During the mid-1970s, a few folks spawned a vision of a 1,200-mile hiking trail from Olympic National Park to Glacier National Park, followed by the creation of a political support organization, the Pacific Northwest Trail Association based in Washington state. At the appeal of Congress, from 1977-1980, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service conducted a feasibility study of several prospective routes, concluding no recommendation for hiker thru-travel, citing each would be too expensive, economically and environmentally, and that it would gut susceptible grizzly bear habitat and working timber management lands.
In 1980, renown grizzly bear biologist, Dr. Charles Jonkel, recommended a “southern route” for the Pacific Northwest Trail, avoiding what the U.S. Forest Service deemed Grizzly Core Habitat. Then, in 2009, the Pacific Northwest Trail Association lobbied their Washington legislators to attach a rider to the Ominbus Public Land Management Act authorizing the creation of the Pacific Northwest Trail with the “northern route” through the Grizzly Core Habitat in the Yaak Valley, without nary a visit or consultation with Montana’s legislators and citizens, heads of business; city and county leaders; or trail, recreation, timber management, or conservation organizations.
Today’s proposed “southern route” travels through Troy and Libby, generating business and creating jobs. It would also ease potential constraints and conflict on the timber industry and public access in the area. Finally, the “southern route” roams Lake Koocanusa and the Kootenai River, the Columbia River’s largest tributary; past waterfalls, swimming holes, and fishing spots; by ghost towns, summits peaks with splendid views, and through exceptional bird watching areas and ecologically unique rainforests.
Has Montana devolved back into the Washington Territory? The Pacific Northwest Trail Association would like to believe so. History affirms that the Montana Territory was born in 1864, after leaving the Washington and Dakota Territories in 1863. Statehood bloomed in 1889. Despite that, here we are in 2020 with government agencies, individuals, and organizations from Washington encouraging a “northern route” trail blaze through our mountains, valleys, forests, and rivers for an astigmatic vision of a long thru-hiking trail with a clear disdain of the people, wildlife, and land of our state.
There may not be grizzly bears in Olympic National Park, but there are in the Yaak Valley of Montana, and these grizzlies are a treasure and symbol of wildness worth more than Starbucks coffee, development, or gold sluiced from the creek. Interstate 90 may connect us, just as the Mullan Road yoked us in 1862, but the existing route of the Pacific Northwest Trail through the Yaak Valley does not.
The transparent, uncomplicated “southern route” is recommended for the Pacific Northwest Trail. But, it needs congressional legislation for change, and this is paramount because the Yaak Valley has little to concede in her badge of a wild, free-roaming grizzly bear population. Please consider and help re-route the Pacific Northwest Trail by contacting our elected officials and let those bears have a chance to represent to the world the true wild of Montana.
Matthew Chappell lives in Choteau.