MISSOULA - They must have made an interesting sight that late-winter Thursday 40 years ago.

It was an era awash in sit-ins and love-ins, anti-war protests and civil rights demonstrations.

But these were women, roughly 100 of them, many in dresses, a few with small children in tow or babes in arms.

They'd joined ranks on Leap Day 1968 at the gates of the Hoerner-Waldorf pulp mill west of town to protest Missoula's stinky air.

"GASP," read one picketer's sign, a play on both the reason and the group that brought them there.

It was the coming-out party of "Gals Against Smog and Pollution," and in a sense the first salvo fired in the war for clean air in the Missoula Valley.

"The group of marchers was orderly, well-dressed and represented a large cross-section of the community," the Missoulian's Evelyn King wrote at the time. "Several of them wore gas masks and most carried huge signs."

They were there, said an unidentified spokeswoman, to "give expression of our dissatisfaction and disgust and to attempt to influence the people who make decisions" at Hoerner-Waldorf.

Their slogans, reported King, were "Bad Sky Country" and "Our Air Stinks," "How High Is the Big Sky?" and "Oh, Say Can You See?"

Hoerner-Waldorf officials provided the protesters with coffee and doughnuts.

Missoula's winter air was a mess back then.

"Our valley location and prevailing wind patterns no doubt have caused inversions and days of winter fog since time immemorial," Dr. Harold Braun wrote recently. "However, U.S. Weather Bureau records indicate there was a substantial increase in the number and severity of foggy days as population and industrial development grew between 1945 and 1963."

Braun, one of the city's first cardiologists, remembers that when physicians were being recruited to town in the 1960s, the "bad air months" of October through February were avoided whenever possible.

"Pollutants from road dust, vehicles, home heating, incinerators of lumber-mill waste (tepee burners), and the Hoerner-Waldorf paper mill made the Missoula air so dirty, so smelly and so unhealthy that its poor quality could not be ignored," he said in a chapter of an unpublished treatise about medically related changes in Missoula from 1955 to 2006.

Gals Against Smog and Pollution set out to change things, but it wasn't easy.

"Picketing won't help air pollution control," an editorial headline read in the Missoulian on the day of the protest.

"We hope it rains," the editorial read.

"Gals Are Stupid People," wrote one man in a subsequent letter to the newspaper.

King, who still writes a weekly column for the Missoulian, said her most vivid memory of the protest was convincing her editor it was worth covering.

"When I heard about the march out there at Hoerner-Waldorf, I asked who was going to cover it," she said. "(Ed) Coyle laughed. He said, 'Oh, it's just a bunch of women.'

"And I said, 'Well, you're going to look pretty silly.' "

It wasn't her beat, but to the dismay of her bosses, King went out to the mill on her own, took photos and wrote a story.

"Might use a paragraph or two," Coyle told her when she got back.

King said she again pointed out the paper would "look pretty ridiculous," because news organizations from all over the United States were there. The women of GASP had made sure of it.

"It was on TV and the New York Times," Braun said. "Life Magazine sent a photographer and got a picture of the mill and a picture of the women with placards."

King's story and two of her photos did wind up on the front page of the local paper.

"However they cut the picture down and didn't show as much smoke as I had shown in the original," she said.

GASP's ability to draw media attention to its cause was a key to its success.

"GASP really got the public interest behind it and the public support organized," said Braun.

By the next march at Hoerner-Waldorf in 1969, the women had Missoula squarely behind them.

"The entire community hopes that Hoerner-Waldorf will clean up," the Missoulian editor wrote. And, "We hope the sun shines."

National Geographic carried photos of the second demonstration.

Meanwhile, Braun said a group of university professors led by Clancy Gordon encouraged the Environmental Defense Fund to file a lawsuit that requested the pulp mill be prohibited "from depriving citizens of the Missoula ecosystem of their natural right to air unsullied by dangerous and unpleasant pollutants."

The injunction was never granted, but Braun said the claimants were jubilant.

"Publicity of the lawsuit increased public clamor which, thanks to the skilled activism of GASP, accelerated the modernization of the mill's technology," he wrote. (The mill is now owned by Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. and has invested millions of dollars over the years in clean-air technology an ongoing process.)

Tepee burners were on their way out. Regulations of wood smoke from home heating stoves and particulate matter from road dust were on their way in.

"Clean air was an accepted community goal by the 1970s," Braun said.

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com

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