The Yaak Valley, in the farthest northwestern region of Montana, is a remote wilderness of old-growth larch and Ponderosa pines, swamplands, rainforest and glaciated alpine terrain. It is home to an astounding array of the most threatened and endangered wildlife in the lower 48 states: wolves, grizzly bears, lynx, great gray owls, eagles, inland redband trout, bull and Westslope cutthroat trout, wolverines, and an occasional woodland caribou. Geographically it lies along the Canadian border, not along a route to any popular vacation spots. In terms of national forest policy, it is not even a wilderness. It bears none of the appellations that might shield it from the onslaught of rapacious timber companies with a desire to clear-cut it for short-term profit. When we speak of last best places, the Yaak Valley is that kind of place.
The Roadless Yaak is a collection of essays, recollections, celebrations, and poems by 36 authors, scientists, activists and poets that explores the Yaak wilderness, like a richly textured quilt, from a variety of luminous angles. Edited by Rick Bass, the collection shows an extraordinary depth of compassion and understanding, by which the authors hope to unify and motivate a broad public discourse on behalf of the Yaak’s desperate need for wilderness designation.
Bass calls the Yaak “a semi-permeable island,” by which he means it is crisscrossed with roads that divide the wilderness into 15 dynamically interactive wildlands. The great hope is that these can be “braided together” by restoring connective corridors “that keep the wild archipelago of these 15 gardens interconnected…breathing and pulsing, so that they may continue to serve as reservoirs of wildness.” The importance of rejoining the divided areas within the Yaak extends further than the boundaries of the Yaak itself, as the authors take great pains to explain. Two distinct weather systems and their associated environments (those of the Pacific Northwest maritime and the Rocky Mountains) overlap in the Yaak, allowing for a unique and teeming diversity unlike any other part of the Northern Rockies. Thus, the Yaak is a vital crossroads, a connecting point for wild populations traveling north toward the Yukon, and south into the Yellowstone country, as well as east and west.
The collection’s overarching rationale is that what roadless land remains is integral to the health and wellbeing of both wildlife and humans. This is not an isolated sentiment, as Chris Wood, the former senior policy and communications advisor to the chief of the Forest Service, points out. In his essay, “The Slow and Difficult Trick,” Wood states that during the unprecedented 600 local meetings that resulted in the Forest Service’s roadless rule, 2.2 million postcards, e-mails, letters and faxes showed that “an astonishing 95 percent [of Americans supported] stronger protection for roadless areas.” Sadly and without rancor, Wood also states that had the roadless rule been implemented, “It would have helped secure the conservation of lands providing habitat for nearly 25 percent of all animal species listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act.”
What makes a wilderness valuable for humans is often a matter of use. In his essay “The Loggers,” Bob Love explains how the conflict between his personal need to make a reasonable living as a logger and his disillusionment with “the insatiable appetites of sawmills” led him to an understanding of the need to seek a balance between timber management and the preservation of wilderness and roadless areas. Love began trying to bring loggers and wilderness advocates together outside of official meetings. In the process, he found that much of the disagreement between the two sides was a “contrived contentiousness” built into the institutional process.
“Essentially,” says Love of those willing to take part in the unofficial meetings, “We agreed that the timber frontier was closed, and that we had to learn to live within limits.” Foremost among the considerations concerning logging on public lands, Love says, are “the challenging and complex issues associated with previously managed forests.” “The failure of the Clinton-era debate about roadless area management,” he continues, “Was that it occurred in the absence of more urgent deliberations about the treatment of roaded areas.”
One of the most refreshing aspects of this collection is that while the contributions of the various authors often take on the political and scientific aspects of wilderness and roadless issues, the viewpoints are decidedly personal and introspective. Lynn Sainsbury’s contribution, “The Sylvan Lady,” explores her considerable knowledge of old-growth larch, Douglas fir and western white pine forests and the symbiotic relationships they have with the much-maligned spotted owl. Sainbury’s explication of these potentially dry details is warm, concise and full of extraordinary sincerity. Her narrative reflects on these subjects while hiking in search of a stand of giant larch with Rick Bass and his wife Elizabeth. While following her we learn of her varied experiences as a field biologist, as a member of a helitack crew fighting forest fires, and as a tree planting inspector.
Among the many other fine contributions are William Kittredge’s earthy paean to the Yaak Valley and the Dirty Shame Saloon in the town of Yaak. Annick Smith’s lovely, serendipitous reflections on the possible histories of the Yaak’s early settlers as encountered in the Boyd Hill Cemetery. Douglas Chadwick’s exploration of the wonders of lichens and mycorrhyzae in the “underground jungle” of an old-growth, temperate forest floor. And Pattiann Rogers’ sublime poetic meditation on the Yaak’s melodious and transformative natural beauty.