by Rick Bass | illustration by Steve Brodner
...though surely other, more accurate truths exist, buried far below.
One such deeper truth I have discovered is that there are not many landscapes left that have not been long inhabited by humans, but that when one does encounter such an unlived-in place, the character of that place—call it the spirit—is profoundly different from everywhere else.
For me, the Yaak Valley of northwestern Montana is one of these rare places. It lies at the edge of so many things. It's the most northwestern valley in Montana, bounded by Idaho as well as Canada; tendrils of certain creeks and rivers connect the Yaak to Canada. The Yaak lives and breathes and shares Canada, fish swim back and forth between the two valleys, the two countries. (There is another shadow valley just to the north of my valley, over in Canada, called the Yahk.)
The Yaak also lies on the precise straight-line edge of Idaho: the place where, back in olden days, according to more than one telling, the surveyors grew tired of the rugged country and simply assigned an invisible north-south dividing line between Idaho and Montana for the last 70 or so miles, all the way up to Canada.
Because of its northernness as well as extreme westerliness, the Yaak, despite being in the Rocky Mountain time zone, is scant miles from Pacific time. These two factors conspire to make it one of the places of longest light in the Lower 48 in the summer and the shortest light in the winter. The Yaak is influenced by Pacific Northwest maritime weather systems, but also by the Rockies' fire-based regimes. It's a land of paradox: it presents great dynamism, yet offers immense calm, with the stability of its incredible diversity. As many of the West's other ecosystems wobble and buckle beneath the extraordinary onrush of global warming, the Yaak remains intact, buffered, protected by its productivity, moisture, and diversity. In this sense, it is a biological refuge for the future. It's a carbon sink, a net absorber of the region's carbon dioxide emissions. It radiates health and peace, even as the humans there sometimes squabble.
What is rare elsewhere in the world is still common in the Yaak. The Yaak is the only place where the Purcell Mountains—Canada's largest range—dip down into the United States. Woodland caribou wander back and forth across the borderline. The rarest form of old growth in the West is larch, and yet, in the Yaak, this is the most common form. (Even the larch itself is a paradox, existing in a narrow seam of possibility—a deciduous conifer, with needles that turn gold each fall before shedding, carpeting the mountains entirely.) It's the wettest valley in the state, and the lowest elevation. It's buggy, nasty, wet, cold, dark. The locals are haunted, suspicious, often unfriendly. And I love it. I've never felt so at home.
It is not so much a place to come to as a story to know about. An experiment in dualities and possibility. Everything about the valley is new. During the retreat of the last Ice Age, even as the surrounding mountains were emerging, blade-sharpened by that ice—Glacier, the Cabinet Mountains, the Selkirks—the Yaak remained beneath thousands of feet of blue ice for a few thousand more years: dormant, compressed and metamorphosed into softer, smoother shapes.
Because it slept so long beneath that ice, waiting, it does not have that deeper experience in the newer, post-Ice Age world. Even the native people—the Kootenai—didn't reside in the upper reaches of the valley year-round, preferring instead the river bottoms, where they were a fish culture. (In summer and fall they ventured up into the mountains to hunt sheep and caribou.) Very few people—then as now—have lived year-round in the Yaak. Because of this, there is not so much depth-of-story, or depth of anything else. Time is shallow here, so that our gestures, our stories, possess the significance and responsibility of myth; in their first cuttings they will help determine the patterns of repetition for many that are to follow.
For 24 years, I've been waiting. The Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, but not a single acre of the Yaak was included, despite the incredible wild breath of that landscape. For nearly half a century, folks have been trying to protect some of the Yaak's most special wild places, but always, those efforts have come up short. We've had bills pass out of the Senate but not the House, and, in other years, out of the House but not the Senate. In 2010, however, after meeting weekly for five years with different user groups, a local coalition of loggers, roadbuilders, snowmobilers, outfitters, ATV enthusiasts, local businesspeople, and environmentalists got together to propose a small map of common ground, identifying the places where there was agreement rather than argument. It was a novel approach, and a splendid one. Montana's junior Senator, Jon Tester, sponsored the bill, which was deficit neutral, meaning it wouldn't have cost taxpayers or the Treasury anything. The bill (called the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act) was attached to a piece of "must-pass" legislation—the federal spending bill—which got shot down in the last days of the last Congress, due to partisan politics. And so we start over again, and 46 years without any Yaak wilderness has clicked over into 47.
In the old days, most environmentalists didn't even believe the Yaak was wild and therefore eligible for, or deserving of, wilderness designation. Much of the valley—about a third—had been savagely clear-cut. But the other two thirds—of which half was still roadless—was as wild, biologically, as any place I had ever been. I thought it was just an oversight that there was no designated wilderness in the Yaak; that as soon as people were informed of this, the mistake would be corrected. I thought it would take a year, a year-and-a-half max. I was, it turns out, wildly optimistic.
Why does the Yaak—a relatively small half-million-acre cornerstone between the Rockies and the Pacific Northwest, and between the United States and Canada—even matter in the first place? I think one reason is that it is not too soon to identify a registry of places that possess not just biological diversity, but another quality that is harder to define—resiliency, or potential resiliency; resiliency predicted. Following the so-called environmental catastrophes of climate change—the wildfires and epic floods, the windstorms and insect infestations—some landscapes will, across time, respond with vigor and ecological creativity—bursts of productivity, and the resumption of the tightly-fitted interconnected relationships that existed before, as well as a few interesting new ones, and all with new vigor, new amplitudes.
A lot of that is likely to be guesswork and intuition. But surely some of it can be predicted, if not measured, by the spirit—as well as analysis—of what is still here now: the quality of durability and endurance, as evidenced by the Yaak's high survivability quotients. Nothing's gone extinct here yet. This too is, I think, one of the reasons for the Yaak's essence, its feeling of differentness—health and wholeness—that even a casual and first-time visitor can pick up on.
Nothing's gone extinct, and yet I worry. So many species, here at the southern end of the Purcells, are down to single- or double-digit populations, remnant survivors that will, in the future, continue to rely upon a healthy connected fabric of roadless lands to give them that refuge of the survivors: wolves, grizzly bears, bull trout, lynx, wolverine.
With such biological wonders still enduring—hanging on, despite everything the explosiveness of the 20th century had to throw at them—how can we possibly turn away from their protection?
When I say that the community is tired of fighting, that's understatement. So much productivity has been squandered, and nothing's changed. The old days were just awful. I remember sitting in on task force meetings that were aimed at trying to protect one mill after another from closing due to global economic volatilities and competition. I'd be one of only two environmentalists in a room filled with about-to-be-unemployed millworkers. Extremists back in those days made threats all the time. I've been shot at while out in the woods. It's a pain to have to carry a gun in your car or on a hike. Bars that were once pleasant enough to frequent became unpleasant. And all of it—the fury, venom, hatred—was for naught. The world changed and moved on.
Wayne Hirst is a stewardship contractor and accountant for many of the few remaining loggers in Lincoln County. "Forty years of fighting has gotten us nowhere," he says. No wilderness protection, and yet the loss also of even the remnants of a timber culture.
No one's talking about a return to the old days of the rampant clear-cutting that characterized the Kootenai National Forest. Instead, we're proposing a plan that reduces timber harvest volumes dramatically, but gives priority to local workers, and thins overstocked trees next to people's homes, while staying out of the backcountry. The extreme left has been vehemently opposed to the bill, claiming it will log in core grizzly habitat (not true), and arguing that, though the Yaak deserves wilderness, there should be no mention of any kind of logging associated with any legislation that mentions wilderness. As if style points are somehow important to grizzly bears, and as if thinning beetle-struck lodgepole next to people's homes is a bad thing.
As a card-carrying member of the left, I'm disappointed by this hidebound, reflexive opposition. After 47 years of failing, you'd think we environmentalists might want to consider something a little different.
The far right opposes the bill as well, ideologically resistant to the word and the idea of wilderness, much less the real thing, viewing it as a form of regulation, rather than understanding it for what it is—the most wonderful, natural experiment possible in deregulation. As if believing that all land is made to be roaded, mined, logged, existing only and exclusively for liquidation in the service of the corporate masters.
And so the battle rages. Kudos to my new senator for empowering those willing to set aside such intergenerational, useless battles, and for having the courage—like those in the community—to focus, where possible, on agreement for once, rather than conflict. How I hope our new senator survives his brave gambit: coming up with a solution—years in the crafting, open to all, and posted, with unprecedented transparency, on his webpage each day—a bill, according to an early poll, supported by 73 percent of Montanans—and, year after year, for shouldering and sustaining the shrill abuses of the extreme left and right that does not understand the workings of the bill, and who are unfamiliar with the contours of the land.
Consider this two odes then, in the true spirit of the Yaak's duality: ode to fire and to rot, to courage and to failure; to gnarly country without roads, too grown-over and brushed-in for anyone to really want to visit or care about in the first place. Ode to a brave new senator, ode to my home, and ode to time, passing by, with or without any protection afforded by the laws of man. Ode to a farther wildness than I have known in any other landscape.
From the Spring 2011 issue