Wild to the core 

Up Against Openings

Last spring, during the Orion Society's Forgotten Language Tours in the Yaak Valley, author and essayist JANISSE RAY heard voices she couldn't resist -- some real, some imagined -- including that of nature writer Rick Bass, a champion of the roadless areas near his home.

Photos by Bud Journey.

From the wind-tortured summit of Mount Henry, standing at one of the windows that wraps its creaking lookout, Canada, eight miles away, is dark-blue and misty. The lookie points it out. He's a young man named Leif Ericksen (the name fits) whose eyes are so blue that they look like the sky itself, shining through augured sockets. It's raining in Canada.

But in the Yaak Valley it's plenty sunny, and the sun bores down into the Purcell Mountains, into the lookie's eyes, into places it shouldn't reach at all, not in such spates. The sun pierces into these big lime-colored holes in the evergreen forest.


There are so many of them. Looking due east and using peripheral vision, I count 52. Sometimes they have a smattering of trees -- more recent clearcuts, although they're officially called openings -- but many of them are wide grass-patches, White House lawns way in the Montana woods.

"How big is this littlest one?" I ask Leif, who leans over his rickety widow's walk to measure the cut closest to us. I could hike down to it in 20 minutes.

"About 40 acres," he says.

One of the clearcuts is six times that size, an entire mountain flank reduced to stumps and grasses. In fact, on these near slopes, there is almost as much cleared land as forest, and threaded through it all, like tapeworms, skinny, white logging roads.

On the darker-green slopes beyond, more clearcuts -- I don't count those. Behind, to the west, dozens more, neon-green and blinding in the sun. Sometimes only narrow swaths of trees separate them, corridors that look about the size of rope footbridges, and about as secure.

If I were grizzly, I think, I couldn't live in this openness.

Rick Bass lives here, and he wrestles with the openness too, although wrestle may be too mild a word. The cutting rides him hard, because he lives tight in those trees. Lodgepoles and Doug firs and larch crowd around his house so close that you hardly notice the house at all. He lives like any other wild thing in the north woods. He moves among the trees quick and wary, out of sight in a wink. Many times you don't see him at all, but you know he's out there, in the woods. Like you know the mountain lions are there.

Rick's been here 10 years, and every day he wakes up more twined in those trees, his body woven into the bark, into the gray branches. He tells me the first time he and his wife saw the valley, from a high point on the Yaak Road, coming from Canada -- right then something reached out and snagged his heart. He showed me that spot, coming around a curve and the Yaak laid out like Sleepy Hollow.

"This is it," he said, slowing down, as if wanting it to grab me like it grabbed him and Elizabeth. But his relationship with the place intrigued me more than the place itself. People call it passion, but it's more than that. You could not tell where Rick's body stopped and the valley began. The thread separating him from wildness couldn't have kept a spider aloft, it was so thin. It seemed as if before my eyes he might break free of domesticity any second and shape-shift to wolverine. Or lynx. I couldn't keep my eyes off him, wanting to witness it happening.

"I get scared looking at the clearcuts," he said that day, closer to home. "I'm afraid they'll make me sick. I mean really, physically, some disease of bitterness."

Rick's not on Mount Henry today, but on an overnighter in the Badger Two Medicine, and will be reading tomorrow night in Polebridge. Elizabeth and the girls are off at swimming lessons in Troy.

"Where are the roadless areas?" I interrupt Leif, who has begun his supper, bag of oregano in hand. Immediately south, he gestures, lies 13,000 acres of unwhittled forest in the Basin Creek drainage. He thumbs southeast, toward Roderick, and toward Saddle Mountain, and toward Big Creek.

Maybe 150 people live in the Yaak, 150 of the hardiest people in the country. Snow flies from September to May, and even now, late July, there's a pool of unmelted snow on Mount Henry's summit.

I think of it as a Rip Van Winkle kind of place, asleep a long time, buried. But magical.

About 30 of those 150 people, Rick included, belong to the Yaak Valley Forest Council. Theirs is a logging community and not one of them wants to lose that identity, the character that connection lends. But they're afraid of too many trees being cut too fast, of losing the wolverine like they lost the woodland caribou, of losing the whole damn place.

All total, 150,000 acres of roadless areas are left in the Yaak, a part of the 2 million-acre Kootenai National Forest. These areas are not simply in one big chunk, either, but in 10 sections. The Forest Council wants to keep those areas unroaded and unlogged.

I keep looking wistfully into the blue-green mist of Canada, thinking, "There's always Canada, wild and free," although I know it's high time we chucked that myth. Canada faces the same dilemmas we do: development, logging, growth -- versus wildness and peace and beauty, versus grizzlies and wolves.

Once, at a campsite in the upper Yaak, a woman with long, gray hair and wild eyes roared up in a pick-up nearly as old as she was. She cut the motor and stalked over to where we sat in the grass, beside a little creek.

"A bear lives up here," she said accusingly, glaring. "She's been here for years. You have to be careful with your food, lock it up at night. If the bear becomes a nuisance, they'll take her away. And there's nowhere else for her to go."

"We're being careful," we said truthfully, placating, but the woman was severe.

"If you leave food out, that's not the bear's fault," she said. "This is the end of the road for her. There's nowhere else to go."

That's reason enough to set aside wilderness in the Yaak Valley. It's the edge of the country, pushed up right against Canada, and if it gets laid open, made bare and safe and comfortable for people, then we can just about give up on wildness in this nation of fools. That's my thinking.

Some people think the Yaak's already lost. The head of one environmental organization I'm choosing not to name said to me, "Have you see it? It's been cut to death."

I disagree. I'd like to lay my own place, the coastal plains of south Georgia, up next to Rick's place. We have precious little public land where I'm from, and the forests have been devastated. I'm scared to research what percentage of landcover has been altered from forest to pine plantation in the last 100 years. Heck, some people think Southern pines actually grow in rows. Naturally.

I do know that 93 million acres of longleaf pine once covered the uplands of the Southeast, and 99 percent of it is gone. Only a couple thousand acres of virgin longleaf are left. If I could lay that ruined landscape across the northwest corner of Montana, you'd see why I'm not writing the Yaak off. I'd sure as hell hate to see it looking like south Georgia.

And Jill Duryee of the Montana Wilderness Association disagrees. "It's been hacked," she says. "The roadless lands have been dissolving like ice in water for a lot of years. But I would never want to give people the impression that there aren't places in the Yaak that need saving."

In 1995, Rep. Pat Williams introduced a bill that would've designated 42,000 acres of Wilderness within the Yaak River drainage. But Wilderness scares a lot of people. They think it means they'll have to pull their fingers from the pie, so the bill was defeated.

"What you've got up there is a working landscape," says Hal Salwasser, the tall and gracious regional forester (at the time) I've become tentative friends with. Mostly we see each other in the airport; he's always traveling and I'm picking somebody up. This time we're in his Missoula office, sitting at the lustrous boardroom table; he has just returned from a visit to the Kootenai. I've stopped in to say hi, nothing more, but as usual the subject of the Yaak rises.

He advises against creating Wilderness up there. "Why do you need it?" he says. "The Yaak's a perfect example of a landscape that works -- you've got logging, you've got grizzly, you've got inland redband trout. You've got all the pieces."

"But will we have them in five years," I ask, "at the rate we're logging the place? Will we have them in 10 years?"

"Definitely," he says.

But somehow the wild creatures are disappearing.

Take grizzly bears, for example. By researching mortality records in newspaper and oral accounts, Wayne Kasworm, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bear biologist stationed in Libby, found that from 1950 to the present at least 65 bears were killed in the Yaak. Most of these died before 1975, when grizzlies were listed as endangered and hunting ceased.

When Kasworm arrived 15 years ago, he found the grizzly situation "so tough that unless we did something we ran a risk of losing them." Although four females from British Columbia were introduced in 1990, Kasworm would be "hard pressed to say their population has changed dramatically."

Now, about 15 bears roam in the Yaak -- 30 in the whole recovery zone, which covers the Cabinet Mountains, where there is designated wilderness, and the Yaak Valley. Bears shy away from areas of high human use, clearcuts and roads. Yet they're phenomenal in their nomadism. A typical female's home range, as it's called, is between 75 and 100 square miles, a male's between 300 and 500.

What happens when animals can't find the stomping ground they need? What happens if they get boxed in?

Early this year the Forest Service proposed a timber sale in the Mount Henry roadless area, 10 million board feet on 850 acres: four miles of new roads that would obliterate the wilderness Pat Williams proposed forever. They asked for public comment on the Environmental Impact Statement for the timber sale, and comment they got.

"It seems to me that the area should be designated as wilderness rather than logged," wrote Paul T. Crary. "Whatever the scientific rationale, this degree of resource extraction is, on the ground, shocking," wrote 'Asta Bowen. "As always I'm concerned about grizzly habitat," wrote Tim Linehan, one of Rick's neighbors.

People were concerned about the last stronghold of inland redband trout holed up in the Basin Creek drainage. They were concerned about loss of old-growth, populations of lynx, black-backed woodpeckers and Pileated woodpeckers, and winter range for elk.

"The nation's highest ranking forester has boldly directed his agency to focus on restoring the health of the forests rather than on extracting resources," reminded the Montana Wilderness Association.

Always eloquent, Rick wrote: "Too much on this forest I see biologists substituting the opening and closing of latch-gates on roads an as alternative to true 'core sanctuary,' and I would like to see this trend reversed; I would like to see a commitment to protecting our last roadless cores as the sanctuaries they are, free to proceed at their own biological pace, while we manage the roaded areas."

To the credit of Robert Schrenk, Forest Supervisor of the Kootenai, the letters received were carefully considered, item by item. The decision: no new roads, but still 4.2 million board feet of timber to be salvaged. According to Schrenk, that would mean four new openings of more than 40 acres apiece; the smallest would be 48 acres, the largest 249.

"Why does a dodged bullet feel like a victory?" Bass wrote afterwards. "Wilderness is the only victory."

When Hal Salwasser was visiting the Kootenai someone took him aside and said, "You know, Rick Bass doesn't speak for all of us up here." He referred to Rick's The Book of Yaak, a plea for sustainable logging and protection of unroaded areas. Another Troy resident told me that people are picking the book apart sentence by sentence.

Somehow they've confused wilderness with government intervention and with something being taken away, not something gained. For decades they've roamed the land like the creatures: picking berries, hunting, fishing, gathering firewood. They aren't happy about being driven from it.

"In the last five to eight years, the Forest Service has closed hundreds of miles of roads," said Michael Balboni, district ranger, "mostly for grizzly recovery."

In response, residents are destroying gates, the metal ones, ripping them down. On a truck parked outside the Silver Spur in Troy I saw this bumper sticker: If Roads Are Closed in Heaven, Then I'm Not Going.

They're that adamant. That angry. Even though there are thousands of miles of roads still open on the Kootenai.

It doesn't matter that they can still walk or horseback ride or bike the roads.

Rick arranged for The Orion Society, which hosts Forgotten Language Tours around the country -- nature writers reading their work -- to visit his valley this past May. Usually the readings are hosted by universities and this was the first that would take place in the small logging towns, in hopes that art might somehow make a difference. Four nights in a row we read -- in the walk-in theater in Troy, in a church in Libby, in the community center in Yaak, in a lodge near Bull River.

If the audience in Libby and Troy had been precipitation, it would've been sprinkling, but a crowd of folks showed up the other two nights. I'll never forget Rick's reading at Bull River. There'd been a big storm that knocked out all the power and he was reading by candlelight, a simple account of his family's life in the Yaak and a short story called Swamp Boy, about one child's wildness. Behind Rick's head, outside the window, Rufous hummingbirds swarmed a basket of petunias.

He wasn't speaking for anybody, but he was speaking to all of us. I hoped the crowd was full of doubters, who'd had to muster courage, or anger, to come. No one left unchanged.

Tour-days were full of talk about sustainable development and sustainable logging, visits to local sawmills and to schools. When Richard Nelson asked the handful of children attending the two-room log school in Yaak who had seen a wild animal that day, all hands went up: raven, deer, squirrel. They took me to the little stream that runs behind the school and showed me caddis flies in their stony wrappers.

One day we hiked with the high-school students in the forest behind a little rail-fenced cemetery in the upper Yaak. Rick found a morel growing out of Stan Merritt's chest, in a corner of the cemetery. "He lies in the woods he loved," his headstone said.

There was this storm while we were there, a storm so powerful and so erratic, so unexpected and dream-like that for weeks people would tell each other their storm stories.

We had gone to see old growth cedars up 17-Mile Creek, all in our separate cars, but Rick, who was guiding us in, hadn't made it. As we milled around waiting for him on the narrow access road, in a stand of thin lodgepole pine, the sky to the southwest began to sulk, darkening. Lightning, still a few miles away but ever closer, spit out across the mountains, gesturing at the puckered sky. It thundered. Thundered again.

By the time Rick arrived with a couple of students, the wind had begun coiling through the trees. In a matter of minutes 50-foot trees were bent double, whipping each other with their crowns, whistling and wailing in the high wind.

"I marveled that the trees were so limber," someone said later. "I supposed their bending was normal." Isolated drops of cold, high-country rain flew through the pines and hit us, but it wasn't until the first tree cracked -- nobody ignores that sound -- that we thought to run for cover. It was as if the storm had come from nowhere, descending upon this odd group of city dwellers and magic seekers. The tree crashed down 100 feet away. Then we were rushing for our cars, trying to turn them around, get them headed out of the unpredictable.

Trees were thrashing this way and that, falling all around us, and rain was twisting out of the sky in sheets. No sooner were our cars lined on the access road, moving out, than a tree toppled in front of the lead car. By this time hail big as sugar peas was tumbling out of the storm cloud, making a tremendous din against our metal roofs. It was the kind of hail that takes strips of skin off you, and when the storm subsided, it coated the ground.

Trees were down in front of us, behind us, between us, but nobody was hurt, not a car touched. Most amazing was that "something" told the driver of the rear vehicle to back up, and he did, seconds before a tree crashed down where his van had been.

"Something told me to back up," he kept saying.

Rick never stops. From morning to midnight he's working for the Yaak, not just to preserve the place but to preserve what it means, to protect the animals, and to protect the people, from loss: writing stories, writing bushels of letters, going to meetings, talking to students, guiding photographers. Even when he's tired he won't stop. Last time I was up there he was coughing, a lot, but not slowing down at all.

"There is just so little uncut country left in the Yaak," he says, "we need places where there are, for once, no stumps -- no matter whether horse-logged, heli-logged, tractor-or cable-logged -- just a place for our minds and bodies, our eyes, to rest."

Until then, there's no rest.

The last time I talked to him he was preparing for a community meeting in Yaak. The valley people are getting together to discuss issues of roadless areas. Rick knows his ideas will face plenty of fire, and he's not afraid. He's girding his loins, as he joked, not with facts and statistics but with pleas. More pleas.

He's memorizing quotes about wilderness -- Bob Marshall and Aldo Leopold -- how we need it when we must turn from the rat race. He's arming himself with love, opening himself like the flanks of the Purcell Mountains have been opened.

I have to help him. Something tells me too.

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The Yaak Valley
The Yaak Valley, home to endangered grizzly bears and redband trout,
has been "hacked" according to members of the Montana Wilderness
Association. Still, author and activist Rick Bass says, it's worth
saving. Photo by Bud Journey.

Mule deer
Large mule deer are a testimony to the Yaak Valley's continued
environmental health. According to the author, the same can be
said for the remnant grizzlies and other denizens of the logged-over
wilderness. There remain 150,000 unroaded acres in the Yaak,
and many members of the Yaak Valley Forest Council would like to
see them stay that way. Photo by Bud Journey.

Timber Harvests
Timber harvests have left a checkerboard of clearings and
clearcuts, but former regional forester Hal Salwasser expresses
confidence that the ecological impacts have been and will continue
to be negligible. Photo by Bud Journey.

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