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The Lost Trail
"A big wild country just perfect for big wild critters like bears and loggers." —People for the West
Mandated by the Endangered Species Act of 1973 to increase the number of grizzly bears in the northern Rocky Mountains, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1980s identified the Selway-Bitterroot region of Idaho and Montana as one of the few remaining areas big enough and wild enough to sustain a viable population of the wide-ranging, civilization-averse animals. In July 1997, the agency released its draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on grizzly bear restoration in the Selway-Bitterroot ecosystem, giving initial preference to a proposal called the Citizen Management Alternative, which had been drafted by a coalition of conservationists, timber producers, and labor unions. Under this approach, the governors of the two states would appoint a team of citizens to monitor and manage an initially small but then steadily growing population of grizzlies in the Selway-Bitterroot.
Public hearings were duly scheduled on the draft EIS in Salmon, Idaho, and in Hamilton and Missoula, Montana. Among the hundreds of people who showed up to testify, only a handful supported the Citizen Management Alternative. Instead, the bulk of the testimony came alternately from those who opposed the presence of bears in the mountains under any conditions and those who supported wilderness-like protection for most of the northern Rockies, under the theory that with enough habitat free of roads and logging, the bears could and would take care of themselves. The "no bears" people were dead set against that approach for two reasons. First, it clearly aimed to stop or sharply curtail logging throughout the region, putting even more pressure on the already beleaguered timber-dependent communities in both states. The second threat was even more visceral: it came from the bears themselves. Many threatened and endangered species (think of the northern spotted owl) have themselves come to be seen as threatening to resource-based industries and communities, but few of those species actually eat people. Sometimes grizzlies do, but even when they do not, they scare the daylights out of folks. Not for nothing is this species named Ursus arctos horribilis.
Between the threats of bodily and economic harm, the grizzly reintroduction issue was tailor-made for the politics of fear, and the gears of that politics were duly and instantly engaged. As soon as the Fish and Wildlife Service released the draft EIS, Republican senators Larry Craig of Idaho and Conrad Burns of Montana, declaring that the national government was forcing grizzlies on an unwilling populace, persuaded the Senate Appropriations Committee to add a rider to an appropriation bill preventing any reintroduction of the bears, pending further study on "population viability." The real intent, well understood in all quarters, was to put pressure on the Fish and Wildlife Service to keep bears out of the Bitterroot Mountains. Senator Burns' often-repeated question throughout this phase of the controversy, clearly intended to help the agency see the light, was, "What part of 'No' don't the feds understand?"
While conservatives attempted in this way to prevent by federal action any federal action at all, several environmental groups were rousing equally powerful emotions on behalf of the bear by supporting a full-scale invocation of the Endangered Species Act through what they called the Conservation Biology Alternative. At its heart lay habitat.
Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks are the best-known homes of grizzlies in the lower forty-eight states, in part because of news stories of periodic grizzly attacks on sleeping or hiking tourists. But there is also inhabited grizzly country adjacent to the two parks, most notably next to Glacier, with Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park to the north feeding grizzlies into Glacier from the well-populated habitat of the Canadian Rockies, and the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Flathead Indian Reservation extending Glacier's grizzly habitat southward. To the west, the protected wilderness of the Cabinet Mountains provides another link to the Canadian Rockies.
It was these sizable but scattered pockets and chains of grizzly habitat that underlay the Conservation Biology Alternative in the Selway-Bitterroot. The great dream of conservationists in the northern Rockies had long been to create a continuous chain of linked wildlands through the mountains, "from Yellowstone to the Yukon," as a recent recurrence of this dream has begun to put it. The grizzly is the central, indicator species by which the success of this strategy has always been intended to be measured. If the grizzly can travel (or, more important, meet and mate with other grizzlies) from Yellowstone National Park to the Yukon Territory, the ecosystem will be essentially whole. And if not, then not.
Within that picture, the Selway-Bitterroot is an indispensable link, but it will be able to provide the linkage only if logging is sharply reduced and further road building halted in most of the national forests in the greater northern Rockies ecosystem. For years, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies had pursued this goal by drafting a bill to create the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA) and repeatedly persuading eastern representatives to introduce it in Congress. For the same number of years, Montana and Idaho congressional delegations, responding primarily to timber companies, sawmill workers, and timber-dependent communities, had made sure NREPA never emerged from any committee. Then, as the Fish and Wildlife Service ground its administrative way through its mandate to expand grizzly populations, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies saw a chance to achieve its grand objective without congressional action. The Conservation Biology Alternative for grizzly bear recovery was wilderness by way of endangered species protection; it was NREPA in administrative clothing. And, of course, its opponents, including Senators Burns and Craig, knew it.
What was surprising about the grizzly controversy, though, was that the senators and the rest of the "no bears" contingent paid no attention to the "make it all wilderness" people, who paid them just as little attention in return. Instead, both sides concentrated their opposition on the Citizen Management Alternative. Conservatives opposed it because it would bring bears into the Selway-Bitterroot; environmentalists, because it did not protect enough wilderness and because it took management of the bears out of federal hands and turned it over to Montanans and Idahoans. In both cases, the issue was about territory and, finally, about sovereignty over that territory. If you turn a forest over to bears, you automatically reduce human dominion over that forest. With grizzlies around, humans cannot walk or sleep as sovereignly in the woods as they had before, and given the bears' legal status as a threatened species, they cannot cut as many trees or build as many roads either. These fears of losing control over the forests were matched from the other end of the political spectrum by the environmentalists' fear that if locals were allowed to begin managing western forests, the big federal stick of environmental protection would be splintered. From this perspective, the aggressive exercise of national sovereignty appeared crucial to protection of the bear.
In the end, it is only in terms of sovereignty that either the grizzly story or the larger story it is part of—the story of the West—can sort itself out. There is only one way to have grizzlies in these mountains, and that is on the grizzlies' own terms. Or, rather, on the grizzlies' and the mountains' shared terms. Across eons, the terrain shaped the bear, grew it, strengthened it, taught it the habits that could make it sovereign over that terrain. It was the landscape that made it into what western essayist and fiction writer William Kittredge once called "the damned old gorgeous, terrible grizzly bear." Now it cannot be anything else; either the grizzly is there on its own sovereign terms or it is not there at all. Those who are sentimental about the bear are welcome to their sentiments, but the bear will not be governed by them.
This is roughly how the West itself must now be understood. Whatever the feelings nonwesterners have about the region—whatever affections, whatever myths—the only way to take care of the West now is to give it the room it needs to take care of itself. If the West is to be the West that people care so deeply about, it will have to do it on its own sovereign terms.
This book is an effort to tell the story of that emerging regional sovereignty before it happens. By its nature, then, this telling of the story is speculative, just as one can only speculate about the paths the Bitterroot grizzlies will choose to follow if they are allowed and encouraged to come into the region. Much of the controversy over the various alternatives in the environmental impact statement turned on the inherent uncertainty and inescapable speculation about where, under various conditions, the grizzlies will go and what they will do on their way there. The grizzlies' paths simply cannot be predicted, yet their "possibility space" occupies a certain more or less definitive range determined by the nature of the animal and the lay of the land. Much the same is true about the way the story of grizzly reintroduction might itself unfold, and the way the larger story of the West will unfold through dozens of smaller stories like that of the Selway-Bitterroot.
There are maybe three or four genuinely plausible paths the grizzly story might now follow. Each of those paths is itself part of its own larger story, some of it already told, some of it waiting to continue to happen—or not. These stories as they have unfolded over the past century or so are the story of the West itself, and the way they unfold from this point on will be the future of the West. This book traces out one possible (I believe likely) future for the region, given the lay of the land and the nature of its inhabitants. In a nutshell, it says that the West will figure out how to be in charge of the West. Specifically, and most frighteningly to many who love the place, the West will achieve regional control over most of the public lands now controlled by the national government—and over all the elements of the larger ecosystems of which those public lands are such an important part. The West will be in charge of grizzlies and grizzly habitat, of salmon and their rivers, of mining in the mountains and grazing on the grasslands. The West will be genuinely sovereign over itself, as Ukraine is now sovereign and as Wales is becoming sovereign. Most important, within the normal limits of human frailty, the West will do a good job with its sovereignty. First, though, westerners from across the political spectrum will have to (and in fact will) agree on a western agenda—a common vision of what the region should be and how it will realize itself.
On the face of it, this is not a very likely turn for the story of the West to take. To understand why that might happen—why in fact it is likely to happen—we have to understand how this unexpected path emerges out of the more familiar paths, the ones already so clearly marked out, the ones people followed so readily and comfortably into the grizzly reintroduction hearings. Take the Conservation Biology Alternative, for example. This approach, using the full force of the Endangered Species Act to create de facto wilderness, follows the path laid out by the northern spotted owl in the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. Some species cannot be reliably protected without preserving very substantial reaches of their native habitat. So, by federal administrative decree or federal court action or some combination of the two, wild country gains the protection of the national government from most forms of human alteration.
But the bigger story this path traces is not restricted to endangered species issues. This kind of invocation of national power in western landscapes also rides other mounts, as it did in 1996 in southeastern Utah when President Bill Clinton created the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument, protecting by administrative decree 1.7 million acres of the Colorado Plateau from an impending coal mine. This path of national command and control is, in other words, fairly well traveled, its twists and turns well understood, and it might well be traveled again in the case of the Bitterroot grizzlies. In fact, this path reaches back to the creation of the Montana and Idaho national forests themselves. Most of the national forests that proponents of the Conservation Biology Alternative would close by administrative action to future development—the Bitterroot, Lolo, Flathead, and Nez Perce National Forests—were themselves created by just such action in the famous Theodore Roosevelt–Gifford Pinchot "midnight reserves" of March 1 and 2, 1907. That story is retold in a later chapter of this book; for now, it is enough to know that for a century, the West has walked and walked again this path of Washington-based decisions about western landscapes.
On the other hand, the West has also walked the "cut the hell out of it" path (or, in this case, road) plenty of times. Westerners know that terrain; they could do the same in the Bitterroots with their eyes closed. They can keep bears out of there very, very easily, just as they can destroy almost anything with no thought at all. That Old West–style resource extraction path has its own century-long history, with enough force behind it to propel it well into the next century. It certainly has enough force to clear-cut many another Idaho mountainside, ensuring in the process that no Yellowstone grizzly will ever meet and mate with a Glacier grizzly.
So the West has at least two old stories now, both well established in its history and political culture, both bringing the full force of their momentum into the grizzly reintroduction issue—and, in various ways but finally always the same way, into every other public land or natural resource issue in the West. Every time, the question is, Which path shall we follow? And almost every time now, there is some third choice, such as the Citizen Management Alternative, that the proponents of the two well-worn strategies resist with equal fury—a third alternative that they sometimes, in one place or another, manage to squelch, but only to see it reappear in the next drainage over. Some new path, or some lost trail.
The eastern boundary of the proposed grizzly bear recovery area was U.S. Highway 93, running south from Missoula, Montana, through Salmon to Challis, Idaho. The road forks at Lost Trail Pass on the state line, with Highway 93 continuing on into Idaho and Montana's State Highway 43 bending back east and immediately crossing another pass (Chief Joseph) before winding down into Big Hole Valley, where Chief Joseph himself had repelled the forces of Colonel John Gibbon in 1877. It was up at the top, where Lost Trail Pass and Chief Joseph Pass stand so confusingly adjacent to each other, that many a traveler, including those who surveyed the state line, managed to get lost. South of those two passes, Idaho and Montana are themselves delineated by the Continental Divide; north of that point, because the surveyors were thrown off by the confusing topography, the state line meanders off on the ridge of a lesser divide. It is up there, on that false divide, that the grizzly issue is playing itself out. The unfolding story of grizzly reintroduction is a classic case of the dividing line between the two Wests—the one that has been and the one that might be—creating the region's destiny at last. Like the Bitterroots themselves, this dividing line can be more than a little confusing; it can leave you wondering exactly which side of the divide you are actually on at any given moment.
Excerpted from This Sovereign Land by Daniel Kemmis. Copyright © 2001 Daniel Kemmis. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Introduction: The Lay of the Land
Chapter 1. The Lost Trail
Chapter 2. Imperial Origins
Chapter 3. A Century of Rebellion
Chapter 4. The Decline of the Empire
Chapter 5. A Maturing Region
Chapter 6. A Homegrown Western Democracy
Chapter 7. An Irrepressible Conflict
Chapter 8. How the West Might Govern the West
Chapter 9. Realigning Western Politics