Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing

Saving the Yaak Valley Grizzlies: Rick Bass and Writing for Wilderness

By Linda Mahal

Stonecoast faculty member Rick Bass has written thousands of pages on the place he lives, loves, and knows best—the Yaak Valley in northwest Montana. Bass and the Yaak Valley Forest Council have been defending this unique landscape, the most biologically diverse region of Montana, for over twenty years. 

Thanks to activists like Bass, irresponsible logging practices in the Yaak largely ended in the early 1990s (though a recent proposed sale in the northwest corner of the valley—the Black Ram proposal—is bringing back the old large clear-cut prescriptions that generated the Timber Wars). Today the Yaak Valley, however, and specifically its most endangered resident, the grizzly bear, face a less obvious but still ominous threat: the construction of the Pacific Northwest Trail, or PNT.

When first proposed in 1978, the PNT failed an environmental impact study and was therefore rejected. Thirty-one years later, it was designated by Congress in an attachment to a 2009 omnibus land bill—this time without the customary environmental impact study. The attachment therefore pits the 2009 Omnibus Bill against the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

PNT campaigners want the 1200-mile east-to-west trail to run straight through the creek valleys and mountains of the Yaak, a remote wild region of Montana nestled along the U.S.-Canadian border. The proposed trail would cross fragile grizzly habitat, exposing the sparse population of between 19 and 25 bears to the hazards of human contact. These dangerously low population numbers threaten the total extinction of grizzly bears in the Yaak. With its scarcity of human infrastructure and abundance of secret forests and clear streams, the Yaak is one of a handful of remaining refuges for the majestic grizzly, which used to roam freely west of the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean, and from Canada all the way to Mexico.

In an essay for High Country News, Bass observed, “There are tens of thousands of miles of these kinds of trails already, and, as with mining, or clear-cutting, or road-building, we should not be continuing to build more, more, more to the ends of the horizon. There are simply some places where rare and higher resources must be protected.”

To save the grizzlies, Bass and fellow activists have offered a science-based compromise: re-route a portion of the PNT around Yaak grizzly country. PNT proponents object, claiming that the presence of hikers won’t harm the bears. They contend that the compromise route lacks the scenic superlatives of their preferred trek. Bass disagrees. “The southern route is every bit as scenic,” he says, “if not more so.” Wildlife biologists agree, as well, that when humans and grizzlies cross paths, ultimately, the grizzlies are exterminated.

A Call to Action. To engage your own writing on behalf of the Yaak and its grizzlies—and to advocate for a land ethic that balances human desires with ecosystem imperatives and democratic transparency—please visit the Yaak Valley Forest Council website for links to write to members of Congress and officials in the U.S. Forest Service. Please send a copy of your letter(s) to the Yaak Valley Forest Council at info@yaakvalley.org and a copy also to becky.blanchard@usda.gov. You may also donate to the cause.

For further details on the PNT conflict, please listen to “Into the Woods” the podcast episode by Scott Carrier that informed this article, which features an interview with Rick Bass, published by The New Yorker online.