I set out to write about the encompassing issues of wilderness: the importance of roadless areas, the biological argument for wildlands preservation. Yet, a small valley in northwestern Montana is tearing at my mind to write on its behalf. Rick Bass, a voice for the wildlands of the Yaak, proclaims, “We all have special places that nourish our spirits, that ignite the sparks of our imaginations, that help make life more tolerable by sharpening the sacred edge that human lives can still hold.” The Yaak is a place that summons a sense of primeval wildness within my self. However, with not even a square foot of designated wilderness, the Yaak valley is fragile. It needs no more visitors; it needs defenders against the barren absence of clearcuts. A climbing partner of mine grew up in a small town at the edge of the Yaak Valley. He tells me of perceiving the wisdom of forest giants as a child, and returning later to find only a broad, many-ringed stump remaining. He wonders whether his fly fishing tales have become more realistic with age or whether the trout have been depleted by the runoff associated with clearcutting. He thinks of the forest creatures that he once encountered where only clearcut stumps now remain.
The Yaak valley consists of a lush river valley encircled by low, yet distinct, peaks. Perched at the extreme northwestern corner of Montana, the Yaak is bordered by Idaho as well as Canada. Abundant snow and rains lend to the growth of dense, big trees. Due to its lush forest growth, the Yaak has been desecrated by irresponsible logging. With regards to logging, the Yaak is “one of the most hammered regions,” according to Pat Williams, a former Montana representative. While rock and ice wildernesses are protected elsewhere in Montana, the Yaak continually gives up more timber than any other Montana valley. Often used as a trading chip in other environmental victories, the Yaak has been declared unsuitable for wilderness due to its abundance of low elevation timber. Although Williams was successful in passing a bipartisan wilderness bill in 1993 in the House that would have protected 125,00 acres of Yaak Valley, the bill was abandoned in the Senate.
Although fragmented by thousands of miles of logging roads, the Yaak continues to host one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the Rockies. However, the fragmentation has reduced the megafauna to single or double digit populations. In 1997, Yaak was home to ten grizzlies, ten pairs of bull-trout, one or two caribou and peregrines, a handful of lynx and wolverines, and one pair of mated wolves. Among the other inhabitants of the Yaak Valley are harlequin ducks, golden eagles, bald eagles, sturgeon, lions, moose, elk, bobcats, and black bears. Given the small population sizes, preservation can wait no longer. A significant proportion of the grizzly population inhabits a particular roadless area through which the forest service plans to build roads. Twelve or so bull-trout live in Yaak’s Pipe Creek at the base of a clearcut-ridden slope. Soil runoff due to the clearcuts has been preventing fertilization of the bull-trout eggs. Although the populations in the Yaak are small, the individuals are tough, survivors of the ills of fragmentation and habitat destruction. Many of the larger animals have journeyed to the Yaak from Canadian wildlands. In addition to possessing super-survivor genes, they embody the migratory abilities and pathfinding urges that will allow a preserved Yaak to serve as a wildlife corridor relinking the West.
The Yaak’s aptitude as a wildlife corridor may be the strongest argument for its preservation. Existing wilderness areas will support lesser biological richness if they exist as isolated populations without the interchange of individuals through wildlife corridors. The geography of the Yaak valley renders it a bottleneck of the Northern Rockies migratory pathways. If the Yaak no longer functions as a corridor, wildlife from British Columbia will no longer possess the capacity to migrate into the Salmon/Bitterroot area of Montana and Idaho. Wildlife would further be prevented from either traveling southeast to Yellowstone or southwest to Oregon’s Blue Mountains. Northwest Montana also links the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem to the Selkirks of northern Idaho and the northern Cascades. Following 60 years of absence, a wolf finally managed to reach Yellowstone. Following the wolf’s unfortunate killing in 1994, genetic analysis revealed that the wolf was from the Ninemile Valley, a valley in close proximity to the Yaak.
In order to allow a wealth of biological diversity to thrive in the Yaak and the entire wilderness that it connects, we must preserve and reconnect the Yaak’s remaining roadless areas. We need no more roads; the Yaak’s thousands of miles of roads are enough. Indeed, large expenses are being incurred in Montana’s Kootenai Valley to close roads that were detrimental to wildlife habitat. However, logging has been and likely will remain an integral source of livelihood in the Yaak. Steve Thompson of the Montana Wilderness Association and others are not suggesting an end to logging, but rather a shift in logging practices and a reduction in the area logged. Following the desecration implemented by the international companies, it is time for the locals to practice small-scale sustainable logging in conservation reserves, using horse logging, roadside salvage, and selective timbering.
We must ensure that the Yaak Valley is designated a wilderness area in order to preserve, according to Thompson, “one of the few wild places in the lower 48 in which all of the original pieces are intact; native old-growth forests, grizzly bears, bull trout, mountain lions, cascading waterfalls, and even a newly discovered fungus associated with the yew tree that manufactures the cancer-fighting drug taxol.”
Speak for the bull-trout, grizzlies, and wolves by insisting that the Yaak Valley should be designated as a wilderness area. Write to members of congress as well as: Mike Dombeck, Chief of the US Forest Service, Box 96070, Washington, DC 20090