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Cabinet Mountains Wilderness

In the Rockies’ Wild Heart

by Rick Bass

Montana is one of the wildest states in the Lower 48, and northwest Montana, particularly the gorgeous country west of Glacier National Park and near the Canadian borderlands, is among the very wildest. Yet the far corner of the state, which contains every species of carnivore native to the Rocky Mountains, including the threatened grizzly bear and lynx, has only one designated wilderness area: the 94,272-acre Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.

On a map, that one wilderness looks all the more paltry because of its gerrymandered shape, conceived to take in mainly rock and ice; it looks like a desiccated salamander. The crenulations, gills, lobes, and other frilled appendages reflect the steep gullied roads that ascend to many of the numerous lakes in the wilderness. Local lore has it that the old-time county commissioners loved to fish in those lakes, and wanted to continue to drive right up to as many of them as they could.

An on-the-ground examination, however, reveals a living, breathing wilderness, with jagged granitic teeth gnashing against the sky and sizable glaciers, even in this age of global warming. Clear creeks rush past moss-covered boulders through what some call Montana’s only temperate rainforest. Though long and skinny, the wilderness is kept alive by the vast and healthy assemblage of roadless areas in Kootenai National Forest that surrounds it: some 500,000 acres of extremely rugged and remote lower-elevation forests of larch, cedar, hemlock, and spruce, draped all around the Cabinets’ icy spires. Just to the north, across the Kootenai River, lie nearly 200,000 acres of roadless lands in the Yaak Valley, and after that, the great reservoir of Canada’s wildness. It’s a landscape populated by giants: bugling autumn elk, soaring bald and golden eagles in winter, and immense sturgeon.

What remains of giant timber here is remote. If the trees were reachable, one or another of the various mills that camped in the foothills for a decade or so, before abandoning the country, would have already bulldozed their way up and over the gorges and ravines, and would have labored, with dusty, weedy roads, their taxpayer-subsidized way into these last glades, last gardens, of distant wilderness.

Yet because of the last wild gardens of roadless areas, the Kootenai is beautiful—one of the most beautiful places in the world. When you are fortunate enough to find the tracks of Ursus arctos horribilis, you witness them with the full awe and understanding that here is tangible proof that one of the most imperiled grizzly populations in the world is still, for a little while longer, here on Earth. To stand amid the last uncut old-growth groves of giant cedar, white pine, and hemlock—some of the trees nearly a thousand years old—is to be reminded that we are still capable of experiencing the greatest depths of peace and humility.

The biggest threat to the Cabinets, however, exists almost as a parody of environmental destruction. It would be laughable, a skit from Saturday Night Live, were George W. Bush not in the White House. Revett Silver Company, whose principals have been guilty of abandoning one toxic dump after another throughout the West, recently received a permit from Kootenai National Forest to set up one of the world’s largest copper and silver mines, at Rock Creek, beneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. The mine would pour torrents of pollutants into the Clark Fork River, which crosses the Montana-Idaho border and would ferry its new poisons into Lake Pend Oreille.

The mountain lakes within the wilderness would be at unprecedented risk of draining, like water in a bathtub, because of new rifts and fissures generated by the mine as it blasts away at the guts of the mountains. And because the industrial facility itself would be built along the wilderness boundary, at a quarter-mile-wide bottleneck in an already slender wilderness, it could block the migration of grizzlies out of one protected area and into the next, down toward the Bitterroot and Yellowstone country. If you had but one bullet with which to try to kill the heart of wildness in northwest Montana, this is where you would fire it.

Forget science for a moment, and endangered species such as grizzly bears and bull trout, and clean air and water laws, and even human health. The ensuing court fights (at last count there were ten lawsuits lined up to do battle for the Cabinets) will ultimately pit industry-owned "scientists" against independent scientists. But of the deleterious effects against wilderness and the goals of the Wilderness Act of 1964 that established it, there can be no arguing: This is a direct taking of one of our most precious public landscapes.

What to do, in the face of such monstrosity? I suggest falling in love. Dare to love endangered places like Rock Creek and the Cabinets. Love these endangered places with all your heart while they are still here, and be revulsed by the greed of those who would erase them from the earth. A great society’s legacy should be the wild places it protects, not the ones it removes. Love them not less, but harder, and more passionately, in these dangerous times.


Cabinet Mountains Wilderness comprises 94,272 acres of rugged terrain in the Kootenai National Forest in northwestern Montana. More than 20 trails traverse the forest’s highest peaks, rivers, and meadows, as does a small grizzly population.

Threats Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, are challenging a U.S. Forest Service biological opinion asserting that a proposed copper and silver mine burrowing beneath the wilderness would not harm grizzly and trout. The vast roadless areas around the wilderness remain in limbo: At press time, the Bush administration had not released the forest plan that will determine their fate, so there’s still time to let the agency know what you think about the Rock Creek mine.

More Information Contact Kootenai National Forest, 1101 Hwy. 2 West, Libby, MT 59923; (406) 293-6211; on the Web at www.fs.fed.us/r1/kootenai. For updates on mining issues, contact the Rock Creek Alliance, 1319 N. Division, Sandpoint, ID 83864; (208) 265-8272; or at www.rockcreekalliance.org.


Rick Bass is author of more than a dozen books, including The Roadless Yaak (Lyons, 2002) and a fiction collection, Hermit’s Story (Houghton Mifflin, 2002).

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