for trad climbers and most natural line is Triple Overhangs that he established in the 1960s in the Lone Peak Cirque” with Fred Beckey and Bob Irvine, said Peter Metcalf, co-founder of the Black Diamond Equipment. “But when it came down to conservation, his legacy is incredible. He was one of Utah’s, if not Utah’s greatest-ever conservationist, not to mention pioneer climber.”

As park rangers in 1960s, Reese and his colleagues invented the techniques, practically on the fly, for rescuing people in vertical terrain. With Wilson, Pete Sinclair and four other rangers, he pulled off what is considered “the most advanced, technical, gutsy, courageous rescue” on the Grand Teton’s north face in 1967, according to Metcalf. That feat was memorialized in a 2013 film, The Grand Rescue, by Wilson’s daughter Jenny Wilson and Meredith Lavitt.

“Reese was known as the team’s strongest climber,” said Reese’s bio for the film. “It was not only his ability to move quickly over mountain terrain that distinguished him, but also his unflappability when things got serious.”

The Reeses later moved to Helena, Mont., in 1970 with their children Paige and Seth while Reese taught at Carroll College. In Montana, the couple were recruited to run the Yellowstone Institute by Yellowstone Park Superintendent John Townsley.

It was this experience that helped Reese hone his famous idea for a “Greater Yellowstone.”

“While we were Jenny Lake rangers, he’d say, ‘Yellowstone and Teton [national parks] are great places, but they’ve got to be bigger. These animals don’t stop at the border; they graze, the grizzly is threatened. We need to protect their food sources,’” Wilson said. “And he went on and on and on about that, and he just kept talking to people. He met with the Park Service people and expanded the idea.”

That led to the founding 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 that a force for extended new wilderness,” Wilson said. “There’s a lot of new wilderness up there because of Rick.”

It was that kind of thinking that inspired the designation of expansive Western national monuments—Missouri River Breaks, Basin and Range, Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears—that sought to blanket entire landscapes with protection.

Reese later confounded Mountain Journal with journalist Todd Wilkinson, which continues to report on the relationship between people and the land of the Greater Yellowstone Region.

Reese also served as a mentor and adviser to Save Our Canyons, according to executive director Carl Fisher, who relied on Reese’s guidance fending off development in the central Wasatch Range.

“His love of Western landscapes is rooted in the Wasatch,” Fisher said. “He went on to achieve great things.”

Among those was the establishment of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail Committee in the 1990s with Jim Byrne to develop the now-famous trail following the contours of the ancient Lake Bonneville. Today the trail is used by thousands of Wasatch Front residents every day, seeking a respite in nature at the edge of Utah’s busy urban landscape.

Celebrations of Reese’s life will be held this spring in Bozeman, Mont., and Salt Lake City.