Wilderness was the love of Theodore M. Smith’s life. He parachuted into burning forests in Montana as a smokejumper in his youth and later led the Boston-based Kendall Foundation to devote its resources to land conservation and climate change.
A longtime resident of Cambridge, he oversaw millions in Kendall Foundation grants during about 15 years as director, nurturing preservation of the Yellowstone to Yukon corridor through the Rockies and focusing on climate change long before it became a national issue.
Mr. Smith had just begun a new chapter in his life as senior fellow at the University of Montana’s Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Policy when he slipped and fell to his death Sept. 1 while hiking down a mountain trail near St. Ignatius, Mont. He was 71 and had retired from the foundation in 2009.
During his time in New England, Mr. Smith was known for focusing on long-term planning and nurturing a community of conservationists.
“Ted took great pains to craft a letter of denial, perhaps even more so than a letter of acceptance,” said foundation leader Andrew W. Kendall. “He cared about the relationships whether or not the funding happened. He understood these social and environmental issues were perhaps somewhat less about the funding and more about the ongoing relationships between people and organizations.”
Mr. Smith graduated with a doctorate in political science in the 1960s from the University of California Berkeley, but rarely used the title. He opted away from a career in academia, friends said, seeking a more hands-on approach.
“He had a wonderful humble style. He would kind of sit there and listen, and the gears were turning and he’d ask in a quiet way a question that would bring everyone up short,” said Tom Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, for which Mr. Smith was a board member for nine years.
“He would do a great job of thoughtfully provoking better thinking on the board and by the organization,” Kiernan said. “He was quite wise in that way, and he was a dear friend.”
In 1998, Mr. Smith and Kiernan collaborated on an initiative that paired MBA students from top schools around the country with the National Park Service to devise business plans for each park.
The program helped transform park service budgeting, according to Kiernan. The Park Service now runs the initiative, hiring dozens of business students each summer.
Mr. Smith also was a founder of the New England Grassroots Environmental Fund and of Clean Air-Cool Planet, a nonprofit devoted to reducing carbon emissions.
“Ted Smith was truly a pioneer within the foundation world in moving the agenda of climate change mitigation and biodiversity conservation to the fore,” said his friend and fellow Clean Air-Cool Planet cofounder William Moomaw, a professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
His death “has left a huge gap among those who work to protect this planet,” Moomaw said.
Mr. Smith grew up in Missoula, Mont., where his father was dean of the University of Montana’s business school. Mr. Smith and his younger brother, Roger, spent their youth fishing and hiking, and the wilds of Montana forever pulled on Mr. Smith’s soul.
The brothers were hiking together with their two dogs and other family members when Roger saw Mr. Smith slip off the trail about 10 yards ahead of him. They had just completed a 90-minute hike to the falls in Montana’s Mission Mountain Wilderness and had begun their descent.
“Ted was where he loved to be,” Roger, who lives in Polson, Mont., wrote in an e-mail. “He was with people (and dogs) who loved him.”
In addition to his brother, Mr. Smith leaves two stepdaughters, Emily Newmann of Cambridge and Sara Newmann of Berkeley, Calif.; and two step-granddaughters.
While the family gathered to commemorate Mr. Smith’s life, John Darrah of Cambridge, Emily’s husband, died Sept. 7 on Flathead Lake in Montana when he was struck by a boat while swimming.
Mr. Smith had been married for more than 30 years to Mary Newmann, who was the head of the private school Buckingham Browne & Nichols in Cambridge from 1992 to 2001. She was 69 when she died of cancer in July 2011.
“He was a lovely, tender, curious man,” said Mary Raine of New Rochelle, N.Y., a friend of Mary Newmann’s since their days at Mount Holyoke College. “He thought of big projects and made them happen. I loved them both.”
Mr. Smith met Newmann while he was working for more than a decade at the Ford Foundation, mostly in Indonesia, and in New York City. He later spent six years as president of philanthropist John D. Rockefeller III’s Agricultural Development Council, working on issues involving natural resources in Asia and Africa, his family said.
In the 1980s and ’90s, Mr. Smith was a consultant to the World Bank and to the Rockefeller Foundation. In 1987, he was founding director of the Consultative Group on Biological Diversity, based in New York City at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
David Rockefeller, who served with Mr. Smith on several nonprofits, including the Alaska Conservation Foundation, recalled how they would paddle Alaskan inlets together in double kayaks, feasting on fresh-caught salmon and calling out “Yo, bear,” as they hiked.
“Ted had such an understated, concise, and original way of speaking his mind,” Rockefeller wrote in an e-mail. “When Ted spoke, everyone listened. Sometimes, it took us a while to understand what he meant — partly because of the modest and understated tone, and partly because he had a grasp of complexity well beyond the norm. He was always thinking big picture, out of the box, long term — and we needed that.”