Devastation at the center of his universe

  • A fool sees not the same tree a wise man sees (Robert Stetterly)

    William Blake

For many of us, some places become more special than all others. One of mine is a raw asymmetrical land, lacking the scenic appeal of Colorado's alps. It's a quiltwork of lodgepole pine, spruce and Douglas fir, with heroic patches of alpine larch and whitebark pine hugging the highest and rockiest slopes. There's old-growth ponderosa and grand fir, with scattered meadows and a few low-elevation grasslands making up the other major biotic communities.

That's my sacred country, the Big Wild, the heart of the Greater Salmon-Selway ecosystem, mostly in central Idaho far from the nearest potato field. There's also a special place within that country, an isolated lake basin 1,000 feet below tree line. Near as I can tell, this is the center of the universe.

Big chunks of metamorphosed granite plunge into green, icy water; boulder-strewn slopes of beargrass rise above the inlet to a 9,000-foot peak, but the outlet plunges over cliffs into the great green blanket of mystery that defines the Salmon-Selway. From just north of the basin's lip, there's an open slope with a clear view into a world of conifers, part of the biggest remaining chunk of virgin forest left in temperate North America.

This hot July morning I climb the peak above the lake. From its summit, no towns, ranches, reservoirs, powerlines, only forested mountain wilderness in every direction.

To the southeast are the ruggedly alpine Bighorn Crags, rising 7,000 feet above the Salmon River's Middle Fork. Far to the east is the jagged top of the Continental Divide's Beaverhead Range, which separates Idaho and Montana. To the northeast the Bitterroots are monoliths of naked granite that shimmer in the sun. Well over a hundred miles north is the southern terminus of the awesome Mission Range. To the west across visually unbroken forest is the isolated Gospel Hump; farther southwest is the still-wild Payette Crest.

There's been no rain for two weeks, and big cumuli are building and bulging, hard-edged against cobalt blue. They float slowly north. To the west, mares' tails slowly encroach, foretelling a possible Pacific front. Will the storm set the woods ablaze? As I write under the darkening sky, I root for neither water nor fire. Who am I to say which is better? Both just are. We humans can judge by our peculiar standards, but these are irrelevant to nature's forces. This forest is shaped by periodic fire and nurtured by a landscape created by molten magma, flowing water and periods of glacial ice.

The geologic story is less important, though, than the story of today's humans who surround it. We determine its fate.

From the summit of "my" peak here in the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness, there has been no visual evidence of human idiocy - ever - except for a handful of tiny fire-lookouts atop a few scattered summits visible only to the trained eye.

But Nez Perce National Forest Supervisor Tom Kovalicki (now retired and masquerading as a conservationist Forest Service reformer) has changed all that. By signing a legal document called "Decision Notice, Cove and Mallard Timber Sales," on Nov. 30, 1990, a month before he retired, Kovalicki opened the heart of the Big Wild to a massive invasion of bulldozers and chainsaws, roads and clearcuts. Cove and Mallard are now in an unprotected enclave formerly called Jersey Jack, 40 miles west of my sacred lake basin.

I visit the summit of "my" sacred peak once or twice each year, sometimes with a small group. I have told no one this is the center of the universe. Now, I never can. When Cove and Mallard failed to gain legal wilderness status in 1978, conservationists cut a political deal: protection for the high ridges of the Gospel Hump and standard multiple abuse for the forested enclave just to the east, which is within the true, small "w" River of No Return Wilderness, the biggest wilderness in the United States south of Alaska. This compromise set the stage for the infamous Cove and Mallard timber sales.

This morning - from the peak - I spotted eight new clearcuts. I gasped, hoped that I was wrong, and turned around, confused. I wasn't wrong. I felt a tangle of overwhelming loss, sorrow and anger. Then anger quickly overtook all else: I wanted to get the responsible bastards. Of course, retaliation isn't the answer. But neither is pretending that conservation is an intellectual crap shoot. This is the real world; coursing through my veins is real blood. If anger - and even violent thoughts - aren't appropriate at times like this, then we humans are truly worthless and we may as well curl up and die.

Perhaps in this society it is rare that people grieve for loss of place. Why? True, my lake basin remains intact, buffered from the bulldozer and chainsaw by a few million acres of designated wilderness, still silent, alive and wild. This basin still commands the wonderful view of the surrounding Salmon-Selway wilds, where few humans have penetrated. As I write I hear a northern pygmy owl. On the quartz-striated ridge above, bighorn and maybe wolverine hide in the larches.

The loss of a 360-degree view pales in comparison to the butchering of the forest 40 miles away. That brings erosion, new roads, big, square, ugly clearcuts, and that means fewer wolves, salmon, fisher, marten, varied thrush, Townsend's warbler, less old growth and so many other losses.

But the view from this mountain is irreplaceable, and if anything, including humans, has a "right" to thrive, so does this vast wilderness and all of its dependent life.

What becomes of a people who continue to destroy the natural world? In the temperate United States no other place exists where so much unbroken wilderness can be seen in such isolation. Yet it was desecrated with relatively little fanfare, just business as usual for the U.S. Forest Service.

Processes carry on. Lightning bolts now belt the distant ridgetops. Fire will likely win this afternoon, and that's OK. Hours and pages later, my anger still burns; I grieve by writing this essay. I don't know what else to do. When we as a people learn to not only mourn the loss of place, but to halt the losses, perhaps then we'll render meaningless the phrase: "nothing is sacred."

Howie Wolke runs a guide service and works with Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Friends of the Bitterroot in Darby, Montana.

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