In the Realm of the Grizzly Kings

Tomorrow will open again, the sky wide
as the mouth of a wild girl, friable
clouds you lose yourself to. You are lost
in miles of land without people, without
one fear of being found, in the dash
of rabbits, soar of antelope, swirl
merge and clatter of streams.

-from “Driving Montana”
Richard Hugo

In June 1877 a fistful of non-treaty Nez Perce lashed back against the forces conspiring to evict them from their traditional lands in the Hells Canyon and Salmon River country of central Idaho and eastern Oregon. The young warriors killed 18 white settlers, bringing down upon their people the full wrath of the US Army, which was, of course, looking for any excuse to incarcerate or exterminate them. Thus, began the most amazing journey and ruthless pursuit in American history.

Soon after the killings, the leaders of the Nez Perce bands, Looking Glass, White Bird, and Joseph, led their 300 warriors and 500 women, children, and elders across the Salmon and Clearwater Rivers and up the deep ponderosa, Doug-fir, and lodgepole forests of the Lochsa Canyon to the rugged Bitterroot Range, chased most of the way by the one-armed, demented fundamentalist Gen. Otis Howard. Their goal was the buffalo country north of the Canadian border and a possible union with the Sioux visionary Sitting Bull.

The dissident Nez Perce, loaded with dried salmon and buffalo robes, single-shot rifles and their lodgepoles, quickly traversed the steep and treacherous Lolo trail, where Looking Glass skirted the band past an inept blockade at Lolo Hot Springs and down into the stunning Bitterroot Valley, then across the spiny Anaconda Mountains to a campsite along the Big Hole River, perhaps the world’s most exquisite trout stream.

As the Nez Perce regrouped and rested, they were cruelly ambushed by a pre-dawn raid led by Col. John Gibbon that left a carnage of slaughtered women, children, and elders. Miraculously, the Nez Perce recovered behind Ollokot and Wounded Head to inflict heavy casualties on the overconfident troops, while Lean Elk led the shattered band away to the south across Bannock Pass, east to Henry’s Fork where they gathered camas root and raided General Howard’s camp for horses and supplies, and then over the tall Targhee Pass and into the Yellowstone country.

The Nez Perce sped across the central plateau, hugging the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and then made the slow, torturous crossing of the Absaroka Range, their travel impeded by dense forest and heavy treefall. When it appeared they might finally be caught between converging federal troops, the renegades descended the treacherously steep “Dead Indian Hill” undetected by Col. Samuel Sturgis’s spies. Then the Nez Perce dropped into the dark and narrow slot of the Clark’s Fork Canyon deftly evading the ambush plotted by the comically pompous colonel.

The Clark’s Fork Canyon opened to a fast, grueling route north along the Rocky Mountain Front across the Mussleshell River and through the Judith Gap, before it all came to a disastrous dénouement on the wind-brushed buffalo plains of northern Montana in the shadow of the Bear Paw Mountains, when General Nelson Miles unleashed this howitzers and cavalry on the weary Nez Perce encamped by Snake Creek only a few hours ride from the Canadian border.

Ollokot, Lean Elk, and Looking Glass were killed in the battle, along with 120 others. Chief Joseph, later canonized for his pacifism by white historians, surrendered to be imprisoned on the dusty Colville Reservation in eastern Washington. But the old chief White Bird, who refused even to consider giving up to the marauders in blue uniforms, quietly escaped with 200 other Nez Perce renegades to the wilds and relative freedom of the Canadian Rockies.

* * *

The escape route of the non-treaty Nez Perce roughly transects the bioregion now known was the Northern Rockies, a terrain that remains as hostile as it is enchanting. From Hells Canyon to the asbestos plants of Libby, the Chinese Wall to the Berkeley Pit, the Northern Rockies is a region of extremes, extremes in climate and geography, culture and politics. It is a haven for writers and artists as well as white-supremacists and conspiracy theorists; it’s a region that gave rise to Earth First! as well as some of the most virulent strains of the Wise-Use Movement.

In a bitter irony, perhaps symbolic of the region, the gray wolf has been returned amid international fanfare to Yellowstone at the same time the grizzly seems destined to make its final exit from the park.

The Rockies are the ecological spinal column of North America, a fragile corridor down which our native wildness flows. Unlike the coastal forest of the Pacific Northwest, a ragged and tattered ecosystem in need of major reconstructive ecological surgery, the wildlands of the Northern Rockies retain a certain native wholeness and exert an imposing primal presence on the totality of the landscape. Today, wildlands, not clearcuts, still define the states of Idaho and Montana.

Here, the opportunity exists to preserve complete ecosystems. There are roadless areas in Idaho the size of some of the original colonies. And some of them share grizzlies, wolves, and salmon. Beyond the smelter stacks, strip mines and ski resorts, Lewis and Clark would recognize much of western Montana. But each year this wilderness is being inexorably shaved away by the forces of corporate greed, bureaucratic malfeasance, political expediency and social indifference. Each year forgotten ranges like the Yaak or the Missions, the Selkirks or the Crazies are being cut into fragments and islands, shattered images of their former selves, lengthening forever the forested synapses across which the sparks of life must jump.

Like the tragic saga of the renegade Nez Perce, the recent history of the Northern Rockies must be read with a mixture of hope and despair.

* * *

The national forests got their start in the Northern Rockies with the designation of the Shoshone Forest Reserve in 1897 and were managed in a largely custodial fashion until the 1950s, a period when district rangers really were rangers, riding right off the pages of Ivan Doig and Norman Maclean. These forests got their comeuppance in 1970 when the forestry and wildlife faculty of Montana State University conducted an investigation of the agency’s management of forests in western Montana, revealing to the public what insiders had known for 20 years: the depletion of private timber stocks and the post-World War II housing boom instigated an era of timber primacy on the national forests.

The Bolle Report, named after Montana State University’s Dean Arnold Bolle, documented an undeniable patterns of overcutting, regeneration failures, decimated wildlife habitat and destroyed trout fisheries. In many ways the Bolle Report was the first real evidence of the Forest Service’s betrayal of the public trust and its progressive multiple-use mission promoted by Gifford Pinchot. “Multiple-use management, in fact, does not exist as the governing principle” for the agency, the Bolle Report concluded sharply.

The Bolle Report, and the Forest Service’s continued mismanagement of the national forests in Montana and Idaho, led to the famous Church Hearings and guidelines, the Randolph Bill, and ultimately the National Forest Management Act and the decade-long debacle of national forest planning.

These congressionally-mandated forest plans changed nothing in the Northern Rockies. In some cases the forest plans actually proposed doubling the historic logging rates, and established an “advance roading” strategy designed to settle the wilderness debate once and for all. Thus was the James Watt-John Crowell vision for industrial wood production on the national forests brought to life. Ironically, the agency midwife for most of these plans was then Regional Forester James Overbay, who would return to the region in 1991 as deputy chief to lead the crackdown on John Mumma and several renegade forest supervisors who said that meeting the forest plan timber targets would force them to break the law.

On top of these problems, harvesting timber in most of the Northern Rockies is an exceedingly irrational economic proposition. Unless, of course, the government is writing the checks. The Forest Service’s own accounting records bear this out. From 1990 to 2005, timber sales on national forest lands in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming have lost more than a billion dollars-not to mention the monumental losses in environmental values, such as salmon, trout, and elk habitat.

The Forest Service has gone to extraordinary lengths to justify and conceal these losses from a disbelieving public. For example:

The Gallatin and Flathead National Forests in Montana have promoted new timber sales in grizzly bear habitat in order to raise money to close other logging roads in bear habitat.

On the Idaho Panhandle Forests, the Forest Service justified new timber sales and roads in one watershed in order to raise funds to restore the damage done to another watershed by previous clearcutting.

The Clearwater National Forest in Idaho (perhaps the most landslide prone forest in the country) boasted in their forest plan that the clearcutting of the current forest would yield a kind of super-forest of tomorrow, where trees will grow to 600 feet tall.

The Boise Forest claims its aggressive salvage sale program in roadless land is actually a forest health operation designed to preserve the wild character of western Idaho forests.

And believe it or not, that’s the way natural resources bureaucracy really works in the Northern Rockies. These incidents are the rule not the exception. For 40 years in the Northern Rockies the Forest Service has simply been cutting by numbers, meeting targets, building its budget, pleasing local politicians.

After repeated attempts at reform, and little success in the courts, by the late 1980s it appeared that the etiology behind the overcutting of the national forests in the Northern Rockies might be beyond therapy.

* * *

The impetus for corrective change in the region came from the parallel development of two forces: grassroots environmental groups, such as the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, and the internal Forest Service reform movement.

The evidence of unraveling ecosystems in the Northern Rockies had been steadily compiled by agency scientists, but it was buried year after year by obedient line officers, left to fester in the files of the Forest Service until the early 1990s when the whole thing burst open like an infected wound.

First came the so-called Sundance Letter to Forest Service chief F. Dale Robertson in which the supervisors of Region 1 forests described the Forest Service as “an out-of-control agency” that had strayed from its multiple-use mission by devoting too much staff and budget to timber sales and roads. This letter gave birth to an internal Forest Service reform movement, but it came back to haunt the careers of those who signed it as they became the targets of hardliners inside the agency and right-wing politicians looking for convenient scapegoats for the depleted resources of the region.

At the same moment, timber sales in the Northern Rockies began to bottom out, dropping 30 to 50 percent below forest plan targets. Several factors contributed to the decline in sale volume, including the overcutting of private lands on the checkboard landscape which triggered a moratorium on federal sales in overstressed watersheds, grossly exaggerated yield tables, regeneration failures, and conflicts with grizzlies, trout, and elk. Of course, the real problem was that the forest plan targets themselves were unsustainable. On some forests, such as the Lolo, Flathead and Kootenai, the allowable sale quantities were nearly twice the sustainable logging rate when forest plan standards and guidelines were factored in-and that’s if you buy the increasingly dubious notion that any rate of logging in these dry forests is ecologically sustainable.

Meanwhile, bad ecological news continued to surface with stories of phantom forests on the Kootenai, ravaged watersheds on the Clearwater, destroyed grizzly habitat on the Targhee, all deliberately leaked to environmentalists or the press by Forest Service whistleblowers. None of this washed well with the Idaho and Montana Congressional delegations, the chief’s office, or then Assistant Secretary of Agriculture John Beuter, who contended that the targets were “required management objectives” that must be met, regardless of the consequences for grizzlies or trout.

Sen. Larry Craig made the delegation’s concerns starkly clear in a bullying letter to Robertson: “You have a serious management problem that must be addressed. It is my hope that you will move to assure that targets are met and line officers held accountable for their targets.”

Back in Missoula, John Mumma, the renegade regional forester for the Rockies, stood his ground. Mumma maintained that to meet the targets would force him and his supervisors to violate the law. This virtuous act killed his career. Mumma was publicly scolded by James Overbay and was soon informed by Associate Chief George Leonard that this position was untenable and that he could either retire or accept a directed reassignment to D.C. Mumma opted for retirement and told his compelling story to Congress.

But the crackdown didn’t end there. At the insistent prodding of Craig and Senator Conrad Burns of Montana, the Office of Inspector General launched covert criminal investigations against many of the reformist supervisors. One by one the whistleblowers were forced into early retirements, transferred out of the region, or compelled into directed reassignments to desk jobs in D.C. The list of casualties is a long one: Tom Kovalicky, Bertha Gilliam, Fred Trevey, Win Green, Van Elsbernd.

And the beat goes on. The purge of Northern Rockies reformers continued through the Clinton administration with the forced retirements of Helena forest supervisor Ernie Nunn and the Custer’s Curtis Bates. Now, under Bush, timber hardliners, are firmly in control of the regional office and man of the key timber producing forests in the region.

* * *

The Northern Rockies is also home to one of the intellectual bastions of the privatization movement: Bozeman, Montana. Bozeman houses both the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE) and the Political Economic Research Center (PERC). Both outfits contend that most environmental problems in the West, including wilderness, water, and forest management, derive from a lack of defined property rights for natural resources. This is the Second Coming of the Sagebrush Rebellion, and it advertises that the only way to save the environment is to sell it.

PERC, whose top economist once told me that if the grizzly’s “present net value” dropped to zero it should be driven to extinction, regularly attacks with some ferocity the public land ideals of the progressive era, dropping subtle hints along the way about the patriotism of environmentalists. Reading their publications you could be seduced into believing that Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio, and the managers of Yellowstone National Park (not to mention real environmental militants like Mike Roselle and Steve Kelly) pose a bigger threat to the ecosystems of the Northern Rockies than the W. R. Grace Co. or Boise-Cascade.

There is a kind of clever cultural calculus at work in the free-market think tanks of the West that goes something like this: Environmentalists support regulations; Regulation requires Big Government; Big Government equals Socialism; Environmentalists are Socialists; Socialism is un-American; Environmentalists are un-American. This is exactly the kind of western neo-McCarthyism that plays well in the hinterlands.

FREE’s John Baden, for example, gained some notoriety for his use of the watermelon as a metaphor for environmentalists: Green on the outside, red on the inside. He even produced a watermelon tie that was quite popular at gatherings of the free-marketeers, where, Windsor-knotted, they would all sip wine, toast Milton Friedman, and long for the days when the philosophy of John Locke was in its ascendancy.

Of course, many of the same corporations and foundations that support PERC and FREE also quietly fund People for the West and other more proletarian Wise-Use groups that are pursuing the property-rights cause in much more strident tones. It goes without saying that these same corporations, such as Chevron, Arco, and Amoco, stand to reap enormous economic benefits if the shock troops of the Wise-Use movement are successful in weakening federal laws and regulations.

It is a game that utilizes themes and symbols of insecurity, loaded signifiers, as my deconstructionist friends would say, that when pressed can ignite loathing and rage in a population that is terrified of change. The xenophobia card is played repeatedly by corporate-types and their agents from Cheyenne to Spokane. The rhetoric of entrenched nativism is articulated even by figures widely regarded as social liberals, such as Senator Max Baucus.

“With increasing frequency, out-of-state members think they know what is best for Montana and the American West,” Baucus said after his wilderness bill failed to skate through Congress in 1992. He blamed the defeat on the machinations of Hollywood celebrities, English majors, and eastern politicians.

Another example of how the subtle manipulation of images can distort reality is the rapid demise of the Yellowstone Vision document, a timid and inoffensive attempt by the Park Service and Forest Service to establish a framework for managing the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. For the privatizers and the Wise-Use movement, the Vision document became an objective correlative for everything that was wrong with ecosystem management: It was a proposal hatched by radical scientists, environmentalists, and bureaucrats designed to lock up everything near Yellowstone, including private lands.

Naturally, nothing could be further from the truth. After all, the Vision document was generated under the first Bush administration. But highly paid Wise-uUse provocateurs (one was a former lobbyist for Saudi Arabia) transformed the real anxieties of loggers, ranchers and and others who work at the margins of the Western resource economy into an extreme animus at environmentalists and the Park Service. Ultimately, these vitriolic attacks destroyed not only the Vision document, but also the careers of nearly everyone associated with it, including Lorraine Mintzmeyer, regional director of the Park Service, whose directed reassignment to Philedelphia was apparently engineered by John Sununu himself, then G.H.W Bush’s chief of staff.

As in most of the West, politicians and business leaders tout the Northern Rockies as a region of self-made men. This is a lie, of course. Indeed, it is the oligarchy of large corporations that continues to reap the liberal benefits of federal subsidies and public resources. These same companies regularly shaft and exploit their own laborers. Don’t worry about our workers, Anaconda Copper and Champion International said, they’re the rugged individuals of the American West.

A kind of corporation imperialism has been played out in the North Rockies over the past 100 years, a strategy for control, power and commodification of cultures and resources that started with a campaign of genocide against the native peoples of the region and is now ending with a mop-up assault on the region’s native ecosystem.

In the North Rockies, free enterprise was given free reign, backed by government guns, dams and subsidies. To assume that the same free-market forces can correct this history of abuse and annihilation is to engage in a kind of economic surrealism. Want a reality check? Take a flight over the “private” timber lands of northwestern Montana and Idaho, the ecological equivalent of electroshock therapy for the uninitiated.

* * *

Last summer I took a stomach-churning plane ride over the battered Mission Range in northwestern Montana. As the tiny Twin-engine Otter rose and plummeted through the vicious air pockets above the rugged mountains, I looked down on a legacy of lesions on the landscape, 640-acre chunks of raw, stripped forest, and felt my pulse pounding at the perfidy of Plum Creek Timber. Laid open below me was evidence of the corporation’s audacious acquisitiveness, a 30-year-long search and destroy mission on their own lands aimed soley at turning trees into fast cash. Grizzly and millworker, bull trout and timber faller, be damned.

Company officials brazenly admitted that they were basically liquidating their own forest holdings, cutting trees at twice the sustained-yield rate. Plum Creek’s chief executive for the Northern Region boasted in 1990: “We have never said we were on a sustained-yield program. Let’s get to the heart of it. Sure it is extensively logged, but what is wrong with that?”

And Plum Creek wasn’t alone. The other beneficiaries of the federal largesse known as the Northern Pacific Rairoad Lands Grant (Champion International, Potlatch, and Boise-Cascade) joined in the clearcutting frenzy. Champion, eager to raise cash to build new mills and plants in the Southeast, blitzed its 800,000 acres at an even faster rate and then turned around and sold its land holdings to Plum Creek and its mills to Stimson Lumber, a Portland-based log exporter.

After annihilating its own land, driving dozens of small millowners out of business, exporting millions of board feet to Asian markets, and other egregious enterprises, Plum Creek got a big dividend: the opportunity to cut even more on the national forests. The corporation is now the driving force behind calls to open more roadless areas to logging.

With its acquisition of Champion International’s lands, Plum Creek positioned itself to be the sole timber operator in western Montana. The problem was its image. Unless the suppurating lesions on its public reputation were spruced up, the state of Montana might actually enact a state forest practices act. Or even worse there might be a move in the Congress to take back the railroad grant lands from Plum Creek entirely. Such a move is called revestment and Congress not only has the power to make such as seizure, it also has the moral obligation to do so.

So corporate officials finally admitted that something indeed had gone wrong. Sure, they’d made some bad moves in the past, but these lapses were more the fault of the times, an imperfect corporate understanding of ecosystem management, than of any ill intent. With more than 95 percent of its own forests logged off in Montana, Plum Creek Timber is now prepared to be penitent.

Plum Creek’s “environmental forestry” practices now occur under the imprimatur of new forestry guru-for-hire Jerry Franklin, who has taught the company how to feather the edges of its clearcuts and to leave behind more spindly trees per acre than Bill Arthur, the Sierra Club poobah who infamously clearcut his own land in eastern Washington and compounded the outrage by selling the timber to a log exporter. Highgrading with a conscience? Enlightened deforestation?

Plum Creek is not the only company to seek out a corporate facelift. Potlatch, long regarded as the Darth Vader of Idaho forest lands, boldly announced that it too is changing its ways and is planning to enter into an operational compact with the Forest Service to merge their Geographical Information Systems in an attempt to better manage the totality of the checkerboard landscape. Natch.

Plum Creek and Potlatch have also hired PR firms to spin stories of how their timber practices now harmonize with the needs of bull trout, wolves, and grizzly bears. All this gives new meaning to the term chop-logic.

* * *

How’s this for a conundrum: Idaho and Montana remain wild because they haven’t passed state-wide wilderness bills. Think about it. In the West, the political objective of wilderness legislation is not so much to protect as to release, not so much to preserve as to secure land for logging and development unencumbered by the wilderness issue. Environmentalists bear serious complicity in this manner.

For decades the organizing principle of wildland politics in the Northern Rockies has been what I call non-confrontational incrementalism. Wilderness proposals were carefully calibrated to the prevailing political balance of the region, and sought only to draw protective lines around those roadless areas that lacked significant timber, range, and mineral resources. Wilderness on the rocks, my friend Howie Wolke calls it.

Ultimately, this approach collided against biological reality and the growing grassroots environmental movement, which sought to use wilderness as a means to protect ecosystems. The top heavy national green groups, however, failed to alter their historic approach and in 1990 signed off on the Lolo-Kootenai Accords, a compromised wilderness proposal for the two western Montana forests that contained “hard release” language designed to shield logging in non-wilderness roadless areas from legal challenges. The language, which later surfaced in Max Baucus’s proposed wilderness bill, was developed by timber industry lawyer Steve Quarrles and attorneys for the (drum roll, please) National Wildlife Federation.

The Lolo-Kootenai Accords created upheavals and fractures in the environmental movement in the Northern Rockies, left the leadership of traditional groups riven by internal dissent, and, most importantly, led to the rise of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the development of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, a 20-million-acre multi-state wilderness and wildlands restoration proposal. NREPA evolved as the striking counterpoint to decades of state-wide, rocks-and-ice wilderness proposals that traded off ecological integrity and big wilderness concepts for favored hiking trails and political expediency.

Not surprisingly, the national environmental groups actively lobbied against introduction of NREPA. The Sierra Club even threatened to excommunicate renegade Club groups and chapters in Montana, Illinois, and New York that were supporting the bill.

Still, the political agenda for wilderness in Montana and Idaho continues to be set by the state’s congressional delegations, which ritually offer up bills that release more than 70 percent of the remaining wildlands to development, fail to secure water rights for designated wilderness areas, and contain questionable release language that may limit citizens’ access to the courts.

Of course, some environmentalists, desperate any kind of crumbs, argue that these kinds of bills should be supported in order to secure at least some protection for threatened areas. But the statewide wilderness release bills lose any attractiveness they might have on the surface when viewed in the context of what is being lost. These measures are legislative anachronisms, throwbacks to the days of ecological segregationism, when old-growth forests were excluded from wilderness areas as a matter of political fiat.

While environmental groups in the Northern Rockies appear to be congealing around NREPA, a bitter residue of tension remains, particularly in the leadership of the national organizations. The problem for the reactionary forces in the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, and National Audubon, the traditional envoys of incrementalism, is a profound one: How to affect the appearance of thinking big, while continuing to act small.

The solution, as crafted by Audubon’s Brock Evans and the Club’s Larry Mehlhaf, is to publically endorse NREPA, do nothing to support it, then quietly back the puny piecemeal bills, anyway. This is the intrinsic inertia of incrementalism at work.

* * *

A few final thoughts about the grizzly.

There is no question that the grizzly is in worse shape now than when it was listed as a threatened species 30 years ago. Its habitat has been steadily eroded by hundreds of thousands of acres of clearcuts, roads, subdivisions, and oil developments. Each year dozens are shot with impunity just for acting like bears. Others are regularly tracked down, trapped, weighed, prodded, radio-collared, linked up with global positioning satellites, relocated when they stray beyond political boundaries, and injected with tranquilizers that when mixed with the destruction coming down around them like a bad hallucination simply drive many bears insane.

Among other gross deficiencies, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s recovery plan for the bear, devised in Clinton time, represents a stunning negation of the nature of the grizzly. Compromise and consensus, the recurrent mantras of the Democrats and their green automatons, are not only alien to the bear, they are lethal to is future as a species.

And now under Bush the bill has come due for the great bear. The Yellowstone grizzly, clinging to a perilous existence in the region of the park, was in the winter of 2007 magically deemed recovered and was duly stripped of the meager protections it had enjoyed under the Endangered Species Act. And now the bear haters have their sights set on delisting the dwindling population of bears that prowl the Northern Continental Divide as well.

Have conservationists failed in one of our most important domestic missions? Hell, yes we have. By consistently conforming to the accepted political reality and repeatedly endorsing state wilderness proposals that militate against the very kind of dramatic change needed to protect the bear.

The grizzly is not a symbol of wildness; it is wildness personified. In the Northern Rockies, a “wilderness” without at least the hope of being traversed by the great bear is not truly wild. The ultimate test of the vitality of the region and the American environmental movement will be whether or not we can save the grizzly and its habitat. NREPA may not be enough, but its head and its heart are in the right place.

In the end, however, I believe we’re going to have to draw a line. A line from Challis, Idaho, to Whitefish, Montana. Call it a radius. Within this circle beats the wild heart of North America. It’s still not too late to save it all.

* * *

Late June, Nez Perce Creek, Yellowstone. I was following closely the path the renegade Nez Perce took 115 years ago, a trail that allowed them to leave behind the incompetent and homicidal Howard. Even then Yellowstone, already a national park, stood as a sanctuary of freedom and wilderness.

Bruise-colored stormclouds piled up over the Madison Range. I dropped down to a small bench by the stream to await the onslaught of the storm and watched the Yellowstone cutthroat angle themselves against the swirling current before rising to snatch newly hatched salmonflies. Jolted by thunder, I looked up the ridge and caught sight of my first Yellowstone grizzly: a young bear standing on a downed fir tree, digging playfully at the decaying wood. As lightning bolts shattered the sky, she rose on her hind legs, and turned her dished face towards me, her reddish coat flecked with gold, an image of bristling defiance.

A damn fool, all I could think of then was capturing a photo of the grizzly in this wild and distant place, but I stumbled and fell into the creek trying to unsheathe my camera. The cold current tugged at my legs, pulling me into the deep pool where the cutthroat had been feeding. When I finally regained my footing, dragged my pack out of the frigid stream and looked back up the slope, she was gone: vanished into the amber light.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book is End Times: the Death of the Fourth Estate, co-written with Alexander Cockburn. He can be reached at:


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3