The Pacific Northwest Trail is blazing an unauthorized route through the Yaak—grizzlies be damned. Rick Bass says there’s a better way, and he needs Missoula’s help.

In Media by greg

He was a Montanan, via Chicago, born into the heart of the Depression. He was a tundra explorer, a crusader for polar bears long before anyone dreamed the nightmare of global warming. But first and foremost, he was a Missoula badass—the place shaped and nurtured him, and he, in turn, shaped and nurtured the place. The way that a grizzly is a kind of gardener, digging and aerating, tilling the thin alpine soil as it feeds on the corms and bulbs, which then self-resurrect on that puzzle-piece tillage each spring—so that the bear is good for the lilies and the lilies for the bearChuck Jonkel was good, real good, for Missoula. And while he is gone, the qualities that were in him, and in this place, are still present, and it is time for the nobility and integrity that defined him to come forth from this place again, even though he is beneath the soil now.

The thing that was in him is still here—I worry sometimes there’s not as much of it, without him blowing his steady breath on its coals.

His town, his home, Missoula—the place he left behind—is needed. He left us a legacy, a patha way of doing things, a way of finding a solution in a hard spot—and it’s time for Missoula to rise up. You are needed. He gave you—all of us—what we need.

What’s the ask, you ask? Nothing new or surprising, really: We in the Yaak need y’all to step up and be firm with the Forest Service. Write them letters, schedule meetings with officials—tell them there’s a rogue route of the Pacific Northwest Trail that cuts straight through the upper Yaak, routing hundreds and soon thousands of recreational thru-hikers through the heart of what is, and should remain, designated core grizzly bear habitat—a route that Dr. Jonkel shitcanned 40 years ago. This route is an even worse idea now than it was then. We need letters. We need integrity. We need Missoula. We need Chuck.

He lived his life. How many of us can say we do that, step after wandering, exploring step, rather than drifting? Maybe there’s not a right or wrong in this matter, and to be sure, the only way to assure failure is to delineate the one-path, one-way that a thing, a way, must be.

Am I using him? I asked myself this question before the first wet ink was applied to this page. Hell yes, came the immediate answer, followed by—as if in an echo that begins before the initial sound has died awayThat’s exactly what he would want.

Still, it’s using. I guess the best accommodation that can be made is to use, but to do so with respect. Ours is a country built on appropriation, while his was a life built on giving. The bears—and Missoula—were in the middle of this nexus, this map of his generosity, his passion. His exuberance for bears. Just because he is gone does not mean that map is gone.

The culture of bears is about nothing if not respect. Jonkel was always mapping the future, trying to identify spaces and routes for people that would respect the bears’ space.

As it gets hotter, smokier, dryer, little gardens, little microsites—the culture of the oasis—will become ever more important. As it becomes firecracker dry and smoky hot, I worry the bears’ good nature will become shorter-tempered. That under increased stress, they might become more irritable, and that as their country becomes smaller and ever-more crowded, likewise. I know it works that way for us. Why should we hold them to a higher standard of impossible expectations? I worry that trouble lies ahead—political and ecological. We can smell it on the wind.

“I knew him,” says Jessie Grossman, conservation director of the Yaak Valley Forest Council”but he was… old.” I know what she means. By the time I got to bump into him, at this-or-that benefit—the lifeblood, the sparkling shimmer of Missoula’s current—he was old. And I would look at him and think, Isn’t old beautiful? Isn’t it still powerful as fuck? How could you ever bet against him? And then he went away. Sort of.

No one person can be said to have made Missoula more what it is today than another, but he was certainly one of Missoula’s many cornerstones—so much so that he continues to help us from way beyond the grave. As if he keeps coming back every spring, even though we thought we had said goodbye to him.

I don’t know why I like to bury ledes, turn things upside down, as if digging beneath a boulder for a squirrel. Having rung the alarm, having invoked Chuck and Missoula, I obviously need to inform you of the great danger.

The danger is to some of Chuck’s beloved border country. How he was drawn to that veil between one thing and another: the ‘burbs and deepest wilderness, the United States, and Canada, and the bears that passed back and forth between the two nations.

The Yaak Valley—the northwestern—most valley in Montana—is a funky, low-elevation, swampy wet rot of a place with few sightlines, and more rounded little hills than big mountains. It’s a land of outlaws, desperadoes, misanthropes. About 150 people live there year round. Vast parts of it have been clearcut to hell and back. Well, not back.

The threat—the returning threat—is this:

Forty years ago, there was a threat to the Yaak’s grizzlies thatif you can believe this—transcended even the 10,000 miles of logging roads and seemingly countless clearcuts that came to the Kootenai back during the Timber Wars. In the Yaak, we’ve encountered a lot of challenges in our efforts to protect the biological integrity of this great swamp of a place, but none more so than what lies before us now: a recreational hellhole, a rogue, unapproved 1,200-mile spur trail to the much-trampled Pacific Crest Trail.

This route is supported by a nonprofit organization, the Pacific Northwest Trail Association (PNTA), whose founder, Ron Strickland, has been pursuing for 40 years, with unimaginative Golden Spike railroad doggedness, the idea of a thru-hiking trail, an endurance-jock human highway, a “zone of disturbance” 1,000 feet wide, running in a straight line from Glacier National Park to the Pacific Coast.

The authority to create a trail became law when Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) snuck it onto a midnight rider to the 2009 omnibus bill, but the route itself was not created, only the authority to determine one. Unwisely, Strickland’s group drew a ruler through the upper Yaak, which the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had previously designated as core habitat for Yaak grizzlies.

The route hasn’t been approved—a federal advisory committee (only four of its 28 members are from Montana!) was created in 2015 to receive and analyze input about a route, but the PNTA is nonetheless posting trail signs on the route they support—the one that tears ass through the middle of the Yaak’s prime griz habitat—and they are encouraging and abetting illegal use by publishing maps identifying a route with braids that splinter off the straight-line route all through the upper Yaak, uncaring for bears or any of the other many issues.

The same Forest Service that now embraces this illegal user-created route previously resisted it for 40 years, based largely on Dr. Jonkel’s 1978 analysis of the proposed straight-line Yaak route.

Jonkel identified a southerly route that would avoid core Yaak grizzly habitat. I’m a member of the Yaak Valley Forest Council, which supports a safer, more environmentally friendly alternative. We’re interested in supporting thru-hikers who want to take a day off and get a burger in the town of Yaak. But this current wandering dusty stream of lost penitents, leaving messy camps, is neither legal, acceptable nor necessary. There are alternatives.

All summer we’ve seen lost hikers trying to follow this unauthorized route through the upper Yaak, staggering heat-drunk and smoky-lunged down the public roads of the Yaak. Strickland’s group hasn’t really figured out the whorls and gnarl of the Yaak, and they and the Forest Service have tacked up a bunch of plastic insignias that kind of direct hikers here and there, but mostly the walkers have to cobble together a pastiche of dirt roads and paved highway.

The Forest Service is avoiding the fact that a high-use human highway through the last designated core grizzly habitat in the Yaak would require the creation of new core habitat, which could only be accomplished by closing open roads. The Forest Service’s attitude appears to be: We’ll let someone else worry about that later.

What else is bad about a straight-line route proposed through the upper Yaak? I can’t imagine the U.S. Border Patrol is too happy about the route—there are already internet tales of hikers being harassed. What’s in the backpack, Sonny? A fair question, I suppose, for anyone tightroping along the international border with a backpack. There’s also no cell service for when a campfire gets out of hand, no infrastructure for hikers who get in trouble.

“The trail’s coming, whether you like it or not,” PNTA’s Jeff Kish told Jessie Grossman, the YVFC conservation director, at a FACA committee hearing in Whitefish last year. I wonder what he’d say if he could see the trash littering the campsites that are already popping up along this unauthorized route that his group is embracing. He’s declared that in the Yaak, “brown bears,” as he calls grizzlies, “are not a problem.” (Bloggers who have attempted the Yaak route have already gone online counseling other thru-hikers that once they are out of Glacier, there aren’t any grizzlies left to worry about, and that because there’s no law enforcement, hikers can run their dogs off-leash in the Yaak.) While Kish and his organization represent people who presumably love the outdoors, their support of this rogue route will spell the end of a time-crafted race of bears. I can’t understand it.

Why are Yaak bears so important? These bears have received no special lands protections, unlike other grizzly populations. Our Yaak bears have been shaped and sculpted in time’s crucible. They’ve faced the hardest logging in the state of Montana for decades, and have the highest rate of human-caused mortality, as a result of the thousands of miles of logging roads. There are about 20 left—25 if you count Canadian visitors, drifting back and forth. Those few that are left are super-survivors, and have evolved to be more secretive, and to live in the interior, shady, low-elevation forests. It’s here where they are making their last stand.

These are not salmon bears, nor bison-eaters, nor even cattle-eaters. These are lean little shadow-bears, not quite vegan, but damned close. For now, they avoid us. But they need big country for that compromise. And our world, as we know, is moving in the opposite direction.

What is rare is valuable. There are two other grizzly populations in Montana, still isolated from the othera violation of the intent of the Endangered Species Act, though the feds and the state delisted the Yellowstone population anyway, and now turn their sights on the grizzlies living in the cut-off island of the Northern Continental Divide.

Strickland was in the Yaak once, about 20 years ago. He gave a presentation at the community center. He knew of my wilderness advocacy and tried to pitch the idea of the trail to me as “a linear wilderness.” Like a powerline corridor. I told him I didn’t support it and he slipped away.

The proposed trail goes through the heart of roadless country. Who would like to try to fight wildfires back in there? How many resources do you think would be required? Let’s say a modest average of 4,000 thru-hikers per season pass through, spending a week or more, crossing the upper Yaak. That’s more than 30,000 user-nights, a potential 60,000 campfires.

This proposed route has all the subtlety of a railroad, an interstate highway.

What to do? How to protect a small grizzly population? Ask for help.

Shannon Donahue, executive director of the Great Bear Foundation, writes that “Chuck … hoped to be reincarnated as a polar bear. He had a den picked out, lined with tundra flowers.”

I imagine he’s up there now, at the top of the world. I know he’s down here, too, down with the last 20 grizzlies in the Yaak—call it 21, with him—leading folks to the safety of a southern route, away from the grizzlies’ garden. Stonecrop, larkspur, wild onion, lupine, fireweed: I imagine the southerly path he identified. I imagine grizzlies continuing to have a chance in this great new burning country, rather than the indignity of having their core territory trashed. Picking through cold campfires for bits and scraps of scorched aluminum. That is not the Yaak way.

The Forest Service needs to step in and do its job—protect the grizzly bears—or the courts will. How many times have we heard that before, elsewhere, but particularly on the Kootenai?

If we do not commit to protecting the last grizzly bears in the Yaak, then where? Here, in the dead-center of their distribution. The place, it could be said, where they have been isolated for so long from all other bears that it is no longer as if they came over from Asia and down the Rocky Mountain Front, spreading into the glistening emerald meadows, swamps and marshes fed by the melting of the Ice Age, so much water, back then, but instead arrived here by other means, came surging up from some fissure that started far below, a seam between two chunks of country, chunks of continent. That they were born here, in their little garden.

Jonkel’s vision was all about science and activism. He was all about solutions. Forty years ago, in his (successful) efforts to defend the grizzlies of the upper Yaak, he wrote:

“Our strongest recommendation is that the trail swing far to the south to avoid both the prime and precarious grizzly range. In leaving Glacier National Park, the trail could cross to the southern end of the Whitefish Divide and follow that divide to Werner Peak, then cross Highway 93 near Olney, follow various divides to Libby Dam, stay relatively close to Highway 2 to Bonners Ferry, and then swing northwest to join with the proposed route near Northport.”

For 40 years, the Forest Service heeded his science, his research.

Times, finally, have changed, and the bears are more in danger than they ever were.

Come back to us one more time, Chuck Jonkel.