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Protecting the Great Burn

Fish Lake, Great Burn Roadless Area. Photo: George Wuerthner.

The Great Burn is Missoula’s best kept wilderness secret, a landscape lost for more than 50 years from the devastating effects of the fire that bears its name. Its recovery has been nothing short of remarkable. Yet, the Burn is under fire once again, this time by off-road vehicles, snowmobiles and mountain bikes that threaten to steal the spirit of this fragile and wild landscape.

With an administration dead set on exploiting our public lands, time is of the essence to ensure protection for perhaps our wildest and least protected stretch of proposed wilderness: the 1.9 million acres that straddles Montana and Idaho, known as the Great Burn and String of Pearls.

Since 1964, wilderness lands have remained vital for recreation, the protection of species, as pristine waterways or as important connectivity for wildlife to continue to move and migrate without interference. Within the Great Burn there are bears, wolves, native mountain goats, wolverines and so many other special creatures that bring soul to these public lands owned by all Americans. Wildlife biologists have made clear; the Great Burn may well be one of the most important remaining habitats in the lower 48, especially when it comes to grizzly recovery.

These lands are rich in old growth western-red cedar and Douglas fir; in some parts the cedars have been determined by the Forest Service to be more than 500 years old. These were the lucky strands that avoided fire.

When President Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot set aside millions of acres for national forests, those who had been exploiting the public lands were enraged and senators in some Western states cut funding to the bone for the new agency and did all they could to ignore the peril they were creating.

Today history is sadly repeating itself. The Forest Service is woefully underfunded; the current administration has done more to remove lands from protection than any in our history. There continues to be an outcry from a radical fringe to get rid of public lands and turn our wildest lands into a waste pit of extraction, trapping and a machine-driven chaos.

For the Great Burn, time is running short. Threats from mining, illegal snowmobiles, off-road vehicles and mountain bikes are tearing away at the wild core of this landscape. The chance for quiet recreation, the ability to remove oneself from the virtual and profoundly busy world we live in, requires time, physical exertion and the chance to share the land with species that require space, quiet and our unwavering support.

The time has come to protect this land of mountains, lakes and crystal clear rivers from those that would seek profit at the expense of wildness. If we want history to repeat itself in a more positive manner, we will seek to protect the Great Burn in the tradition of the Bob Marshall, the Scapegoat, the Selway-Bitteroot and so many of the iconic wilderness areas that honor the lands, and species that define them.

In the years since the historic fires, the Great Burn has matured into a wild and beautiful landscape. Protecting it begins with respecting the land, waters and wildlife that give life and purpose to the Great Burn. Most of all it requires the heart and courage to protect that which we seek to keep wild, not just for us, but for generations to come.

Wilderness remains a powerfully American ideal, one that is fitting for the Great Burn and the lands that require our energy and focus to protect in these challenging political times.

Stephen Capra is executive director of the Great Burn Conservation Alliance.

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