Mountain High 

Independence Day is once again upon us, and it’s a fine time to reflect upon the singular conviction our country’s founding fathers held as paramount in all their discussions and writings: liberty. The founders’ idea of liberty included the freedom of religion, of speech and of the press, the freedom to assemble, to carry a gun and to be considered innocent until proven guilty, alongside many others that allow a diverse assortment of individuals to gather together and create a fair and just nation for all.

We cannot take these well-considered freedoms lightly, protecting us as they do from the nosy nature of shady officials and corporations eager to weasel their way into our personal lives under the guise of protecting the homeland, or increasing their product’s market share.

These days we’re bombarded daily with a bizarre array of messages about “freedom”—“freedom” from weapons of mass destruction, “freedom” for Iraqis, and of course “freedom” fries. Still, we often take some of our most cherished (and important) freedoms for granted, like our right to breathe unpolluted air, or amble through pristine mountain meadows, or slip smoothly into clear, mountain-fed rivers.

If we don’t fight to maintain these fundamental rights, our nation’s few islands of wilderness will continue to shrink. On June 28, for instance, Kootenai National Forest supervisor Bob Castaneda gave the go-ahead to the Sterling Mining Company’s plan to swipe rock, copper and silver out from under the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness. The targeted ore sits directly beneath two high alpine lakes, both of which are in danger of being permanently drained once a web of subterranean chambers is excavated—as has happened with other mines. The drilling, blasting, trucking, shoveling and profiteering will also occur amidst a tenuous population of 30 or so remaining grizzly bears, a species wary of humans and lacking the freedom to move safely outside of their narrowly defined home.

The native birds, bull trout and scores of other species living downstream are also unlikely to appreciate the three million gallons of wastewater (laden with heavy metals and nutrient pollution, of course) that Sterling will dump into the long-abused Clark Fork River. Nor will the estimated one million tons of tailing sludge dumped just a couple thousand feet from the river create better habitat. Cities, counties and conservation groups (downstream and otherwise) are galvanized in opposition to the mine, but are impaired by an outdated and far-reaching mining law written long before women were allowed to vote.

It certainly wasn’t the intent of Congress to allow mining corporations to drill in the Cabinets when they designated the area as one of the first 10 wilderness areas in our nation. The Wilderness Act of 1964 was written specifically to “…secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness,” and a mine tunneling into this pristine range literally undermines the intent and letter of that act.

Fortunately, many organizations are fighting to keep the Cabinets free of this long-established polluter. Trout Unlimited (522-7291), The Clark Fork Coalition (542-0539), The Alliance for the Wild Rockies (208-263-5281) The Sierra Club (582-8365), the Rock Creek Alliance (208-265-8272) and many other groups are scrambling to assure that this tiny wilderness conforms to its legislated directive: “[T]here shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment…no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.” These groups have a vision that uninhibited access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness can be extended to all creatures—and not just the select few with the mining claims necessary to sabotage yet another diverse and pristine wilderness.

The Rocky Mountaineers will be taking advantage of the hot days, moderate river levels and one of the finest canoe routes around as they glide down the scenic Clearwater River en route to Seeley Lake on Saturday, July 6. It ain’t exactly “mountaineering,” but even the crustiest alpine fool needs to spend some time out of the high country, and the mellow Clearwater is an excellent choice, providing endless swimming holes and fine views of the Swan Range. Bring your own vessel or rent one, but call Steve Schombel at 721-4686 to get on board.

Meanwhile, the New Rocky Mountaineers are bagging a couple of fine peaks this weekend, a local hike/bike on Saturday and a Swan Valley massif on Sunday. Participants on the Saturday trip will ride their bicycles 14 miles up the Rattlesnake Recreation Area’s “main corridor” on their way to the Wilderness Area boundary. Then they’ll stash their steeds and charge an additional six miles past numerous lakes and along scenic ridgelines until finally arriving at the elusive Mosquito Peak. You’ll need a mountain bike and a fine cardiovascular system to complete this full-day affair, but call Jeff Flury at 544-2957 to join the pack.

Sunday, they’ll be scaling the 9,000+ Ptarmigan Peak via a “great ridge walk,” so call Russ Lamson at 728-7174 to get high in the Swan Range.

A summertime interpretive series sponsored by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks continues this Saturday with a lecture on Glacial Lake Missoula. David Alt, a local geologist and resident expert on the lake that once filled our valley, will host the lecture, which is appropriate for the entire family. To catch the show, head 26 miles east of Missoula on I-90 to Beavertail Hill State Park on Saturday, July 5. The 3 p.m. event is free and open to the public, but call Dione Brandau at 542-5533 to get the scoop.

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