Alex Sakariassen flew with EcoFlight as part of his research for this historical piece.
Guarding the Burn
For 40 years volunteers have shielded a forested paradise. Is it still safe?
Bob Clark first glimpsed it a decade ago from the summit of Grave Peak, in eastern Idaho. Looking north, he saw a stretch of jagged forestland with snowcapped peaks, granite cliffs and grand vistas—and asked himself, "What the hell is that?"
He was looking at the Great Burn, a vast and still little known area that Clark calls "a hidden large gem."
"You can't see the high peaks in the wild country from any of the paved roads such as I-90 and Highway 12, which basically you should, because they're fairly close to it," Clark says. "If you weren't into maps, you might not know it existed."
What Clark first saw in the Great Burn were Williams and Rhodes peaks, dominating the horizon. And he knew he had to get in there. He tried to scale Rhodes twice that summer; washed-out roads foiled both attempts. A year later, he accompanied Missoula environmentalist Dale Harris into the Burn, traveling up the west fork of Fish Creek, a tributary of the Clark Fork River, surrounded by forests of red cedar and wide gravel banks, in a drainage prized by some anglers for its bull trout, brook trout and mountain whitefish. Harris ultimately led Clark still higher—to the fire-scarred wilderness surrounding Fish Lake.
Harris first saw the Burn in 1971 and had much the same reaction as Clark: unshakable awe. After their return, Harris and 10 other people from that trip formed the Great Burn Study Group, dedicating themselves to keeping this hidden gem of wilderness intact, a commitment that has lasted his adult life. He still heads the organization.
That first trip, Harris says, "was about wind and water...Going through those cedar forests on the north fork and the west fork, rushing water, crystal clear. I grew up in Michigan, and I'd spent a lot of time in the Beartooths, so I'd seen water like that—but not through cedar forests."
Forty years later, Harris and the study group are celebrating an important anniversary. By many measures they've succeeded beyond their expectations in keeping the Burn intact. But all is not well in paradise.
The Great Burn of 1910, sometimes called the Big Burn or the Big Blowup, torched three million acres of private and federal forestlands in Montana, Idaho and northeastern Washington. More than 1,700 fires erupted in the area that summer, the driest then on record. The fledging Forest Service was overmatched. President Taft sent 4,000 soldiers to assist the civilian firefighters. In August, Wallace, Idaho was overtaken by the flames, which consumed 100 buildings, nearly half the town. Smoke from the fires reached New England. The soot reached Greenland. By the time it was all over, 80 people were dead.
Today, the Great Burn, at 275,00 acres, encompasses just a fraction of the 1910 blaze. Of that, 100,000 acres are within the Lolo National Forest in western Montana, with the balance in eastern Idaho's Clearwater National Forest. The Bitterroot Divide separates the two chunks along the Idaho-Montana border, between Interstate 90 and Highway 12.
Because the 1910 fire burned so intensely, altering the forest's ecology, the Great Burn is touted by both environmentalists and recreationists as one of the most natural, least manhandled swaths of forest in the region. Timber interest in it spiked in the mid 20th Century and has since subsided. The mining industry has turned a blind eye to the area. The Burn is a quarter-million acres of pristine roadless wilderness. But for a network of trails and diligent volunteer management, it's untouched by the modern world.
That the fires of 1910 saved the Burn from the kinds of industry encroachment seen in some other wilderness areas seems an ironic twist. The same fires spawned an aggressive Forest Service firefighting policy that most now blame for the rash of megafires in recent decades.
By 1935, the Forest Service had adopted a fierce approach to wildland fires known as the "10 a.m. policy," which dictated that all fires be controlled no later than the morning after the day the blaze was discovered. Fire was viewed as a serious threat to the nation's thriving timber industry, with the memory of 1910 and subsequent hot summers spurring the agency to start a public awareness campaign that led to the creation of Smokey the Bear. Meanwhile, deadfall and undergrowth that normally succumbed to uncontrolled fires stacked up.
Today, Clark pronounces the Burn's unusually low-elevation alpine surroundings and large open meadows of beargrass "phenomenal." The forest's unique character has drawn him back to it time and time again. Ten years ago, he joined the Great Burn Study Group as a volunteer. Now he maintains a strong connection to the place as the regional representative of the Sierra Club in Missoula. "If you're an art student or a photographer, you'd be in heaven" in the Burn, he says. "The snags that are left from the Great Fire that are still standing are like amazing pieces of sculpted art. They're from the 1910 fires, so they've been standing for 100 years and haven't toppled over. Many of them have [toppled], and they're left in snag graveyards across the alpine-subalpine areas."
A forest discovered
There's a 1971 snapshot from the Great Burn. Eleven shaggy-haired young adults from Missoula stand around the forest, posing in varying states of silliness. A woman kisses at the camera. A guy curls his lips and snarls. One individual bends at the waist, mooning the camera with his pants on. They look to be having the time of their lives.
These are the eleven founders of the Great Burn Study Group, including Harris, during the trip that eventually defined a large swath of forest in Montana and Idaho.
Backed by funding from the Ford Foundation, the group of University of Montana students and two instructors drove a bus up Fish Creek in 1971 and spent 21 days exploring the area. Harris and his cohorts instantly recognized an area in need of protectors. On their return, they arranged a group independent study course on the Great Burn that fall. Their coursework contributed to the first report recommending wilderness designation for the Burn, and the Forest Service's first Roadless Area Review and Evaluation came out a year later. The Great Burn Study Group was born.
Many have come to refer to the GBSG's model of conservation as "place-based adoption." It's an approach that has garnered respect even from the motorized user community.
The group kept monitoring the Burn through the 1980s. The founders funded the operation themselves until obtaining nonprofit status in 2000. Their data and analysis influenced revisions to forest management practices in both the Lolo and Clearwater national forests. Harris says it was never about public recognition—the GBSG kept an intentionally low profile. By operating without much attention they were able to keep overhead low and maintain a strict focus on on-the-ground work.
"We're not known for extreme obstructionist activity," Harris says. "In our 40 years, I think we've filed nine administrative appeals and two lawsuits." The administrative appeals were primarily over timber sales and roadless areas, and motorized trail reconstruction in a non-motorized location.
Handfuls of volunteers have joined the GBSG over the decades to find out why the Burn is so appealing, and to help defend it once they have. They collect data on illegal motorized use. They inventory wildlife. They survey campgrounds and trails for human-caused degradation. They've packed herbicides into the Kelly Creek drainage, among other places, to control invasive weeds such as spotted knapweed and sulfur cinquefoil. Last year, several GBSG volunteers installed a wilderness-friendly pit toilet at Heart Lake in response to pollution concerns. The group has even gone so far as to sue the Montana Snowmobile Association over use of the area.
"Every place needs its advocates, and the Great Burn area has benefited a lot from having a group that has focused so much energy and effort on protecting it," says Wilderness Watch Executive Director George Nickas. "I think that that's wonderful. It's too bad that lots more areas don't have citizen groups who are as committed and dedicated to protecting them."
In short, the GBSG does what the understaffed and under-funded Forest Service can't. "We've gained so much respect, it's been an incredible cooperative relationship," Harris says.
The GBSG's latest report to the National Forest Foundation—one of its primary financial backers—speaks to the scale of their efforts to aid the Forest Service. Between April of 2010 and April of 2011, volunteers conducted 3,094 hours of work in the Burn. They listed or killed weeds on 102 miles of trail, restored or removed 30 campsites and monitored 1,200 miles of trail for illegal motorized use, they reported. Last year they got $158,393 from the National Forest Foundation and private donors. The group spent $154,450 on salaries and operations.
Harris calls the study group a "citizen's brigade." And the brigade has been mushrooming. In 1999, the GBSG had a dozen regular volunteers. Last year, the total was 195. They've gained significant momentum without lavish fundraising events, a central office or even a website.
But now the GBSG is tiptoeing into the limelight. It's the group's 40th anniversary, and this year it is changing its tactics. They launched a website in early summer. They're putting out louder calls for help on projects, including another pit toilet installation this August.
Policy and field studies director Beverly Dupree refers to this as the Great Burn Study Group's "coming out year." Coming out after 40 years, Harris says, "is an acknowledgement that a group of humans fell in love with a place, persisted to make sure it was protected, increased our circle of supporters, and in certain ways mainstreamed into different avenues of society." It's the group's way of saying "we've done this, we're going to continue to do it," he adds.
After running under the radar so long, there is a degree of nervousness about trying something new like the website. But Dupree believes that as long as they don't lose sight of the original spirit of the study group, a higher profile will only add to their effectiveness. "We've got all these people who love the place, and now there's a cyber connection I guess," she says. "For us for so long it's been about having your feet on the ground and being in a place. Because of the way the world's changing, we're changing with it. But I don't want to lose the feet-on-the-ground part."
Yet for all their quiet success, the GBSG still faces its greatest challenge: getting the Great Burn designated as wilderness. It's what the group set out to do from day one. And after four decades of fieldwork and lobbying, it's still just beyond the horizon.
Fight for big 'W'
Harris can pinpoint the GBSG's greatest setback in seconds. "President Reagan's pocket veto (of a wilderness designation) in 1988 was devastating," he says. "We were one signature away. All he had to do was sign the thing. And it would have been a shitty bill. They cut 10,000 acres off at the last minute for Champion International...But looking back, hell, I don't care if it's shitty or not. It would have been 80,000 acres instead of zero on the Montana side. It took me a year to recover. And that's when we started to wake up and realize we can't rely on the legislative process. We ultimately have to run that gamut, but it's something we can't influence. What we can influence is bringing together a group of people that might love a place and slowly and quietly introduce them to the Great Burn."
On both the Idaho and Montana sides, the Forest Service has recognized the Burn's potential as protected wilderness since the 1980s. The Lolo National Forest has even taken to managing the proposed wilderness area as designated wilderness—a directive passed down from its regional administration. But the situation on the Idaho side remains uncertain.
Recently, the congressional delegations of Montana and Idaho have produced their first wilderness bills in more than 20 years. Sen. Mike Crapo's bill establishing the 517,000-acre Owyhee-Bruneau Wilderness in southern Idaho passed Congress in 2009. But pro-wilderness advocates have loudly criticized wilderness attempts by Rep. Mike Simpson and Sen. Jon Tester in other areas of Idaho and Montana, respectively.
Wilderness Watch's George Nickas says that's largely due to the fact that both bills contained "really crummy provisions" like logging mandates and public forestland "giveaways."
"You clean up the bills and you push a decent bill, and Simpson would have had a wilderness bill by now," Nickas says. "I think Tester's forest jobs bill would be in the same boat."
Other congressmen—Rep. Denny Rehberg and Sen. Max Baucus in Montana, and Sen. James Risch and Rep. Raul Labrador in Idaho—have either ignored or spoken out against setting aside more wilderness.
Crapo says the nature of wilderness designation has been altered in the last 20 years: "Wilderness legislation has become very divisive and the battle over whether to declare wilderness at the congressional level is very engaged. National stakeholder groups these days, from whichever perspective they come, are very, very well organized and capable of stopping legislation." That in turn puts pressure on local groups to craft strong, cohesive proposals.
Crapo points to his own Owyhee-Bruneau Wilderness bill to illustrate the importance of local collaborative efforts. Crapo and others struggled for eight years to identify and bring to the table every local stakeholder possible, he says, from mining and timber interests to the Shoshone Paiute Tribe and the U.S. Air Force. "That does not mean every individual person who wants to be in the collaborative process has to be a part of it," he says. "But every interest or every stakeholder interest needs to be represented."
Crapo convened the Clearwater Basin Collaborative in 2008 with that goal. The Great Burn Study Group is one of the 28 organizations involved with the collaborative.
As for the Montana side of the Burn, Harris unflinchingly declares "there's no hope...Sen. Tester's not going to touch this. He's in an election...asking him to push a legislative campaign for the Great Burn isn't even in the cards. We wouldn't ask it."
Many conservationists say that a wilderness designation for the Burn would experience little opposition except from select motorized user groups.
"I think it was a great tragedy that Sen. Tester didn't introduce a Great Burn Wilderness bill instead of the bill he introduced," Nickas says, referring to Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. "I don't know where the reason for that lies...but he could have gotten the wilderness ball rolling in Montana by pursuing something like the Great Burn."
Tester says the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act didn't include wilderness designation for the Great Burn primarily because no one approached him with a proposal. His bill drew from the efforts of three independent, collaborative groups whose voices included those of the timber industry, the conservation community and motorized recreation interests, he says. They crafted concrete proposals and presented them to Tester shortly after he entered office. "That hasn't happened with the Great Burn," he says, "and that's really the difference." Until someone comes to him with a similar proposal for the Great Burn, he won't act: "It's gotta be a ground-up collaboration."
As the battle for official designation continues, Harris has grudgingly accepted the words offered to him nearly 40 years ago by a Montana conservation legend. "Cecil Garland, who was single-handedly responsible for the Scapegoat...one day came up to me when I was 24, at the [UM] science complex, and said, 'Dale, this is a lifetime adventure.' Some dude comes up and says, 'It's going to take you a lifetime to do that'—and I was like, 'fuck.'..
"Here I am. And it isn't out of obligation. It's out of love."
Conservationists such as Clark and Harris contend that the Clearwater National Forest exhibited a lack of foresight in drafting its 1987 forest plan, because off-road vehicles were not yet as popular then or as capable of getting deep into the backcountry. In 2005, even forest officials admitted the Forest Service had failed to adequately consider the future of motorized use when it opened up large areas to off-road vehicles.
Motorized use is "the threat" to the Great Burn, says Clark. "It threatens the wild character of it for people's enjoyment. It displaces wildlife at critical times. And it sets a precedent that would make it more difficult for the area to be designated wilderness in the future."
Two years ago, two snowmobilers entered the Montana side of the Burn near Irish Basin. They meant to retrieve two broken-down sleds from an earlier trip in the Fish Creek area. Law enforcement officials with the Forest Service caught wind of their plans through an online snowmobile forum. The forests and meadows there had been off limits to motorized use since the 1980s, and the snowmobilers found authorities waiting for them. At the same time, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks made a bust by helicopter at nearby Kid Lake. Five snowmobilers were caught riding through a non-motorized area. FWP mailed all of them citations, which typically average just $150. The incidents served to further stimulate the Great Burn Study Group's concerns.
Motorized use in Montana's portion of the Burn has been flatly prohibited for decades. And if the Clearwater National Forest acts on several suggestions from 2005 for management changes, the Idaho side may soon be shut to over-snow vehicle use.
Sandra Mitchell is the public lands director for the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and the executive director of the Idaho Recreation Council. She says the Idaho side of the Burn is currently popular with snowmobilers from across the state. "It's truly a classic backcountry," she says. The riders like that there are no groomed trails, no parking spots. It's simply a beautiful open area to ride in. "Plus it brings snowmobilers to the area," she says, "which of course is good for the economic stability of the area."
Motorized use of the Burn has been a contentious topic on the Idaho side. Reaching a consensus on acceptable motorized use once seemed impossible, Harris says. "When we first started talking about wilderness, we almost got lynched." But now the two sides are talking to one another. The situation's become more civil. "I think there's just a handful of the same people that keep going there and they know that it's illegal," Harris says. He adds that's something a wilderness designation probably won't change.
On July 30, 2006, Bob Clark and five other hikers were headed down Trail 35 in the Crooked Fork drainage. They were returning from a three-day trip into the Burn. Their wilderness experience had been marred that morning by the sight of motorcycle tracks in the mud. Trail 35—on the Idaho side—is designated non-motorized.
The group stopped for lunch just off the trail. A short time later, they heard motorcycles in the distance, and then a trio of riders approached.
Says Clark: "I grabbed my camera, went down to the trail, and when I lifted up my camera the lead rider gunned his bike right at me, popped a wheel right at my head. I snapped a picture just as the bike's front tire was coming at my head—and he hit me and knocked me off the trail. He fell on top of my friends...my friend was underneath trying to defend himself and kick him off. There was a verbal exchange. He got back on his bike and the three of them raced off."
After a yearlong investigation, using Clark's photos, law enforcement identified the lead biker as Timothy D. Turner of Stevensville, who authorities subsequently charged with felony aggravated assault. Clark hoped the catch would become a major deterrent for illegal motorized use in the Burn, and perhaps force the Clearwater National Forest's hand in a crackdown. But a plea bargain knocked Turner's punishment down to $150 in fines and court costs.
"I really give the Forest Service a lot of credit," Clark says. "Their law enforcement did an excellent job of tracking this person down. It's the courts that failed us. They found him. They spent a lot of money and a lot of resources finding this person, and he's a repeat offender. This is a serial trail poacher, an obvious anti-rules guy. This was no accident. He was up there on purpose—and he got away with a slap on the wrist."
Sandra Mitchell says such incidents are regrettable. But she adds that the actions of one person should not decide the fate of access for all. Motorized users enjoy the Great Burn in their own way, she contends. "Until Congress acts and says it's wilderness, we see no reason why our use should be eliminated."