Wild Places
  • Yaak Valley Logging Montana

I live in a land that burns and rots, I live in a land that is ancient and yet brand new. For twenty years I’ve been holed up in the most northwestern corner of the state, in the million-acre Yaak Valley, at the northern tip of the Kootenai National Forest – and for a long time, I’ve been working with a little local grassroots organization, the Yaak Valley Forest Council (YVFC), in support of community solutions that will help protect the special wild quality of this farthest and in some ways wildest valley in Montana.

The Yaak is a land of superlatives: lowest elevation, highest rainfall, most species diversity, most timber cut, most roads. Longest list of threatened, endangered, and sensitive species. It’s a land of myths, of creation-story metaphors, Garden of Eden metaphors, and now it is in trouble.

Because the Yaak – abutting the Canada line, and representing the southern terminus of Canada’s majestic Purcell Mountains – rests in a magic seam, receiving Pacific Northwest maritime influences (the Yaak is called Montana’s only rainforest), but residing also in a northern Rockies fire regime, it contains species from all three of those ecosystems, including unique species, as well as unique relationships between those species and their landscape.

It is the epicenter of western larch distribution for the world, and yet possesses, along the Kootenai River, sagebrush, but also cedar, hemlock, aspen, cottonwood. If a tree grows in Montana, it probably grows in the Yaak, as defined by that landscape north of the Kootenai River and south of Canada.

My problem – my twenty-year problem – is that I have seen a lot of wildness lost, and none protected. Unfortunately, another of the Yaak’s superlatives involves our government’s propensity for road-building, particularly during the corporate liquidation era of the 1980s. The Yaak’s forest -- the Kootenai National Forest -- has nearly 10,000 miles of roads, many of them weed-smitten and sediment-dumping: more roads than any national forest in Montana.

And all without a single acre of wilderness designated in the Yaak.

Why isn’t the Yaak protected? While our little group can’t compete in constituency numbers or charitable giving, we can traffic in creative thinking, and for the last several years, we have been drafting a template which I think is finally ready to not only serve as the template for other place-based wilderness-and-community development agreements, but which is finally capable of securing a little bit of wilderness in the Yaak: a jump-start solution to a Montana issue too-long ignored.

Our little pro-wilderness, and pro-logging group, has often confused people in the mainstream environmental movement as well as in the timber industry, and sometimes even, for a while, in our local community. How can you be pro-wilderness and pro-logging, or pro-timber, some people ask. Part of the answer lies in the valley’s lushness as well as all those thousands of miles of roads that zipper-stitch and lattice so much of this still-living, still-vibrant, pulsing northern boreal forest. Many of those roads are in dire need of being treated for weeds and then decommissioned–a labor-intensive (and job-creating) task –but there are plenty of roads too, particularly in the developed front-country around the little towns of Troy, Eureka, and Libby, where those once-upon-a-time clearcuts of old have regenerated finally into explosive weedy thickets of overstocked fir and pine which, in addition to being upwind fuelboxes awaiting the dry hot winds of August and just the right crack of lightning, are also sucking up water and nutrients that could benefit the larger trees, and allow the forest to creep back toward a more natural condition, a healthy mosaic of very old and very young forests. As it stands now, we are largely missing the very old. (As much as 50% of the Yaak might once have been old growth; I’ve often thought it would be a wonderful project for a university student, or students, to map the old giant stumps, unrecorded ghosts and legacies of what was, before those stumps moulder back into non-history).

So our group has found places, a lot of places, where we agree that some wood could and even should be cut, under certain prescriptions and conditions (ideally, in the winter, to avoid disturbing the soil), utilizing some of those already existing open roads, and working in the overstocked stands next to people’s homes and communities. We have resurrected from the limbo of litigation the West Troy and South Sasumy projects, with modifications, in the hopes of reducing the alarming fuel loading of small diameter Douglas fir lying in a canyon directly downwind of Troy. (Removing much of the overstocked Doug fir would also benefit the remaining Ponderosa pines, some of which are quite large, but are on the verge of dying out, due to too much competition for not enough nutrients, and not enough moisture.)

And up near Eureka – again, on the outskirts of a community – we’ll be supporting the Meadows Fuel Reduction project, with the same objectives.

Such fledgling cooperative projects between loggers and environmentalists are nothing new up here: in the late 1990s, our group secured one of the region’s first stewardship logging projects, where revenues from material removed from a forest treatment could remain in the local community for restoration purposes. (In our Lincoln County Community Development proposal, we’re requesting expansion of this existing authority to our fuels reduction pilot areas, with a novel twist: that a percentage of those revenues can be applied also toward the purchase of industrial timberlands, in order to protect traditional community access, wildlife values, and to retain those lands in timber production).

And because Lincoln County is one of only two areas in the entire state that meets the standards requisite to participate in the $7 billion New Markets Tax Credits initiative (in which companies investing in local community development projects are eligible for 40% tax write-offs straight out of the box, before the first product is ever even sold), our little local co-op, in theory, is capable, given the right business plan and utilizing the substantial tail-wind of those tax credits, of purchasing all of the industrial timberlands in the state of Montana, and managing them in a local partnership, in perpetuity, for the long-term social, economic, and ecologic good of Montana.

Boring stuff, these arcane tax structures and business plans, but exciting, too, in a way, as more and more people support the project in an ever-broadening manner. Instead of just saying what we want –wilderness; the permanent assurance that our wildest places will be kept forever free and wild, for their own sake as well as ours and future generations’ (so that we can put an end to the chronic and debilitating polarization: so that we can finally, after 42 years, turn our back on that war, and break the wilderness logjam in the Yaak, and indeed, in Montana, and move forward into a territory of peace and the power of diverse cooperation, rather than the frustrating, fragmented gridlock of traditional hostilities) – we have also gone out into the community and asked what other interest groups would like to see from such a Community Development Act.

Their answers have been no more outrageous than our own requests –demands – for wilderness in the Yaak. The snowmobilers have negotiated a couple of places in the Yaak where they can continue – as per existing law –to ride snowmobiles, as long as the needs and concerns of all wildlife are met. The ATVers have asked for a good faith study examining possible locations for the development of a couple of non-controversial ATV routes in this big county: developed roads and routes where those motorized recreationists can have a place to play. It’s not my cup of tea, to say the least, but in a county the size of many New England states, I think we can help meet their needs. Hell, if it gets wilderness in the Yaak and stays out of sensitive country, I’m willing to help build them an autobahn right alongside U.S. Highway 2 and Burlington Northern railroad, and will lay the bricks by hand for such a venture. I don’t care for ATVs at all–the sound and scent of them quail my tremulous poet’s heart! – but I do like many of the people who ride them.

From the backcountry skiers, we assembled a list of their needs, as we did from area schools and educators. (We’ve developed a way to help supplementally fund some of those needs). Of special import in our project is the last independent mill standing in Lincoln County, Chapel Cedar, in Troy. It is our belief (and others’) that any wood we can produce from this agreement will benefit in the marketplace from the added social cachet of being “wilderness wood”–a product that participated in, and facilitated, the preservation of the first ( and only) wilderness in the Yaak in parts of five decades, and the first in Montana in nearly three decades. The marketers to whom we have been speaking are excited about the opportunity to provide the choice of such a product to the construction industry locally as well as regionally.

What impressed me is that we – hunting and fishing guides, loggers, millowners, snowmobilers, ATVers, business leaders, local politicians, foresters, environmentalists, and educators -- have found a way to assemble these pieces in such a way that doesn’t cost anything, in these times of hard budget choices. And what amazes me is that we have done it at all. For 42 years or longer, we’ve proven that we can do the easy thing of fighting. Now the only thing left to prove is to see if we can work together, in a few small common ground areas, and given these incentives to cooperate with one another.

Our project, though small, is wide. There may be a few folks who wouldn’t want to commit to it, but the important thing, and the exciting thing, is that there are a lot who are willing, desirous, and who have invested a huge commitment in developing this experiment. It is comprised solely of optimists, those willing to try something different in Lincoln County, and with such unprecedented broad support, the only thing standing in our way is the delegation: Senators Baucus and Burns, and Representative Rehberg.

We don’t have the high-paid lobbyists telling the delegation what to do, and what they’ll get in return, but what we do have is a good story, creativity, and, for the first time in Lincoln County, a wider breadth of community resolve than we’ve ever seen: the proverbial made-in-Montana solution.

Imitation can be a form of flattery, and we’ve noticed higher-profile wilderness proposals – utilizing many of the Lincoln County template’s elements, such as stewardship-and-restoration forestry coupling with wilderness designation – will be, and are, popping up around the state, and we can only strenuously hope that our work in the Yaak, and the Lincoln County Development Act, will find favor in Congress, and that the Yaak, finally, will not be sold out – by timber, or mainstream enviros, or Congress – yet again.

A lush if sometimes hammered landscape will still produce creativity, will still produce dreams. An unlikely coalition in this at-times most fractious of Montana communities is not asking the delegation for handouts, nor special dispensations, particularly in this era of vanished budgets and gone-away appropriations coffers. Instead, we’re asking for the dignity of attention and support. We have designed an elegant plan that is self-generative, community-healing, diverse and fair, and as unique and distinct in such matters as is the Yaak distinct in Montana. We understand and fully expect that other communities around the state will be able to emulate it.

But we ask, and are expecting our delegation, to honor the place where such a project, and participation, was initiated -- the Yaak -- and implement it as law, with full due expediency, for the good of the Yaak, the good of the community, the good of Montana, and as an interesting experiment in hope and creativity – one that is long overdue, in this most northwestern corner of a state that, sometimes, like the land itself, seems pulled in two different directions at once.