Three weeks ago, Jack Tuholske put his raft on the Blackfoot River, tied a Purple Haze fly to the end of his leader, and went fishing. His wife Lilly rowed the oars. Though the fish proved uncooperative, it was still a fine day on the river, sunny but not too hot, the water cold and clear, and the canyon’s timbered slopes flecked with gold overhead, where larches had unveiled their autumn colors. All told, the day was another small triumph in Jack’s courageous life with cancer.
There were many such victories. Jack lived unrelentingly for more than 17 months after his diagnosis with hepatocellular carcinoma, with grit and grace and humor, and most of all by refusing to let illness take control of his life. He skied fresh backcountry powder, took his grandchildren to Mexico and Hawaii, hiked the French Alps with friends he had met in Nepal a year earlier. He continued to teach, write and practice law. He walked his dog with his wife on their property in Potomac, Mont.; he played guitar almost every day; and yes, he pulled a few trout out of the Blackfoot. On Saturday, October 17, Jack passed away peacefully in his home in Potomac, with his family at his side. He was 66.
Jack was a loving husband, father and grandfather. He was one of the country’s finest public interest environmental lawyers and a tireless defender of public lands, wildlife and waters; he felt a transcendent connection to wild places and especially to mountains, and throughout his life he found joy and solace in the hills.
Jack Ray Tuholske was born in Chicago, Ill. His childhood was complicated. His biological mother, Dorothy V. Johnson, whom he never knew, named him Carl John Johnson. He was adopted at birth by his father, Bob Cohen, and mother, Jean Rindskopf Cohen, who changed his name to Jack Ray Cohen. Bob and Jean divorced, and Jean remarried H. Lister (Buddy) Tuholske, who adopted Jack and changed his name again, to Jack Ray Tuholske. Bob Cohen and Buddy Tuholske both died while Jack was young, and Jack carried the pain of losing two fathers for the rest of his life.
Jack grew up in Clayton, Mo., and attended Clayton High School, where he was an outstanding athlete and captained the boys swim team. He was, frankly, pretty wild as a youth; he fell in with a rough crowd, used intravenous drugs and got into scrapes with the law. At 15, he tried unsuccessfully to hitchhike to Woodstock. Years later, at Jean’s 80th birthday party, her old friends whispered excitedly about how they simply couldn’t believe Jack had turned out all right, with a nice family and a successful legal practice. Perhaps the major triumph of Jack’s life was shaking off his demons and overcoming the challenges that fate had dealt him.
Jack went to college, first at the University of Rochester, where he excelled as a collegiate swimmer, and later graduating from the University of Washington. In his early 20s, Jack wandered for a while. He hiked difficult treks, built ice caves, and survived in harsh conditions in the wilderness. He also worked as a wilderness counselor for troubled youth. An expedition into the Wind River Range in Wyoming with the National Outdoor Leadership School had been an early formative experience, igniting Jack’s lifelong passion for the mountains, and Jack would go on to explore peaks from the Ozarks to the Adirondacks to the Northern Cascades, and, later, Montana’s own Bitterroots and even the Himalayas. His climbing buddies were a motley crew of colorful characters – you guys know who you are – and many became Jack’s enduring friends.
In 1977, Jack attended a wedding. The groom was one of his best friends and the bride hailed from a respectable family from Shaker Heights, Ohio. There Jack first laid eyes on the bride’s sister, Lillian Westropp, dutifully performing her role as maid of honor (or, as Lilly put it in her wedding toast, “not necessarily of honor”), and that was that: Jack was smitten. A short courtship later, Jack and Lilly were married. They honeymooned in Pennsylvania for some reason. For a time they settled on a small hobby farm in Doniphan, Mo. In 1981, they piloted their VW van across the country, infant son in tow, to Missoula, Mont., where they brought two more sons into the world and built a life together. Last month, Jack and Lilly celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary.
Jack was a worker. He was living proof that if you get up at 4:30 every morning and work your ass off, you really can move mountains. He earned his law degree from the University of Montana, with honors. The results since then speak for themselves: in his 35-year legal career, Jack served as lead or co-lead counsel on more than 200 cases involving natural resources, wildlife protection, public lands management, land use and constitutional law; his cases were argued in federal district and appellate courts across the West, the U.S. Supreme Court, numerous state district courts in Montana, and more than 20 times at the Montana Supreme Court.
With more than 50 reported decisions to his credit, Jack’s work set important precedents under many federal and state laws. His efforts led to the successful listing of the bull trout under the Endangered Species Act, which not only helped bring this magnificent native species back from near extinction, but also resulted in the protection of more than 19,000 miles of streams and rivers across Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. He represented farmers and ranchers, in conjunction with conservation organizations, to stop coal mining in the Tongue and Powder River basins, ensuring clean water for crops and grazing for generations to come, and preventing the release of thousands of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. He represented dozens of local and regional citizens’ groups, giving ordinary people a voice against powerful interests and helping them shape the future of their communities.
Jack’s legal work has been recognized numerous times, including the 2010 Kerry Rydberg Award, presented by the University of Oregon Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (and recently re-named the Rydberg-Tuholske Award in honor of Jack’s work); the 2009 Gary Holmquist Award, presented by the Montana Wildlife Federation; the 2004 Nick Cramis Award, presented by the Ravalli County Fish and Game Association; the 2002 Justice William O. Douglas Award, presented by the Sierra Club; and the 2001 Don Aldrich Conservation and Wildlife Award, presented by the Montana Power Company.
But Jack’s contributions toward protecting and improving our world went beyond the courtroom. As a teacher, first at the University of Montana and then at Vermont Law School, his passion for the law and for the outdoors was infectious. He showed a generation of aspiring law and policymakers that it is possible to align personal and professional pursuits. Jack’s proudest professional achievement is that dozens of his students have gone on to become public interest environmental attorneys, ensuring that his impact and legacy will live on.
Jack served on the Vermont Law School faculty for 20 years, where he co-founded and directed the Water and Justice Program, pioneered the school’s online master’s program, and created the Public Lands Management: Montana Field Course, the country’s first outdoor experiential education law class, which takes students on a two-week backpacking trip into the wilderness to learn public lands law and how to stay safe in grizzly country. To further his legacy, Vermont Law School will create the Tuholske Institute of Environmental Field Studies to advance Jack’s work in deep field-based experiential education. Jack also served as a technical advisor to the Vermont Law School U.S.-Asia Partnership in Environmental Law, and made many trips to China to teach judges and lawyers about the emerging field of environmental law in China. He made personal friends with the judges on the Supreme People’s Court, and memorably hosted one Chinese judge at his cabin in Cooke City, Mont. (probably the first time that’s happened, both for China and Cooke City). One more thing: in 2009, Jack taught at the Law Faculty of the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia as a Fulbright Scholar.
Jack was an autodidact, too. He took up baseball, photography, rock and ice climbing, mountaineering, gardening, cooking, telemark skiing, fly fishing, hunting and guitar. Jack wasn’t one for lessons; he learned by doing. And while he didn’t really master any of his leisure pursuits, he was pretty darn good at all of them (though he never did figure out when to plant his ski pole). Things didn’t always come easily to him, but few things in life do. One thing about Jack is that you could always see him working at it, with gritted teeth and sweat on his brow. Perhaps that’s why he was also a consummate napper.
Jack imparted his love for the outdoors to his family, and they enjoyed many, many adventures together – and plenty of mishaps, too. Jack is the only guy we know whose wife has been helicoptered off a mountain. Twice. Many of those escapades have been etched into family lore; ask any Tuholske about The Broken Canoe Incident and you’ll probably just get a wink and a knowing smile in reply. Jack was at his happiest bushwhacking and off-route, with his family usually trailing behind and murmuring to each other, “Why is this fun?”
Jack also had a deeply silly streak, which he mostly kept within the family, but which would emerge from time to time around company, much to his children’s embarrassment. He’d often look up from whatever he was working on, pause for a moment, and announce to the room in a falsetto voice: “I…am…a dog.” He was known to threaten his children, and later his grandchildren, with navel extraction (whatever that means, we think he was probably just joking). He was the life of many parties; his legendary dancing, while unconventional, was always enthusiastic. He wore a pair of lime-green tights in public far too many times.
Jack swam competitively for five decades and helped found the Montana Masters Swimming program; more than a dozen of his Masters swimming records still stand. He also was actively involved in community organizations that promoted competitive youth swimming, and helped lead a coalition of dedicated residents to pass a municipal bond to construct the Splash Montana pool complex in Missoula. Additionally, he served on the board of directors for Wildland CPR, a national conservation group protecting and restoring public lands; and of Sussex School, a K-8 alternative school in Missoula. Jack founded Sussex School’s Adventure Program, where students receive formal instruction in rock climbing and other outdoor pursuits, as well in the art of consuming gas station junk food prior to, during, and immediately after such activities (at least that’s how it used to be in the old days). Jack also volunteered on the Five Valleys Nordic Ski Patrol.
In his free time (but how was there any?) Jack read a lot. He had omnivorous tastes, but was partial to non-fiction books about Big Ideas. On his nightstand you could find hefty tomes about natural history, evolutionary biology, climate science, Buddhist philosophy. He loved the classic rock ‘n roll of his youth, even the bad stuff; after moving to Potomac in 2016, he joined a “picking circle” of talented local musicians, and generally held his own. Jack took thousands of photographs during his lifetime, mostly on film, and his slide shows were fabulous. He was always threatening to embark on a project to organize all his slides, and in the last weeks of his life, he finally got started.
The final stage of Jack’s journey was hard on his family, but, paradoxically, less so on Jack. He declared, again and again, “I am the happiest man in the universe.” The dying process afforded Jack an opportunity to reflect on life’s big questions, which had always captivated him. (For years, his email signature was Paul Gauguin’s manifesto: “Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”) More than anything else, Jack wanted to leave behind a better world for the next generation. One of his last acts was to cast his ballot for President of the United States, with his youngest granddaughter on his lap and his teenage granddaughters at his side, one casting her first ballot.
Jack loved his family above all else. He is survived by his loving wife, Lilly; his cherished sons, Oliver, Benjamin and Cascade; his beloved daughters-in-law, Claire and Liz; his precious grandchildren, Mattie, Shelby, Jackson, Joshua, and Elvie; his dear brother, Harry Tuholske; his loyal dog, Wally; and a sprawling network of extended family, professional colleagues, and friends around the world. He also leaves behind a garage full of outdoor equipment, some of which dates to the 1970s, and enough Patagonia apparel to outfit a Himalayan expedition.
Jack loved flowers, but what would have made him really happy is for you to remember him by taking a hike up your nearest hill. However, if you’re inclined to make a tangible contribution toward Jack’s memory, he requested support for the Jack Tuholske Endowed Scholarship in Environmental Law at the Alexander Blewitt III School of Law, under the care of the University of Montana Foundation, P.O. Box 7159, Missoula, MT 59807; as well as the Northern Plains Resource Council, 220 S. 27th St., Billings, MT 59101.
The family plans an online memorial service, details TBD. A celebration of his life will be announced later in 2021.