CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

If your favorite place on earth was facing a threat, an impact that you know will only grow in magnitude, what would you do to defend it?

Rick Bass has become one of America’s best-known literary environmentalists by marshalling sweet narratives to safeguard “the Yaak”—a rugged and remote river valley wedged between a line of the Purcell Mountains in far, far northwestern Montana.

The Yaak sits astride an ecological transition zone flanked by the Pacific Northwest rainforest on one side and the drier, harsher climes of the Northern Rockies on the other.

I’ve not taken a hike with Bass through the Yaak yet. But I’ve accompanied him on numerous treks through hundreds of thousands of printed words he’s devoted to celebrating his wild backyard. Over the years, through brilliant short stories and non-fiction essays, Bass has told the tales of solitude-seeking humans and wildlife set in this dell along the U.S. border with Canada.

For as remote as the Yaak is, as obscure as it is to most people, Bass has refused, much to the chagrin of the U.S. Forest Service, to let the agency’s shortsightedly bad resource management legacy occur out of sight and mind to the rest of we Americans.

During the height of the timber wars in the 1980s and 1990s when the Forest Service stubbornly adhered to a policy of identifying the biggest trees on public lands and unsustainably liquidating them to produce cheap merchantable timber, Bass, hunters, anglers and a coterie of others put the Kootenai National Forest—the largest timber producer in the Forest Service’s Northern Region—under a high beam of unwanted scrutiny.

Even as severe soil erosion caused by massive clearcuts silted stretches of local rivers, decimating fish populations and carving up wildlife habitat, federal foresters and the timber industry denied there were problems. Only by holding the Forest Service to account, by forcing it to uphold environmental protection laws, was the damage halted.

“The good news is that the Kootenai forest is on the mend. Trout, mostly small, rise for caddis flies on the Yaak River,” New York Times columnist Timothy Egan, a friend of Bass’s, wrote last week. “There are almost enough new-growth trees to keep the sediment load down. This special place, this empty place, is healing, and feels ever more wild with every passing summer.”

Had a defense not been mustered, much of the wild Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem would’ve likely been thoughtlessly cut over, and that would’ve spelled doom for a small cluster of grizzly bears still clinging to life there. It’s a place where the number of reproducing female bruins can be counted on a couple of hands, at most, and it’s one of just three island populations of grizzlies in the Lower 48—Greater Yellowstone being one of the other two.

Now there’s a new threat: a hiking trail. Not just any trail, but a stretch being added to the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail running 1,200 miles from Glacier National Park to Port Townsend, Washington.

Bass isn’t opposed to outdoor recreation; far from it, he’s an avid hiker and subsistence hunter. What worries him is the Forest Service’s ongoing approach to industrializing the use of public lands without considering—or often even knowing—the long-term consequences of its actions. He makes his case in a recent High Country News essay titled “Why thru-hiking would be a disaster for the Yaak Valley.”

Bass certainly isn’t opposed to the trail per se; he believes, at the very least, it needs to be smartly re-routed because it would put 4,000 hikers a year—that number is certain to swell—into the middle of habitat refugia for grizzlies. He isn’t alone in his concerns. Earlier this spring in Bozeman, I met with Lance Craighead, the independent scientific researcher who had just returned from the Yaak.

Craighead, the son and nephew of the late legendary wildlife biologists John and Frank Craighead, made an assessment of how the proposed hiking path would negatively impact solitude-seeking bears already navigating a highly traumatized landscape.

The issue is not whether the trail can be re-routed, but if promoters of the trail and the Forest Service will listen?

Bass poses this question to us, and it’s as poignant for the Greater Yellowstone as any wild backyard: “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,” he writes. “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.”

Rick Bass notes that if you agree the proposed Pacific Northwest Trail route should not pass through the Yaak and core grizzly habitat, make your thoughts known to the Forest Service at mtmcgrath@fs.fed.us, and send a copy to info@yaakvalley.org.

Todd Wilkinson has been writing his award-winning column, The New West, for nearly 30 years. Living in Bozeman, he is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly. His profile of Montana politician Max Baucus appears in the summer 2017 issue of Mountain Outlaw and is now on newsstands.