In Praise of a Place

A Letter from the Yaak Valley

photo of a fog-gentled meadow, a shadowy forest and an animal looking toward the cameraPhoto: Lowry Bass

A million acres of low elevation dense green forest in a magic seam between the Pacific Northwest’s fungal rot and the Rocky Mountains’ glamorous views of wildfire and glaciers: the Yaak Valley of northwestern Montana, no place else like it on earth.

Often, I think I might be just about storied-out on the Yaak. I feel like I’ve done almost all of my remembering, finally, and have told – almost – all of the stories from the old days, telling them to the new folks who wander into this little green valley, beauty-struck. I’m not sure why I tell the stories – they just come out of me, as if from a little spring – and sometimes, doing so, I feel the faintest strand of something that might be a little like sadness, which is confusing, since the stories are good ones, anecdotes of great drama or plain beauty or at least singular notice.

The Yaak has gone 50 years without a single acre of designated wilderness, the story might begin. Or, a slightly different beginning: The Yaak is the wildest, most diverse valley in the West, home to grizzlies, wolverine, owls, eagles, ferns, otters.

There are more stories about this place than there is time to tell them. It is a wellspring. It is me who falters, never this valley. Let me think of another way, a new way, to begin this story.

When I think of why the Yaak matters, all the old reasons continue to wash past, more important now, I think, than they were when I first came to this valley, nearly 30 years ago. Eudora Welty wrote, “One place understood helps us understand all places better,” and I believe that strongly, in the Yaak. The question is not necessarily how beloved any one place is, but, in these times of flux, how rare, even unique. And in this regard, then, the Yaak is one of the most vital unprotected places I’ve seen. The fact that I inhabit it – and love it – becomes irrelevant, which I find a splendid confusion. The Yaak is as important to those who will never see it as it is to those few of us who have the privilege and responsibility of living here.

The Yaak is important, especially, to artists, for its splendid duality. No one single perspective will adequately convey the Yaak. In the Yaak, as in art, a thing is often composed of its oppositions and contradictions as much as it is of its core element, or the element first and most easily seen.

The Yaak is important as ecological refugia for the émigrés and exodus wrought by a burning West. And it’s just as important to our fragile, little souls. A place of refuge as all-else goes away.

The Yaak is important to us also as a dream. Not that it is not a substantial, physical, tactile reality in a world of too-much-else abstraction and ever-increasing homogeneity; it is one of the most specific places I’ve been. But a place like the Yaak – rank, fecund, unmanageable, mysterious – is vital to us as an idea, not “just” as a reality: for in so being, it makes a space for these things in our minds.

The Yaak is important because of its fragrance. Due to its low elevation, high moisture content, and because of the Yaak’s relative seclusion from wind and – always, above all – its vegetative diversity, scent molecules do amazing things in the Yaak, clinging to an abundance of well-aged, well-rounded, relatively undisturbed water molecules, binding to them in astounding elixirs. Wet pinegrass and sunstruck lupine, midmorning in July; pipsissewa and bunchberry dogwood, cream-scented, mingling with the drier scent of paintbrush and the wet fur of a deer’s belly from where it has just crashed through the sedgy marsh (that rich water-spray vaporizing in the rising warmth of the day). The deer stopping back in the shade of the alders then, panting, and reassessing the risk, which, in July, is not from you, but huge from the mountain lions, both the old lions and the first-of-the-year, who are learning to hunt, training on June’s fawns.

Scent is stratified in the Yaak, denser and richer here than anywhere – the aroma of warming ponderosa pines soaking in the sun and exuding their vanilla vapors, even as the western red cedar exists, paradoxically, contradictorily, anomalously (anomalous anywhere else but the Yaak) right next to those pines, just as the yew and aspen nestle in clumps within the stands of lodgepole, or the Engelmann spruce and silver fir. These nontraditional associations make sense only in the Yaak. There is a different kind of democracy at work here. It’s a democracy so profound that you can smell it, and again, the fragrance of it gets in your skin and in your clothes. When you get home at night from a long walk it tumbles from your boots and socks, it is caught in flecks and chips in your hair. It is the scent of the forest and the underbrush, the scent of both specialization and bounty, and above all else, the scent of diversity.

Often extreme specialization will take place in the absence of ecological richness – in the harshest of conditions – while abundance may exist at the expense of specialization, residing in richer, more productive terrain. The Yaak is a super-mix of the two, extremely rare niches and yet extreme productivity. It is a place, perhaps, of extreme moderation.

There is simply nowhere like it in the world, and some days I still have trouble believing that not every acre of it is protected forever and ever, but instead remains, year after year and decade after decade, vulnerable and open to one endless battle after another, whether logging or mining or road-building or dam-making or subdivision-planning or cell-towering, or any of the other of the new century’s great hungers.

Sometimes I feel like I am the one who is back in the shade of the alders, panting, looking out and reassessing after a sudden burst of flight, and wondering, How much further, how much farther?

The Yaak is important as a vessel, a reservoir, for the world’s sounds. The calls and intonations – the dialects – of ravens are different here. Over the years, I have come to understand many of their calls, based on subtle emphasis and timing. The single raspy grunt, the strident purr that sounds almost like alarm, save for the tenor of excitement and urgency. In June, it can mean one thing – lion kill, lion kill, come check it out, I found it – while that almost-same call in August can mean, Fuck it’s hot, whereas the slightest variation to that one lone call in September can mean, Damn, it’s good to be alive, summer’s behind us, it was a good one. I feel strong, it’s good to be alive.

The Yaak is important as a dream, as an idea that makes space in our minds for the mysterious.

Call it anthropomorphizing, as I suppose you must. But after you have lived here for 30-plus years and heard them talk, singly and in groups, day after day, out in the marsh or on the ridges playing, or back in the shady forest, or following you during hunting season – after all that, come back then and tell me it is anthropomorphizing. I have already been back and forth on the subject, thinking, Yes, it is anthropomorphizing, before coming finally to understand, No, it is not; they are ravens – they get to say and feel what they want, when they want, and that is why their calls vary at different times of years, and under different conditions. There are communities of them up here. Their lives are not yet fragmented, up there in the sky above the bowl of this valley.

The Yaak should be protected because it’s a place where ravens’ calls are a little different? Really? Do you know how much wood we could cut, if we decided to continue on at the old reckless pace? The mills are mostly gone now, but couldn’t we cut anyway, and make jobs somehow? How many jobs, in that senseless frenzy?

Almost as many jobs, perhaps, as could be gotten by putting back together – or trying to stitch back together – the damage wrought by the first wave of cutting, from the 1930s to about the end of the twentieth century, which is what the little nonprofit group I’m associated with, the Yaak Valley Forest Council, has been doing for the last 20 years or so. We quietly raise dollars to pull out old, collapsed culverts, decommission sagging logging roads, replant savaged clearcuts, inventory stream quality. I predict that once 70 years of this have passed, the economy of restoration will have made as many jobs, will have brought as much revenue, as did the old economy of devastation.

So why not call it good, then, call it even, and listen to ravens?

The Yaak is important because each year tanagers show up outside my cabin window between the third and eighth of July. Because the snipe begin winnowing sometime between the twenty-eighth of April and the first of May. Because the long-toed salamanders begin creeping across the snow and ice fields, heading back to the vernal marshes that groan and crack and creak, breaking open like eggshells, hatching the water once again, the buzzing dragonflies, the shimmering sedges, the heated breath of spring and summer.

The Yaak is important – vital – for its paradoxes. It’s one of the most unpeopled forested landscapes in the West. No one has ever lived here year-round, not even the First People, the Kootenai, who lived along the Kootenai River and, as a fishing culture, used the Yaak mostly for hunting. So the stories we enact and experience here in the Yaak are first stories. Where else in the world does such responsibility exist?

photo of a misty lake among pinesPhoto: Lowry Bass

The Yaak is important because when big floods come scouring through, they scrub every rock, blast out the accumulated detritus of sediment that’s washed in over the years from road-building and logging, finer grains that raise turbidity and water temperatures in ways not conducive to gleaming wild trout.

And what mechanism exists, what pairing, for the same scouring in our own tired and filled-in and often cloudy or overheated minds? Surely, beauty; surely the green fire of beauty burns off or scours away that plaque, and it is here, in a wonderland like the Yaak, where such an experience can be had.

What is scarcest often has greatest value.

The Yaak is important because of its political history. I need not tell you how important this is, in an era of polarization, gridlock, and the deathly toxifcation of the wilderness ideal. For 50 years the Yaak has been ignored in wilderness designation, or worse, baited-and-switched: included, now and again, and usually in limited representation.

Decades ago, ex-Senator John Melcher’s Kootenai-Lolo Accords was a bill constructed in part by agreements that had been reached between timberworkers and environmentalists (a weak, even bad bill, in that it would have released some roadless areas to logging) and actually passed Congress, only to be vetoed by Ronald Reagan, who sought to damage Melcher in Melcher’s upcoming Senate re-election. (This was the same Ronald Reagan who supported the bipartisan wishes of Texans and protected tens of thousands of acres of wilderness in Texas). Reagan’s plan worked; Melcher lost, which ushered in 20 years of Conrad Burns, one of the staunchest anti-wilderness politicians in Montana’s history. Later, Congressman Pat Williams passed a bill through the House that protected more than 150,000 acres of Yaak wildlands, but the Senate killed the bill – led by Senator Burns.

Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, in the 1990s, singlehandedly stopped 128 miles of new taxpayer-subsidized road-building into six of the Yaak’s roadless areas due to then-Representative Pat Williams contacting him and asking for help. In a place like the Yaak – and I believe that in this regard, there may still be a few others like it out there – one person can still make a difference, and so can 3,000 schoolchildren, which is how many wrote Representative Williams asking that the Yaak’s roadless areas and most special wild places be spared.

What is rare is valuable. The Yaak is one of the most underrepresented landscapes in the National Wilderness Preservation System. Only the native prairie grasslands (now virtually extinct) are more underrepresented than the interior low-elevation old growth forests of the Yaak, which has been described as Montana’s only rainforest. For this, the Yaak has always been an extraordinary jewel in the portfolio of our public lands. In a warming world, the wild Yaak is even more golden: a pulse, lung of sweet cool green fresh fir-scented air.

All of us in the eco-choir know the importance of the Yaak from an ecological perspective, though once upon a time, that knowledge was not the case. Once upon a time, environmentalists who had never been to this off-the-beaten path and hard-logged valley – a strange no-man’s land between Canada and Idaho, a strange blank spot west of Glacier and south of the Kootenays – looked at the maps of road-building (10,000 miles on the Kootenai National Forest alone) and thought: Hard-logged, hence no wilderness. Back then, we couldn’t abide looking at clearcuts. We turned our backs from such testimony to greed and said: The Yaak is not wild, and the Yaak is not wilderness.

Except: There were a few local folks who loved it. Who knew it, and who loved the handful of grizzlies that still lived there – prospered there, few though they were in number. Who loved the great gray owls, as unaffrighted of the approach of humans as might be penguins in the Galapagos. Who marveled at the wolves that had snuck back from the north, this long before the wolf-reintroductions at Yellowstone.

We’ve come a long way. Montana’s senior senator, Jon Tester, has for several years now introduced his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, a piece of legislation that would reward cooperation on difficult matters in three areas of national forest in Montana – including the Yaak – while supporting the common ground mapping exercises conducted by the general public, US Forest Service (or the dysfunctional shell of it that still remains), local timber companies (what few are left), and wilderness advocates. House Republicans – who care nothing for the last few surviving mills – are blocking this bill yet again, due to this year being a midterm election.

Here in the Yaak, we keep working. We are not waiting. We are working, as we have been for 50 years – and will for 50 more, a hundred more, if we must. The individuals who have blocked our efforts thus far have been working against something, while we, though outnumbered and outspent, are working for something. That difference is all the difference in the world, and in our lives. It is this difference that will one day bring us success. Fifty years is a long time, politically, but no work is ever wasted. Time just marches on.

Author-activist Rick Bass has written more than 20 books. He’s a board member of the Yaak Valley Forest Council: www.yaakvalley.org.

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