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Saving Places: Montana Sierra Club's work in the field

Posted on 10 May 2003

by Dave Reese



It's no secret that Montana is a hot commodity.
There are hotspots throughout the state that are experiencing growth from 10 to 20 percent over the last 10 years, with no reduction in sight for these kind of growth rates.
With this kind of growth, one would get the impression that the state is being overrun with development; sprawls of subdivisions spreading out from major towns like Bozeman, Kalispell and Missoula.
There is that.
It is occurring.
But several organizations in Montana are doing their part to make sure that Montana retains its pristine character, its natural history and a clean environment - all the attributes that brought us here and keep us here.

Along the Trail of Lewis and Clark
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson sent captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their Corps of Discovery on their historic journey.
The goal of the Corps was to find the shortest and and most convenient route between the U.S. and the Pacific Ocean. For the next three years, Lewis and Clark travelled 8,000 miles and named roughly 75 percent of the American continent, naming forests, rivers and mountains along the way, and identifying 178 kinds of trees and 122 animals.
The key to the Corps' success was following and navigating the Missouri and Columbia rivers. 
Lewis wrote in his journal:
"I sometimes wonder that some of canoes and pirogues are not swallowed up by means of these immense masses of earth which are eternally precipating themselves into the river. ... We have had many hair breadth escapes."
When the expedition, aptly named the Corps of Discovery, reached the Columbia River at the falls called the Dalles, Clark wrote about the churning water, which has now been dammed into a flaccid, flat water. He described the Columbia as: the horrid apearance of this agitated ... swelling water, boiling and whorling in every direction."
The Columbia River has now been dammed by 29 reservoirs, while the Missouri River
Their tktkt mile journey brought them across vast prairies and mountain ranges, some of which remain intact to this day.
Much has changed in the 200 years since then, but groups like the Sierra Club in Montana are trying to save these historic areas along the Lewis and Clark trail.
It's the goal of the Sierra Club to help protect roughly 200,000 acres along and near the Lewis and Clark trail in Montana. 
The Sierra Club has been working on a five-year project that would place these vast acreages of historic significance into federal wilderness protection or have them declared nonmotorized.
The areas that the Sierra Club hopes to have placed into federal protection are:
• 105,000 acres in the Great Burn, an area on the Montana/Idaho border
• 8,000 acres near Lewis and Clark Pass, on the Helena National Forest
• 10,000 acres in the Gates of the Mountain wilderness on the Missouri river
• 30,000 to 50,000 acres in the Pryor Mountains that the club would like to see protected as nonmotorized.

Combined, the four areas represent less than 200,000 acres, a sliver compared to the six million acres of roadless areas in Montana that are unprotected and roadless.
From mining to motorized vehicles, threats to these areas vary, according to Bob Clark, conservation organizer for the Sierra Club in western Montana. There are mining claims in the Great Burn area on the Idaho/Montana border, as well as on the Lewis and Clark Pass.
Off-road vehicle use is a "real problem" in the Pryor Mountains, Clark said, and wilderness designation would ensure that these places would remain wild.
The Great Burn area sees a high amount of illegal snowmoble use and official protection would help reduce that, Clark said.
The Sierra Club is recommending that the Big Log area on the south end of the Gates of the Mountains, be added to the wilderness designation.
This addition would include areas where limestone canyons open into lowland savannahs on the Missouri River.
This area was omitted from the original 28,562-acre Gates of the Mountains wilderness area established in 1964.
It was here on July 19, 1805, that Captain Lewis wrote: "From the singular appearance of this place I called it the gates of the rocky mountains.
"My feet is verry much brused & cut walking over the flint, & constantly stuck full Prickley pear thorns, I pulled out 17 by the light of the fire to night, Musqutors verry troublesom."
The Corps of Discovery spent nearly a month in and along the Bitterroot Range on its way west. Christened "Travelers Rest 
Creek" by the explorers, Lolo Creek's main tributary, Granite Creek headwaters' is in the Great Burn. From snowbank camp at the southern edge of the Great Burn, Lewis wrote in his journal: "From this mountain I could observe high ruged (sic) mountains in every direction as far as I could see."
The Sierra Club says it will begin working with the Montana congressional delegation to get these areas put into a bill that would provide wilderness or nonmotorized protection. Clark (no relation to the explorer), said it was fitting that that the Sierra Club choose to protect lands along the Lewis Clark trail as the bicentennial of the famous expedition is celebrated. "This isn't your typical wilderness bill," Clark said. "We think of this as a public -lands legacy bill. We thought that would be a legacy fitting of the exploration itself, so that generations beyond can appreciate the scenic vistas that Lewis and Clark expedition experienced."
Much of this acreage that Lewis and Clark once looked out upon has already been proposed as wilderness in existing forest plans, including the Great Burn on the Lolo National Forest.
Lewis and Clark Pass is currently managed as nonmotorized and is proposed wilderness, as is Gates of the Mountains; and in the Pryor mountains there are three Bureau of Land Management study areas that comprise a bulk of the areas proposed.
"It would be nice to have those areas around for future generations," Clark said. "It's an opportunity to promote a conservation legacy."
Although these areas with significance to the Lewis and Clark expedition have not made it into wilderness legislation, Clark said the national and state forest agencies that manage them already recognize the lands as "being wild and wilderness-quality lands, similar to what Lewis and Clark would have seen. They already have high value in the eyes of the agencies."
The Sierra Club is beginning a grassroots effort to get these issues into legislative form, and is gauging interest among legislators, Clark said. "We don't think there's going to be a whole lot of opposition, given the fact the areas are for the most part protected," he said.
The Pryor Mountains were not on the Lewis and Clark Trail, but are named after expedition member Nathaniel Pryor. He was a member of Captain Clark's return journey which ventured just north of these mountains in July 1806.
He went south and viewed what are called the Pryor Mountains.
The Pryor Mountains have a diverse range of flora, from semiarid desert and broken foothills, to limestone canyons, caves, and subalpine forests with high meadows. The area, according to the Sierra Club's Clark, is well-known for for harboring rare plant species and was used by native Americans for sacred ceremonies, and petroglyphs remain today.

Lewis and Clark pass on the Helena National Forest has similar attributes, although they're more in the realm of viewsheds rather than rare plants. The pass is a connection to the Scapegoat Wilderness on the Continental Divide, and there are still travois tracks near the top of the pass from Indian travelers.
Standing on top of the pass, you can see to upper Alice Creek and the Continental Divide, a view that Meriwether Lewis perhaps saw on his return journey in 1806.
Travelling east on their return trip, Lewis' party followed the Nez Perce buffalo trail along the Blackfoot River, then Alice Creek, reaching the Continental Divide at what is now called Lewis and Clark pass on July 7, 1806.
In his journal, Captain Lewis noted "much sign of beaver" and rejoiced at reaching "the dividing ridge between the waters of the Columbia and Missouri rivers."
"It's relatively the same as what they saw," Bob Clark said. "From a viewshed standpoint, it's one of the most compelling of the four."

The Great Burn area is not directly in the path of the Lewis and Clark expedition, but it's close to the headwaters of Lolo Creek, which the party followed up and over Lolo Pass on their westward trek to find the northwest passage.
The Great Burn is named after the 1910 wildfire that burned about 250,000 acres in Idaho and Montana. It is now an inventoried roadless area and is managed as wilderness in the Lolo National Forest management plan.
The Great Burn area, Bob Clark said, is "really significant as far as travel routes, not just from the Lewis and Clark standpoint, but from the native Americans as well."
The area is known to harbor a strong elk herd and has clear-running streams teeming with trout.
"It's a phenomenal place," Clark said.
The area is still popular with the public, with recreational uses ranging from hunting and horsepacking to snowmobiling (where it's legal).
The Idaho side of the Great Burn allows motorized recreation, while the Montana side does not. Clark said he hopes to see more cohesion between the national forest managers in Idaho and Montana, but added that "we're thrilled with the Lolo National Forest's direction on this area."


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