September 2012 - Montana's Rocky Mountain Front

Sep 20, 2012

Captain's Log 1XE, Day 27 in the month of August in the Earth Calendar Year of 2012, in the heart of one of the Last Best Places. With no shortage of conservation issues in the West, we have returned to Montana for a second time this summer. The skies on our latest trip were dominated by a thick haze from wildfire season, which reminded me of our previous flights in the region which were met with dark clouds and thunderstorms.


The Rocky Mountain Front looms large as I look out my hotel bedroom expecting to see the glimmering peaks to the West. Instead I am once again confronted by a turbulent sunrise with low hanging clouds trying unsuccessfully to blot out the passes and diminish this spectacular landscape.


We are in Choteau, Montana just south and a bit east of Glacier National Park and due east of the famous Bob Marshall Wilderness. Yesterday we got one of the up-close and personal views of this area as we flew up the Sun Valley and across the infamous China Wall racing a thunderstorm to Kalispell on the west side of the mountains. Absolutely spectacular country with northwest valleys making the traverse a bit more challenging as the clouds lay just above the passes. Discretion being the better part of valor with only 10 miles to go and speaking to the tower, we turned tail and took our escape route back to Choteau. So this morning we were disappointed to see the residual moisture still hanging around.


We have been flying the Rocky Mountain Front all week, an icon of wildlands, wildlife, beauty and diversity containing the second largest migratory elk herd in the lower 48 states. We are working on getting people acquainted with the Heritage Act, a made-in-Montana plan built by ranchers, hunters and conservationists collaborating to lock in existing motorized uses, add protections to more than 300,000 acres of roadless areas and propose additions to wilderness in the Bob Marshall, Great Bear and Scapegoat areas.


Our next mission took us to the Seeley Swan valley, and a small backcountry strip in Condon, was our target. The Seeley Swan is at the southern end of the Crown of the Continent, one of the last really wild places in the lower 48. We waited a bit before departing Choteau, hoping the clouds would lift to enable us to navigate the passes. But as they say in airplanese - no joy. I adopted another strategy and this time we gained altitude and were on top of the clouds at around 12,000 feet where we GPS'd our way to where the Condon strip should be below us. Luckily a huge hole opened in the clouds, and with the weather improving rapidly we circled down to this grass strip in the middle of nowhere. There we met awaiting press and local citizens and embarked on an aerial educational tour of this magnificent valley defined by the Mission Mountains in the west and the Swan Range and Bob Marshall Wilderness to the east.


Stretching along the axis of the Rocky Mountains between the Canadian Central Rockies and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the Crown of the Continent provides critical biological and wildlife corridors and an intact ecosystem. But within the forests and communities of the Southwestern Crown of the Continent, a century-long absence of natural fire, the spread of noxious weeds and invasive plants, and the degradation of water quality are threatening the area's famed wildlife habitat and healthy forests. The Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, created in 2010, is working to restore degraded forests and streams while creating jobs. This pioneering program is increasing protection of important wildlife linkages and habitats, and involving the community in the protection of those habitats.


After a very successful flight and better weather we continued south on our way home.At our planned fuel stop in Jackson, Wyoming we received calls from the local press to take a flight down to one of the many fires of the summer of 2012 that was threatening a roadless area and was still raging out of control. This fire was indicative of the fire season this summer: drought, strong winds and forests decimated by the mountain pine beetle have all contributed to the increase in the number of fires in the west. Flying has been difficult as we have had to contend with seriously smoky skies in much of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Colorado.


A wild, windy, smoky and another very productive day in one of our last best places in the USA.





Bruce Gordon