Guarding the Burn 

For 40 years volunteers have shielded a forested paradise. Is it still safe?

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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 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."

Rolled over

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.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

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.

click to enlarge It’s July 3, and 20 feet of snow still blanket the stateline divide. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

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 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."

click to enlarge A motorcyclist runs down Bob Clark on a non-motorized trail in the Great Burn in 2006. - PHOTOS COURTESY BOB CLARK
  • Photos courtesy Bob Clark
  • A motorcyclist runs down Bob Clark on a non-motorized trail in the Great Burn in 2006.

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."

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