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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."