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Ruckus Over A National Hiking Trail: A MoJo Interview With Writer And Conservationist Rick Bass

Should the Pacific Northwest Trail be re-routed in the Yaak Valley to insure habitat for an imperiled population of grizzlies remains protected?

The Yaak Valley from the Pacific Northwest Trail on the east side of Garver Mountain. Photo courtesy US Forest Service
The Yaak Valley from the Pacific Northwest Trail on the east side of Garver Mountain. Photo courtesy US Forest Service
Up north near the U.S.-Canada border in a valley distinguished by its geographical remoteness, there’s a passionate discussion happening about an ambitious hiking trail. 

The Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail, whose completed 1,200-mile, non-motorized route would run from Glacier National Park near the Continental Divide in Montana westward toward the Pacific Coast, has been touted as one to rival the venerable Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails for the experience it delivers. Although Congress initially rejected its creation in the late 1970s, it received official designation in 2009 when it was attached to omnibus legislation that allowed it to skirt debate.

Promoters say it would enable more people to experience wildness, attract thru-hikers who would bring outside tourist spending to local towns and provide a sense of inter-connection among communities along the way.

Who could be opposed? Actually, few if any are. But one prominent person who’s been asking hard questions is noted American nature writer Rick Bass, a famous denizen of the Yaak River Valley. 

Bass has penned several books centered around the Yaak over the years, most of them serving as eloquent defenses of wild country against industrial logging that occurred there on federal lands managed by the US Forest Service. He also has been a leader of the Yaak Valley Forest Council that defines its goals this way: "We work in the woods to champion forest management that results in healthy, resilient forests and streams.We work in town to inspire leadership and neighbor-to-neighbor communication that result in healthy kids, stronger families, and a more prosperous community."

Bass isn’t opposed to the Pacific Northwest Trail. He believes it needs to be re-routed around critical habitat important for a small, isolated sub-population of grizzly bears barely hanging on in what’s called the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem.  
Proposed route of the Pacific Northwest Trail running from Glacier National Park to the Pacific Coast. Graphic courtesy US Forest Service
Proposed route of the Pacific Northwest Trail running from Glacier National Park to the Pacific Coast. Graphic courtesy US Forest Service
While his arguments are attracting a growing array of allies, a flurry of recent op-eds he's written in national public publications have brought scorn from trail proponents who claim the current routing of the trail will have a benign impact on grizzlies.

In response, Bass notes the issue isn't how many hikers would use the Yaak stretch of the Pacific Northwest Trail today; rather it's anticipating what the growing impact of users would be as numbers swell in coming decades along with the deepening effects of climate change putting added stressors on a bear population numbering only a few dozen with just a handful of breeding females.

In this sense, the debate over the Pacific Northwest Trail in the Yaak is representative of a larger trend. Today, many different outdoor recreation user groups, in some cases backed by sportsmen's and conservation organizations, are pushing for more public access into places that received little recreation or resource extraction. It's no coincidence that many of these places have remained important refuges for rare or sensitive species ranging from grizzly bears and wolverines to elk calving grounds, mountain goats, bighorn sheep and isolated pockets of wild native fish.

One thing is clear: wild things thrive where large numbers of people are not, either as permanent denizens or visitors. 

According to Bass, smart, conscientious people—including government agencies in charge of managing public lands and wildlife— anticipate the future. They ponder the threats that wild country faces. He says fighting over a trail re-route is short-sighted. You can follow what re-route advocates like Tara Rypka Morrison, a board member of the Yaak Valley Forest Council, have to say on Instagram @25_bears. 

Mountain Journal recently had an in-depth conversation with Bass, who is considered one of the finest nature writers of his generation. This interview will also mark the start of a series called “The Sounds of Silence” that invites others to submit short celebrations of their favorite natural places.
MOUNTAIN JOURNAL INTERVIEW WITH RICK BASS

Mountain Journal: Before you were a writer, you were a kid smitten with the outdoors. And it evolved into a lifelong connection to the land expressed in a number of ways, from jobs in the environment to being a hunter, angler, hiker and naturalistic observer.  Tell us about how your wanderings in the American outback have shaped who you are.

Rick Bass: Well, when I signed on for this interview with you, I knew you wouldn’t be asking any softball questions, but I had not considered you would ask the hardest, most thoughtful one straight out of the gate. It has occurred to me only recently that I exist often at the end of the spectrum that is called antisocial. I like humans quite a bit, find them vulnerable, tender, fascinating; but in the aggregate, I find them — us — insufferable.

When one has a bit of a Rain Man response to mass civilization, it's a relief to re-engage one’s attachment to the physical world through the five physical senses. These points of attachment for humanity--touch taste scent sight sound--are nowhere more easily accessed than in Montana. But even as a child growing up in suburban Houston I was ravenous for them. It is in wild nature that these five touchstones are most readily available, and for free. They're not just our birthright, but our salvation, in these fractured, paved-over times--these hyperkinetic times. I grew up in the age of assassinations, in the state of Texas, where the real Bible was guns. Guns were institutionalized in culture as an answer to conflict; guns rather than the intellect required for the creative act of finding solutions to difficult problems. I also grew up under the myth of the Westerner as independent, and of the bounty of space and freedom lying always farther West: Texas, back then, positioned so uneasily between the Deep South and the West. 

Mountain Journal
: We’ve both seen people become emotionally hobbled by falling in love with a place, bonding with it and then, as it begins to change or gets lost, suffering every new alteration as it begins to disappear. You are both an advocate for protecting what remains but also promoting the gains of rewilding when nature is nurtured to heal from the old wounds of mass landscape disturbance. What few MoJo readers, including your fans, may realize is that you dabbled with careers in resource extraction industries before you moved to the Yaak writing in defense of nature from there.

Bass: I made a few circles before breaking the orbit of childhood: heading to northern Utah for college, where I fell in love with the mountains and deserts there, though subsequently working back in the South—as a wildlife biologist intern with Weyerhaeuser in Arkansas, and an independent oil and gas geologist in Mississippi—working always out of doors. I missed the West terribly, however, and after about 7 or 8 years blasted back West; just quit my job and started writing and headed West, looking for big blank spots on the map. I couldn't find them where I thought they would still exist. 
Huge swaths of old-growth forest were logged on the Kootenai National Forest of northwest Montana. Fortunately, Rick Bass says, nature is capable of healing former traumas. Grizzlies that survived the onslaught of tree felling, road building and killing by previous generations of people today are hanging on by a thread in the Yaak. Now is the time to bring less disturbance to their growing haunts and allow them to recover—if that's still possible. Photo courtesy Rick Bass
Huge swaths of old-growth forest were logged on the Kootenai National Forest of northwest Montana. Fortunately, Rick Bass says, nature is capable of healing former traumas. Grizzlies that survived the onslaught of tree felling, road building and killing by previous generations of people today are hanging on by a thread in the Yaak. Now is the time to bring less disturbance to their growing haunts and allow them to recover—if that's still possible. Photo courtesy Rick Bass
Mountain Journal: How did that affect you?

Bass: Even in my relatively brief absence, places that used to be special had started to fill in—and it wasn't until getting all the way up into northwest Montana that the Yaak Valley spoke to me, with its low animal-shaped hills, alternately heavily forested or savagely clearcut; there were these surreal sun-scalded tractor-rutted battlefields of still smoldering slash piles with giant trees bristling half-burned in a leisurely display of waste that reminded me of the way as a child in Texas I would see the towering flares of gas wells, burning day and night straight into the sky in an effort to blow off the gas caps. Hundreds of millions of cubic feet of natural gas being extracted at a time—one's view all the way to the curve of the prairie taking in dozens of such giant flares, so it seemed in the Yaak I had arrived to the rhinos of a lost civilization just in time to have avoided being vanquished or destroyed. Yet what a Pyrrhic victory it could be, the Yaak too having now inherited such ruination, through no more luck, both good and bad, and I realized I had arrived a little late in the game. I realized I had a choice, either fight for what’s left or let it go.

Mountain Journal: For some this may come across as a lament, yet it’s fueled your sense of urgency, of not wanting to let wild places vanish or perceived poorly-planned decisions be made without opposition. You've covered a lot of ground as a hiker and indeed you've championed the importance of kids getting out in the natural ooze and letting landscapes leave an imprint.  You're not opposed to hiking so why does this trail bother you?

Bass: The hikers who use this trail are our allies; nobody sets out on a hike intending to create trouble for a grizzly. I feel like I have failed from a communications perspective in educating people how different the Yaak's last 25 grizzlies are from those bears with which hikers might be familiar: the bears of Glacier, or even Greater Yellowstone, are often somewhat acculturated to over 100 years of fairly high human visitation. What the Yaak's last 25 grizzlies need — and they are just barely hanging on — is time and space. 

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Listen to Scott Carrier's radio piece for The New Yorker Magazine on the debate over the Pacific Northwest Trail below)

Into the Woods with Scott Carrier
Mountain Journal: Again, to be clear, you are not anti-trail. As we understand it, you’re in favor of routing a hiking path that, just for the sake of human convenience, does not needlessly cut through secure grizzly habitat.  Once it’s explained to conscientious hikers, you say most are willing to reassess and ponder how they can actually become advocates for bears and still be able hike through. Is that a fair characterization?

Bass: The hikers I've spoken with are supportive of an ethical scenic re-route such as the one championed by Dr. Chuck Jonkel in 1978, that sent hikers through the Salish Range and into the small towns of Libby, and then Troy, where they can reprovision. It would be very easy for me to stake out a fairly reasonable position that there should be no high volume -hiker trail anywhere in northwest Montana until that region's grizzlies are recovered. Instead, for the last four years, since I first found out about the trail —which was authorized by a secret midnight rider attached to the 2009 omnibus bill in Congress — is to visit with scientists and trail users and other stakeholders and research the issue and come up with a compromise proposal. 

Mountain Journal: Just as you said when you were challenging the Forest Service and politicians over its timber sales, you don’t like decisionmaking that seems impetuous or skirting of public accountability and debate?

Bass: Yes, that isn’t the way important decisions with long-lasting impacts should be made.

Mountain Journal: Talk about the re-route you’re proposing.

Bass: In Dr. Jonkel's paper, there is a slender path between the Cabinet and Purcell Mountains that still offers hikers the peaks they desire—more peaks actually, than they would encounter in the lower-elevation rainforest Yaak, the expansive views, the incredible scenery but really, what in northwest Montana is not beautiful? They can get this yet avoid core grizzly habitat. 

The federal government's map identifying the five different ecosystems holding grizzly bears in the Lower 48; all of which are "biological islands" unconnected to one another.  The one in brown at the top is the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem and the one in yellow, below it, is the Selway-Bitterroot Ecosystem of northern Idaho and western Montana. There is no grizzly population there today but it's been identified as grizzly-friendly wild lands and a key place which could help connect bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, to the south, with bear populations to the north. Map courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The federal government's map identifying the five different ecosystems holding grizzly bears in the Lower 48; all of which are "biological islands" unconnected to one another. The one in brown at the top is the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem and the one in yellow, below it, is the Selway-Bitterroot Ecosystem of northern Idaho and western Montana. There is no grizzly population there today but it's been identified as grizzly-friendly wild lands and a key place which could help connect bear in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, to the south, with bear populations to the north. Map courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Mountain Journal: Do you think the public realizes this is what you’re proposing as an alternative?

Bass: I’m convinced hikers want to know of this option, want to use it and support it, and I’m convinced it will be a value-added element to an already-great experience for the hikers to experience the beauty of the treasure valley between Libby and Troy, the incredible biodiversity there. It would be empowering for them to know that with every step they take through that beautiful country they are taking an active and ethical part in helping to give the grizzlies their best chance for recovery, with the hiker's active choice to avoid that slender knife-ridge used by Yaak mother bears with young. The alpine habitat in the Yaak is not like that in Glacier; there are no displacement regions the bears can move to, when displaced or disturbed. The Yaak's landmass may be only three to four percent alpine, max. We have no ethical alternatives but to manage such scarcity and such ecologically critical area for lowest-impact.

Mountain Journal: How is this trail debate indicative of other coming issues?

Bass: Wow. Another softball question! In its most elemental form, this discussion is about whether users--whether corporate extraction, industrial recreation, or indeed, the average local person who goes out to hunt mushrooms or berries for his family, or deer or elk for herself and her family—is going to have an ethical relationship to the land in a time of increasing scarcity.

In the future, the Yaak will be a climate refuge in Montana. We are already seeing this with species such as Virginia rails, trumpeter swans, yellow-headed blackbirds, and others, drifting north to this lower, wetter, cooler corner of the state while so much else of it burns, and managing it to protect its vulnerability and scarcity gives us nothing less than another attempt, a re-do, at what I would call the Garden of Eden. 

Mountain Journal: As we launch this ongoing series, The Sounds of Silence, which highlights the observations of writers and non-writers about what conserving special places means, we’re talking about fostering a greater sense of personal responsibility and the power that comes with it. In this case, it involves the proponents of the hiking trail being willing to accept a modification in their plans.

Bass: To find ethical solutions that still meet the hunger, the need, of people to hike in backcountry, is not a skillset beyond our capability. I'm grateful to Dr. Jonkel for his long-ago case study on this matter so dear to all of our hearts--wild grizzlies in the Yaak--and am honored to be giving my energy to this necessary discussion.

Action is needed, a solution is needed; it is irresponsible to continue putting PNT thru-hikers for miles-long stretches on paved U.S. highways as is currently being done, and irresponsible to be placing thru-hikers and campers in the exact same small meadows where Yaak grizzlies are trying to recover, as per the prescriptions of safeguarding essential habitat per the Endangered Species Act. The inattentiveness by the 2009 delegation--or rather, the omission of full data by the trail's proponents--must be corrected immediately, in the same way in which the error was first conducted--by legislative action. 
Grizzly mother with cub. Photo courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service/Fran van Manen/USGS
Grizzly mother with cub. Photo courtesy US Fish and Wildlife Service/Fran van Manen/USGS
Mountain Journal: You aren't alone in expressing worries about more humans entering secure grizzly habitat. Wayne Kasworm, team leader of the Cabinet/Yaak Ecosystem Bear Program, expressed his concerns when interviewed by Scott Carrier and he's been involved with numerous studies looking generically at the impacts of human presence on grizzlies. What do you say to those who try to say the trail is benign?

Bass: Well, a good place to start, if one doesn’t know the land, is to at least look at the science.

Science would be a really good place to start the discussion. We can look at Dr. Jonkel’s 1978 study, or Dr. Lance Craighead’s and Wayne McCrory’s 2018 analysis. We can look at the 2019 study by Wayne Kasworm with the Fish and Wildlife Service and Canada’s Michael Proctor that shows the highest-quality summer and fall habitat for female grizzlies with young lies precisely beneath the tread of the PNT.

We are not seeking to rip the trail up. We are seeking to cease the posting and advertising of it, the summons—of it being a high-volume through-trail between Glacier and the sea. Rather than time-honored anecdotal abstractions, such as “The bear’s gonna go anywhere it wants”; true, but will that be quality habitat or only passing through on its way to other necessary high-quality habitat? Or, true, but is the speaker aware that human-caused mortality in such less-safe country for bears is exponentially higher than in the backcountry? Half the story is no story at all.

We hear a lot from people who claim the trail is benign that “There will never be many people on this through-hiker trail.” A visit to the website belies the ambitions, and the facts belie the trends. There is essentially an unregulated rash of thru-trails—not just hikers, but bikers—latticing the North American wilderness. Just across the border, in British Columbia, there’s a transcontinental Canadian through-trail. 

Just across the border, in Idaho, another high-volume through-trail, the Centennial Trail. These new industrial recreationally-targeted trails are popping up now without Environmental Impact Statements or even Environmental Assessments, and, in the case of the PNT, without even so simple a document as a bare-bones start of a Comprehensive Management Plan, which Congress, in authorizing the PNT, also required be executed as part of that authorization. 

Mountain Journal: Be explicit so MoJo readers can understand the point you’re making here.

Bass: The existing route, because it did not go through extensive biological review and public process, is therefore illegitimate. The people advertising the out-of-compliance trails—and I would urge strongly that recreational retailers who support these new pop-ups carte blanche—revisit their missions of ethical and environmental and corporate responsibility.

Mountain Journal: The Forest Service argues it would be too much of a hassle to re-route the trail and be expensive to do so.

Bass: In my view most frustratingly—for I can’t tell if the speakers believe this or are simply trying to hold on to “their” trail at any cost—advocates of the borderlands trail, including within the Forest Service,  argue that because hikers and grizzlies get along just fine in Glacier, the same will hold true for bears and hikers. This seems to be disingenuous at best. First, hikers and bears don’t always get along fine in Glacier; but that flawed logic notwithstanding, the two are incomparable for a number of other reasons. 

Mountain Journal: What are those reasons?

Bass
: There are perhaps 750 bears in Glacier’s Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem—the Yaak has only 25. The grizzlies of Glacier have a century-long culture of being accustomed to through-hikers; the Yaak, none. Most importantly, yet so conveniently overlooked, Glacier is part of an ecosystem with over 2 million acres of permanently protected land; the Yaak has zero acres of permanent protection.

It’s on days like these that I re-examine and reassess my position, and that of the Yaak Valley Forest Council, about trying to find a positive alternative, a win-win-win, and wonder: the trail’s out of compliance. Congress would never have passed the legislation if they’d known the USFS was going to avoid doing the other part of the deal; it’s therefore illegal and should be deauthorized. It should no longer be advertised as a spur trail to the Pacific Crest Trail, nor the Continental Divide Trail, nor the Pacific Northwest Trail that, briefly if illegitimately, it was.

Mountain Journal: Opponents say you're just a NIMBY curmudgeon and that your alternative yields a less scenic traverse for backpackers.

Bass: Some of the hiking club’s spokespeople will claim the Jonkel alternative is unacceptable due to it having some short sections utilize a backwoods logging road.  This is only half the story. 

There is a little logging road involved if one doesn’t wish to build new trails (cost), but so too is there a great deal of road hiking on the existing route. Indeed, the traffic on the Jonkel route’s use of occasional section of logging road is far more remote than the roads selected for the existing route, so that argument puzzles me. So too does the seeming assumption that one can cross the Kootenai National Forest without having to cross an occasional logging road. We have ten thousand miles of them between the Lincoln County line and Idaho; you can’t get from Glacier to Idaho without going through Kootenai country, and without crossing some old logging roads.

It’s an old human and rhetorical flourish to hide one’s weaknesses and attack another’s same weaknesses and if I could do any one thing to change the debate away from the rights of hikers or even the responsibilities of hikers, it would be to think like a bear, and to understand what they need. There is a reason we have only 25 in the Yaak—a lot of reasons, actually. But this one is most easily addressed, most easily and immediately fixed. 
The Yaak Ecosystem is home to perhaps two dozen grizzlies. They live on an island of habitat becoming ever smaller from climate change and development occurring all around.  Bass is concerned about more people invading their remote haunts and potentially posing conflicts. With so few bruins, they aren't many to lose, he says.  Occasionally, one can even catch sight of another skulking Yaak resident,  the elusive mountain lion.  Photos courtesy Rick Bass
The Yaak Ecosystem is home to perhaps two dozen grizzlies. They live on an island of habitat becoming ever smaller from climate change and development occurring all around. Bass is concerned about more people invading their remote haunts and potentially posing conflicts. With so few bruins, they aren't many to lose, he says. Occasionally, one can even catch sight of another skulking Yaak resident, the elusive mountain lion. Photos courtesy Rick Bass
Mountain Journal:  You don’t buy their rationale.

Bass: The occasional notion that the southern route is not as scenic is—what is the word old-timers used in these situations—balderdash. You can’t skip a stone in Lincoln County without it passing through beauty. Speaking of skipping a stone, the southern scenic Jonkel route travels south of the Kootenai River, past waterfalls, swimming holes, and an old ghost town on the Montana-Idaho state line, Boulder City, with high cliffs.

Mountain Journal:  So you argue the alternative is not a bad route?

Bass: The southern scenic route has almost twice as many high points as the northern route, and yet also takes a through-hiker to the geological oddity of Cambrian stromatolites above the Kootenai Falls, and then on to the lowest point in Montana before ascending again. How could any traveler through northwest Montana purposely avoid witnessing the Kootenai, the largest tributary to the Columbia, and miss experiencing also the incredible botanical diversity in that lowest spot? 

We’re convinced that diversity of landscape is one of the great value-added requirements of a through trail, along with (according to the National Trails Act, passed 51 years ago) economic development opportunity for rural small towns such as Libby and Troy. 

Mountain Journal: You’re arguing something else, that this is an opportunity to voice their support for grizzly recovery; in particular helping to ensure the persistence of an island bear population. 

Bass: For a hiker to know, amidst such beauty, that with every step, he or she is helping protect those 25 grizzlies—having the small grace and generosity to allow them to keep struggling toward recovery, holding down the skin of the earth, as Doug Peacock says, each with their four paws—well, again, it’s win-win-win-win. 

It’s my deepest hope that the Montana Congressional Delegation can correct this wrong in Congress, and that the two “factions”—hikers’ club and local environmentalists—can work together to be ambassadors. Locally, regionally, and nationally, for the ethical southern scenic re-route. 

I hear increasingly from environmentalists as well as timber interests that maybe there should be no damn trail at all. Our group remains committed to the Jonkel alternative we have presented to our many business partners, particularly in Libby, who support that; we will keep our word to them. 

Mountain Journal:  Where are things today?

Bass: After four years, we have made no progress—this has become the dominant time-consumer of our organizational resources—but with 25 bears left, we cannot and will not turn away. We are exploring legal options—never a cheap or attractive remedy—but it is fair to say we have tried everything else. It was a legislative error that authorized the trail. The sponsors, I’m told, were assured that the Montana Congressional Delegation, and an array of Montanans, had been thoroughly engaged and involved with the Montana route, which is false. Now it will take a legislative action therefore to correct that error. 

Mountain Journal: When you have a small population of grizzlies and a small percentage of that being female bears successfully reproducing, every one counts, scientists note.  Indeed, that was the strategy employed in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem after grizzlies were given federal protection. The population had dipped to fewer than 140 and there weren't many mother bears. 

Bass: Isolated populations of any imperiled animal disappear at higher rates than populations connected to others of their kind. The Yaak population is in trouble. We feel that even one more summer of the northern route poses an unacceptable risk for the Yaak’s last grizzlies and continues also to put hikers and bears in the same space at the same time in a way that’s not good for other parties.

Mountain Journal: Let’s step aside from the trail and the hikers for a moment. Ron Strickland, who is credited with conceiving the idea for the Pacific Northwest Trail, is based in a place where there are not grizzlies. He's tried to rebut the points you make. He has said in the media the two of you are friendly but avidly disagree. What do you think he needs to better understand?

Bass: What do I think Ron Strickland needs to understand? That’s a tough one. It seems clear to me his feelings are hurt by my concerns. He came to the Yaak, once, long ago, to talk about his vision, asking for my support. He said it, the trail, would be a “linear wilderness”—he knew of my longstanding efforts to permanently protect large roadless areas as regions of biological integrity, including wilderness—and was surprised and disappointed, I think, when I said in my opinion a linear wilderness—like a powerline corridor—was no wilderness at all, and that I couldn’t support that idea. I never heard from or saw him again, nor did we know about the 2009 midnight rider. Indeed, we didn’t find out about it ‘til 2015; the supervisor of the Kootenai National Forest at the time didn’t know about it, either. It’s these kinds of end runs that give government (and Congress) a bad name. 

What would I want Strickland to understand? More than one person has commented on their belief that he wants to leave a legacy. I can’t know what’s in his mind. If that is a goal of his, I can’t imagine he would want the legacy that is currently codified. 
"What do I think Ron Strickland needs to understand? That’s a tough one. It seems clear to me his feelings are hurt by my concerns. He came to the Yaak, once, long ago, to talk about his vision, asking for my support. He said it, the trail, would be a “linear wilderness”—he knew of my longstanding efforts to permanently protect large roadless areas as regions of biological integrity, including wilderness—and was surprised and disappointed, I think, when I said in my opinion a linear wilderness—like a powerline corridor—was no wilderness at all."  —Rick Bass
The hikers we speak to on the trail are interested in the alternative. Not a one of them intends to “hurt” grizzlies. But the bears, especially the females with cubs—of which we might have only three or four  in the entire valley—do not know if the group coming down the trail is friendly or not.

Mountain Journal: You've raised the issue of hiker numbers.

Bass: There’s another piece of science I’d like to address. Studies from non-Kootenai Forests have settled on a capacity rating of 200 parties per year to differentiate high-volume from non- high-volume trail use. A party can be a group of four or six, or can be but a single person. The result is, 200 and more constitutes the stress level that the science has been able to measure or estimate, quantify. But how do an extra 100, or 150, affect those bears? How do ten times that many? There's a breaking point somewhere, but it’s not like there’s no proportionate stress rising up to that switch being thrown. 

To state it simpler: how is any number of targeting through-hikers through the Yaak’s precious few alpine meadows—patchy and very small, not like those elsewhere in the northern Rockies or Cascades—help the bears recover? It’s not. Therefore, it’s incumbent on us to find a place that avoids their critical habitat, until they recover. Nor should the onus, the burden of proof, be put upon the bear. If the Endangered Species Act is to mean anything, it is here in the Yaak, with 25 grizzlies—an animal to indigenous communities as sacred as is a bald eagle to other communities—that it must be exercised. 

Mountain Journal:  So you have no personal animas toward Ron Strickland?

Bass: I think I can see Ron’s view. I imagine it is grounded in the time of his youth, rather than where we are now—50 years later—as a culture, and, perhaps more to the point, where we will be fifty years from now. It is a lovely, splendid thing to walk in the woods. On the radio interview where he accuses me of calling him a bad man (the worst thing I’ve ever said about him is that he had a fevered dream; but clearly, he thinks that’s a bad thing), it seems evident to me he is a sensitive, dreamy sort, who cannot imagine doing harm by following his own self’s vision, whether it is that of others or not.

The Yaak Valley Forest Council, too, however, has a fevered dream. We will stand and fight for this valley’s last grizzlies until hell freezes over, and then, as the saying goes, we will strap on our ice skates and fight some more. It doesn’t have to be this way. 

Mountain Journal: Tell us where you see the West being at the mid century and what it will be like for grizzlies, given current infill rates of people, unplanned development and rising levels of outdoor recreationists. Isn't this the point, to try to anticipate the future?

Bass: What will the future be like for grizzlies mid-century, if they survive? It’s a big If. Dr. David Mattson’s modeling shows that male grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem could become extinct outside of park boundaries if a hunting season is allowed to proceed, on top of habitat fragmentation occurring, conflicts with livestock producers and more people moving into the region.

Mountain Journal: Some would claim that's being pretty dire. As for Yaak grizzlies? 

Bass: Even here, in a climate refuge where we're remote, it’s going to be harder, hotter, drier.  We need to map water availability for wildlife in the next 50 to 100 years, and protect the connectivity from their core wild country to those permanent, usable water resources. But first we have to get them through the eye of the needle that is now. We can’t afford to lose another female grizzly in the Yaak. Not one. 

Mountain Journal: The Yaak bear population is often referenced as being part of the Cabinet-Yaak. What's happening in the Cabinet portion?

Bass: The Cabinets are already a subpopulation forced to evolutionary re-set--no original Cabinet bears' genetics remain. All augmented. 

The Yaak is still all wild, all Canadian-Purcell grizzlies. That there are only 25 individuals in the Yaak, or less, on any given day, depending on whether they've gone on an excursion back up into the north country that day,  is the definition of genetic diversity hanging on by a thread. The Cabinet bears' diversity is not diversity but rather kidnapped North Fork and Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem animals, redundant, if beautiful and powerful and needed. 
With climate change, river corridors, like this along the Yaak River, will become ever-more important for grizzly bears and other wildlife; hence, one of the reasons why Rick Bass and others want the Pacific Northwest Trail routed away from such rich pathways of habitat.  Photo courtesy US Forest Service
With climate change, river corridors, like this along the Yaak River, will become ever-more important for grizzly bears and other wildlife; hence, one of the reasons why Rick Bass and others want the Pacific Northwest Trail routed away from such rich pathways of habitat. Photo courtesy US Forest Service
Mountain Journal: This is one reason why you've become such an advocate for biological connectivity, linking up Greater Yellowstone's and the Northern Continental Divide's grizzlies with these subpopulations so that transplanting grizzlies isn't necessary?

Bass: The interior low elevation dense wet forests of the Yaak have been and are, very slowly, shaping a different race of bears—smaller, more secretive, less meat-based--that are the rarest and most endangered subpopulation in Montana and the Northern Rockies. They need Yellowstone and Yellowstone needs them. The judge in the delisting case involving Greater Yellowstone grizzlies saw this, knows this, and articulated it three times during the trial,. Yellowstone is the source for recovery--and we have to preserve the habitat elsewhere simultaneously or any bears leaving Yellowstone, bound for Yaak--or vice versa--simply won't make it.

We all know this. It's so simple that it renders one near a form of madness to continue arguing and advocating it. 

Mountain Journal: some of the trail proponents still claim they're familiar with the Yaak and that the trail isn't a problem.

Bass: Back to this idea of what I would say to Strickland. The Yaak he hiked, once upon a time, passing through, and the Yaak I inhabit, day in and day out, year in and year out, have changed greatly in the last 40 years. 

The threats are greater, the number of bears, the same or less. They have held their own but the stresses mount each year. Who cannot identify with that? I think if the Rilke quote about beautiful monsters, the beautiful monsters of ourselves, who wait only to be inhabited by—what—grace? 

I regret early on in my participation in this trail discussion—finding out about it six years after the fact—by speaking to my fear, which was the truth. I referred to trail users, impolitically, as Lycra-clad speed demons. That is a truth and a fact just as it is not a truth or a fact. Not all are. 

But for those who seek to draw a line in the sand and defend the Yaak’s last 25, rather than letting them continue to erode into history—it is a yet again a fact and a truth, just as the moon is always the moon, rather one can see all of it or part of it or none of it. It is still the moon, and it is still a fact and a truth that one trail speed-demon—on bike, on foot, no matter—can come around a corner in a trail that passes through.

Mountain Journal: What will it take for outdoor recreationists to give consideration to wildlife before their own needs? 

Bass:
There are leaders among us—elders, like Doug Peacock and Barrie Gilbert—who know bears better than anyone alive. I had the fortune of studying with Dr. Gilbert in the 1970s, back when the Yellowstone bear charged him and bit off half his face and crunched his skull like a quail egg. And what I’ve seen in these two elders is that the more they know of grizzlies, the more compassionate they become toward the flawed and limping experiment that is us, Homo sapiens, and yet, at the same time, they become ever-fiercer defenders for a thing they have seen that few of us ever do. The lives of bears. What they have seen has changed them.

No hiker sets out into a strange land seeking or hoping to harm a bear. The fact, the science is, however, that a high volume of people moving through their woods forces them into less desirable habitat. It is a stress on a stress on a stress. We could lose them. We must not lose them. How fortunate it is that there is a scenic southern alternative that allows us to have this discussion without making the harder decision, the decision of sacrifice rather than threshold. I look at this as imperative but also possessing a grace in that it is like beginning, baby steps, for us humans. 

Mountain Journal: What will it take for you to persuade proponents of the existing trail to support a re-route?

Bass: I will not invoke the Garden of Eden here, I will not invoke Noah’s Ark. Again, I do not believe the hikers’ club from Washington state wishes the Yaak grizzlies any ill will. Indeed, they have shown evidence of being concerned with the Yaak grizzlies over in Idaho. 

That was what set all this resistance in motion—the short-lived and ill-fated Federal Advisory Committee Act process that has generated as much divisiveness as anything, all done in the name of "collaboration." Collaboration sounds good but if it results in giving away things that should be protected—after so much of the wild world has been negotiated away—what good is it?  That's what is happening in many areas of the West.

Here, FACA involved creating a 28-member recommendation panel with only three Montanans on it, despite the disproportionately high mileage of trail in Montana.  In that process, the Forest Service's Region One and Region Six and the Pacific Northwest Trail Association and Idaho conservationists were willing to re-route the trail substantially in Idaho to protect grizzlies there—which were not even Idaho grizzlies, but Montana-Idaho grizzlies, passing back and forth across that invisible line. 

When the aforementioned principals, however, refused to consider the same argument here, we pretty much lost our shit. You asked about the trail’s founder, Strickland. It’s an interesting question, but I think the larger question has to do with the organization he founded and whose employees engage in defending the currant, errant route. 

I don’t think they’re bad people. But I do think that there’s a profound and striking distance and difference between someone who might have hiked the land here once, versus the existing science, and versus the experience of those who have lived there for 40 years and will be for 40 more. It’s not even apples and oranges. It’s like the distance, the difference, between dreams or visions, and extinction. The Yaak grizzlies can’t possibly mean the same thing to the distant sojourners as they do to those who live with them, night and day, and who are committed to their survival, then recovery. 

That distance is greater than 1200 miles. Should we even be compromising on this? Tell me, what are we not doing yet, that we should be doing?

Mountain Journal: What more could you be doing?

Bass: That’s the unasked, unanswered question, I think, more so than what I would want Mr. Strickland or his employees to know or not-know. What next? I have been attempting persuasion for four years. What lies beyond that?

Mountain Journal: So you’re actually hopeful a better solution can be achieved in a way that advocates for protecting wildness and experiencing it feel good?

Bass: We're lucky, in the Yaak. A win-win-win solution exists, because the country's so big and beautiful everywhere for hikers and bears. This is just a harbinger, however. If we can’t get it right  here--and demonstrate the value of getting it right here--if we can't protect 25 grizzlies already living on the edge in the Yaak--then what hope does anything, or any place, have, before the advance of the industrial recreation model? 
The wild Yaak, a fortress of rare wildness set within an expanding sea of human domination, but can it last?  Photo courtesy Rick Bass
The wild Yaak, a fortress of rare wildness set within an expanding sea of human domination, but can it last? Photo courtesy Rick Bass
Mountain Journal: You’ve been critical of journalism for not creating a greater sense of urgency in dealing with some major environmental issues. You’ve been frustrated with writers who try to hide behind a false cloak of objectivity.  As you’ve said, if journalists really understand the seriousness of things they’re writing about, they shouldn’t be sitting on the sidelines watching destruction happen, as if there is a moral, ethical and ecological equivalent between protecting the environment and wrecking it.

Bass: Sally Matsuishi, executive director of Next Generation Scholars, says of writing that “Radical care is a form of wildness. It is all we really have to break the reader’s heart.”

The distance between where the Pacific Northwest Trail is now, legislated by last-minute midnight rider after being opposed for 32 years by the same USFS that now embraces the hurriedly-mapped route, chock-full of problems, and where the Jonkel route, in the study commissioned by Congress, is like the distance between a lion and a lamb. 

It is true I could have been more politic, diplomatic and tempered, during the rejection of my and the Yaak Valley Forest Council’s values by the USFS and the Pacific Northwest Trail Association: less radical, if compromise can even be said to be radical.. I bear the hiking club no ill will; there’s no time for that, now, anyway, and it’s likely counterproductive. Who knows? We might yet lie down together as if in a tableau from a bible story. 

Mountain Journal: Your take away more from Matsuishi is?

Bass: She says there is no more radical political act than to inhabit the life of another being. Forget about Ron Strickland or Rick Bass. Inhabit a race of bears living on the island of the Yaak—one of the last places in the U.S. where the ice remained, even after the last of the glaciers had gone on back north, shrinking quickly before the rising heat of the Anthropocene. Loosened boulders clattering like dice thrown at the retreating flanks of the blue ice. 

The Yaak, down in a bowl, held the ice, the ice was trapped there. The Yaak slept then, as if in hibernation, beneath five thousand or more feet of that blue ice, being compressed, metamorphosed. Finally, it too melted, flowed out to the Pacific, to the north and west, following the trail of the Kootenai River. A unique and ancient clade of grizzly bears tumbled into the bowl of this valley, where they find themselves now surrounded. Their alpine meadows, the tops of bare ridges, are only a few acres in size, here and there—sometimes little larger than the lawn of a rich person’s home in a gated community, or even the burbs. The mother bears with their young rototill and aerate these small gardens for each day’s sustenance; afterwards, they sleep with their noses pointed to the wind coming for those tiny meadows. They hear no hikers; bells, they scent no campsites. They exist, and wait, for a radical act.
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