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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • SPORTING COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    To advance our mission, we are seeking a full-time Sporting Communications Coordinator to join our team, preferably in Montana or Colorado. (Due to COVID-19 all...
  • THE LAND DESK: A PUBLIC LANDS NEWSLETTER
    Western lands and communities--in context--delivered to your inbox 3x/week. From award-winning journalist and HCN contributor, Jonathan P. Thompson. $6/month; $60/year.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • ANCESTRAL LANDS ADMINISTRATIVE MANAGER
    Starting Salary: Grade C, $19.00 to 24.00 per/hour Location: Albuquerque or Gallup, NM Status: Full-Time, Non-Exempt Benefit Eligible: Full Benefits Eligible per Personnel Policies Program...
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...