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Save the Great Burn Wilderness

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

The 275,000-acre Great Burn proposed wilderness lies west of Missoula on the Idaho-Montana divide. The 1910 Burn, which over ran 3 million acres of northern Idaho and western Montana, gives this wildland its name. The Burn left a legacy of snags and beautiful vistas from ridgelines cleared by the blaze. Alpine lakes, like a string of pearls, are strung along the Bitterroot Divide.

When I lived in Missoula, the Great Burn was one of my favorite wild places.

In winter, I made ski trips along the divide, often camping where I could see both sunset and sunrise from a treeless ridge.  On one such trip, I once found wolverine tracks on the crest. One Christmas break from school, I started to snowshoe from Lolo Pass to Hoodoo Pass while the temperature dropped to 38 below. I eventually turned around and retreated to Lolo Pass. I learned a life lesson there– my car would not start at 38 below.

I had excursions in other seasons as well. Despite the name referring to the burn, there are also cathedral groves of giant western red cedar in some of the drainages.  One of the more memorable hikes was with the poet Gary Snyder. Synder’s poem Straight Creek—Great Burn commemorates that hike.

The Great Burn is a natural travel corridor for wildlife up and down the Bitterroot Range. Its clear and pure streams host populations of Westslope cutthroat trout and endangered bull trout. Wolves, elk, mountain goat, and other wildlife are known to reside in the area.  A grizzly bear was shot on the Idaho side of the divide, demonstrating that the area is a natural corridor for wildlife recolonizing the Selway Bitterroot wildlands.

Today the Great Burn needs your help. There are not many places in the West where we can protect a quarter-million acres of wildlands—but the Great Burn proposed wilderness is one of these. We humans need to demonstrate restraint and humility by designating the Great Burn as wilderness.

For more information on the Great Burn proposed wilderness check out the Friends of the Clearwater 

The Clearwater-Nez Perce National Forest is revising its forest plan and is receiving comments until April 20th. Please voice your support for wilderness protection for the Great Burn by writing the forest at this link.  

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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