Why thru-hiking would be a disaster for the Yaak Valley

A long-distance trail would disrupt badly needed grizzly habitat.

 

Suppose that nearly 50 years ago, a man in a faraway city, who knew nothing of the blank spots on a map, thought it would be nice to bulldoze a straight-line, high-use recreational hiking trail through the Pacific Northwest. It would resemble the moving walkway at an airport, only with a “zone of disturbance” a thousand feet wide, and it would run through the heart of the region’s rarest and most unprotected ecosystem.

And even if the draftsman knew nothing of the country — that it was public land and home to the greatest concentration of threatened, endangered and sensitive species of any national forest in the West — a rational person might assume that such a shortest-route, Golden-Spike-railroad application might not be the most intelligent, ecological or economical choice, nor even the most enjoyable for the travelers the trail-dreamer prophesied.

This, however, is not the opinion of the Pacific Northwest Trail Association, which continues to push for a 1,200-mile trail straight from Montana’s Glacier National Park to Port Townsend, Washington. And what lies between those two points? The association seems not to know, but I do. In a stretch that is proposed to follow the Canadian border in the Yaak Valley of northwestern Montana lies 50 miles of swamp, bog orchids, mosquitoes, dark interior forest with no sightlines. There are also 20 grizzly bears, hanging on for dear life. The bears are protected only by the Endangered Species Act, and by the dark shadows of those swampy patches dedicated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to their recovery, according to law and the wishes of the American public.

Fish and Wildlife says it wants to recover the grizzly population in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem to 100. Achieving that goal is a borderline fantasy, given that the Yaak Valley is in the Kootenai National Forest. Local forest managers have never been good to the Yaak’s grizzlies, pushing one controversial timber-cutting sale after another. And, so far, the Forest Service — claiming it has no time to do otherwise — has backed the trail, which would send up to 4,000 hikers a year through country the Forest Service has also deemed core grizzly habitat.

Three distinct grizzly populations exist in Montana, each isolated from the other. The Cabinet-Yaak grizzlies are by far the smallest and most fragile. Just two, or possibly three, breeding-age females remain. Lose one, and the population tips toward extinction. So why would anyone, especially anyone who claims to love the wild, want to blast a human highway through their last stronghold?

One can love a resource without killing it. There are still a few places in the world that are simply not appropriate for high-volume industrial recreation. To argue otherwise is like arguing that because we drive cars, we should drill in the Arctic — as if there is no sanctity, as if everything must be diminished or destroyed. And here, it would be done in the name of fun — our fun. As if there is nowhere else to play.

 

A trail leads out of a dense, dark forest in the Purcell Mountains of Kootenai National Forest in Montana.
Randy Beacham

The concept of a long-distance trail running along the Canadian border from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean was the linear idea of a Georgetown University student named Ron Strickland, who founded the Pacific Northwest Trail Association in 1977. The association convinced Congress to authorize a feasibility study in 1979-1980, but the U.S. Forest Service found the trail would be too expensive to build, and too environmentally harmful. At subsequent public meetings in Montana, every speaker opposed the trail. But the idea wouldn’t die, and hikers kept building segments of the trail on their own. In 2009, then-U.S. Congressman Norm Dicks, D-Wash., attached a midnight rider to a bill, authorizing the trail and creating a federal advisory committee to consider route options. The committee doesn’t meet often — just three times since October 2015 — and it is still taking comments from the public. Environmental groups and Montanans are severely underrepresented, and so far the Forest Service has not seemed interested in altering the route through the Yaak.

The Pacific Northwest Trail Association is already distributing maps and posting blogs and social media advice on how to travel through the area. Some trail users are passing on messages claiming that once thru-hikers leave Glacier National Park, they don’t need to worry about grizzlies because there aren’t any in the Kootenai. They’re telling one another that, in the Yaak, they can run their dogs off-leash, because there’s nobody around. This is a dangerous narrative that continues to be fueled by the local Forest Service office. One agency biologist said last fall he thought the route through the heart of the Yaak would probably be all right, because hikers got along with grizzlies in places like Glacier and Yellowstone national parks. But those parks are four times larger than the Yaak and have vast wilderness cores protected in their interiors, with an incredibly low density of road networks. The Yaak has no permanently protected wildlands whatsoever. Plus, hikers and bears don’t always get along so famously in Glacier and Yellowstone.

Beyond bears, the proposed trail ignores a long legacy of collaborative policymaking. Montana’s Democratic senior senator, Jon Tester, and community groups representing stakeholders from all walks of the region — mill owners, loggers, snowmobilers, environmentalists, the whole shitaree — spent decades mapping areas of common ground in the Yaak, once-upon-a-time epicenter of the worst of the timber wars. Tester rewarded that community for its trust-building and problem-solving moxie by including its recommendations to protect the wild quality of roadless lands in core grizzly habitat — not open them to high-use, high-density recreation — in a 2009 bill that, though it never received a hearing in a partisan, polarized Congress, still embodies local wisdom.

The proposed trail also ignores the harsh realities of land management in the West. Imagine 4,000 hikers starting 4,000 campfires — imagine 28,000 user-fire-nights, up there in the drying-out backcountry along the border, and see how the Forest Service and local county firefighting budgets like the results. And do the trail-pushers realize that opening the proposed route will likely force the Forest Service to close at least that many miles of currently open roads, in order to meet its legal obligation to maintain core grizzly security habitat in the upper Yaak? That will not only upset longtime road users, but it will restrict the agency’s own ability to prescribe logging treatments along roads that had once been open — dealing another blow to the small timber industry that hangs on here.

Aggravating the locals, who are celebrated for their curmudgeonly resistance to the world, is a bad idea. Trail signs at parking areas and along trails won’t just be taken down and used for campfires; they’ll be relocated. Thru-hikers will find themselves suddenly standing on a hot day amid one of the Yaak’s myriad clear-cuts with no trail in sight.

I have nothing against people getting out into the woods, or even trekking long distances across the West’s landscapes. A little exercise away from the daily grind of urban life is a good thing. If you want to be around a lot of people and get a little cardio workout in, then these official loops and permitted through-routes are one way to go. I’ve done it myself. But there are tens of thousands of miles of these kinds of trails already, and, as with mining, or clear-cutting, or road-building, we should not be continuing to build more, more, more to the ends of the horizon. There are simply some places where rare and higher resources must be protected. What’s not just greedy about this proposed route, but dumb, dumb, dumb is that better alternatives exist.

 

“The trail’s coming whether you like it or not,” the association’s director, Jeff Kish, recently told Jessie Grossman, the Forest Watch coordinator for the local grassroots environmental group, the Yaak Valley Forest Council. Grossman is also chair of the wilderness committee of the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders’ Coalition, a coalition of timber interests, recreationists and environmentalists, which has been recommending common ground land management proposals for sensitive areas on the forest. Grossman has been working to educate people about the dangers and drawbacks to the proposed upper route. She believes there are better alternatives.

So did a prominent bear biologist, long before the congressional study came out. Charles Jonkel of Missoula, who died last year, ascertained that 28 of the trail’s Montana miles were in critical grizzly bear habitat. He published an independent report that not only declared the Yaak route harmful, but diagrammed a better, safer and more visually appealing route to the south, down along the east side of the Koocanusa Reservoir, hopping from one mountaintop fire-lookout tower to the next, and down into the sylvan Treasure Valley.

This route would not only avoid designated grizzly habitat, it would provide more lookouts, icy summits and old-growth cedars along the wide rushing Kootenai river, a major tributary to the Columbia. It would course through old mining ghost towns and past numerous waterfalls. Merchants in small nearby towns, including Troy (population 900) and Libby (population 2,900), would be well-situated to re-provision trail users.

Jonkel dreamed and mapped this route like a prophet, and now, almost half a century later, the trail association is spurning his research. Why? I can’t quite fathom it. The group continues to cling to Strickland’s original vision of a route entirely along the border. His motto was “stay high for the views.” How ironic that those carrying his legacy today are unable to see that the Jonkel route would actually take them physically higher while being less destructive to the wild landscapes and creatures they claim to care about.

It’s not too late to change course. The federal advisory committee is still accepting comments, and the Forest Service has all the authority it needs to do the right thing. But barring some unanticipated open-mindedness from the trail association, and some uncharacteristic backbone from the agency, it’s on to court again, it seems. The Kootenai National Forest will continue to be unproductive for everyone but attorneys. And the Yaak’s tenuous, tenacious grizzly population will suffer.

What a shame.

Rick Bass is the author of over 30 books of fiction and nonfiction, winner of the 2016 Story Prize, and a board member of the Yaak Valley Forest Council.