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Mountain High



Check out a map showing America’s unroaded, undeveloped areas and you’ll quickly realize that Missoula is dead center of the Lower 48’s remaining wildlands. The massive block of Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall/Scapegoat Wilderness complex defends our northern and eastern flanks, and the Selway/Bitteroot and Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness Areas protect much of our southern and western exposures. Millions of these carefully protected acres encircle Western Montana’s relatively thin strips of development, and account for much of our nation’s nearly-intact ecosystems.

Americans and world travelers visit our high, barren places to stimulate the spirit and recall our place in a wild world. Humans have for millenia humbled themselves in remote, challenging landscapes, and Montanans regularly forge formative experiences deep in the wild.

The high mountains are a great place to visit, but humans tend to choose less challenging locales in which to reside, and homes are customarily constructed in flatter, more accessible valleys. Here we find reliable water supplies, longer growing seasons and easy routes linking us to the rest of the world. Since Westerners first arrived, we’ve been converting Montana’s most fertile lands to fields of grain, no-wolf llama pastures and sprawling tracts of Kentucky Bluegrass. We then leave the higher, rockier mountains to provide meager cover, food and habitat for non-human critters by protecting them with designators like “park” or “wilderness.”

The same is true throughout much of the country, and on a weeklong ramble through Utah’s canyon country last week I scrambled through the Crack Canyon Wilderness Study Area (WSA) of the San Rafael Swell. This 5-mile redrock slot canyon gem had been protected until last week when a Bush administration edict removed WSA protection from more than 200 million acres of the nation’s wild lands. The late-night executive order allows mining, logging and roadbuilding on federal land previously protected from development.

Fortunately for Montana’s critters, nature lovers and recreationalists, the White House decision applies to land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management and will barely affect Big Sky Country. Instead, Montana’s WSAs will remain (temporarily) protected due to a decision by the forward-thinking 9th Circuit Court last January. The court ruled that the Forest Service has failed to maintain the wilderness “character and potential” of seven of Montana’s WSAs and must immediately begin to do so. (The court ruled that the Forest Service had been illegally constructing ATV trails in a proposed wilderness area, a patently illegal action that costs taxpayers by forcing the Forest Service to legally defend its infractions.)

Still, only five or six percent of our nation’s land has not been logged, cultivated, roaded or otherwise developed, leaving only small amounts of marginal and unpopulated habitat for the critters. Like elk, for instance.

May 1 marked the opening of the last of Mount Jumbo’s seasonally closed open space, clearing the way for people and dogs to access the premiere high trail linking downtown with the Rattlesnake and Marshall Canyon. The City closes off this small piece of land to provide low-elevation habitat for winter-weary elk during our coldest months. In typical winters, this herd finds enough grass and knapweed to keep it on the hillside and within view of the city until mid-spring.

The flank of Jumbo is not the Eden these elk are seeking, but rather a mid-journey purgatory between the snowed-in highlands above and the bright and busy glow of the city on the valley floor. Strip away the homes, the businesses and the streets, and elk from across the region would fill our urban plot with a winter herd rivaling those found in popular reserves statewide.

But being reclusive creatures, the Jumbo elk avoid our populated valley and elect instead for the cover-less and thinly vegetated Jumbo sidehill. In turn the city recruits “elk guardians” to watch and ultimately protect the ungulates from human or canine harassment through the winter, and on a short-term local level, it works.

But the rapidly eroding public land protections at state and national levels have forced critters from the desert tortoise to the grizzly bear to cram into smaller, less suitable homes. And as wildlife habitat across the nation feels the squeeze, we lose diversity, a critical component of our spot at the center of the Lower 48’s Last Best Place.

Join the New Rocky Mountaineers on Saturday, May 10 for an early season ascent of East St. Mary’s Peak (9425’) in the Mission Mountains. Gerald Olbu (549-4769) will be leading the intrepid through brush, snow and wind as they scale a full mile o’ vert—tribal permit required. On May 12, join Josh Glawe (543-6483) for a day of climbing near Missoula, or call Brady Warren (327-7840) if you’d rather climb the bulbous granite of Lolo Pass on May 14.

The MOB, aka, “Missoulians on Bicycles” (Wayne Kruse, 721-3095) are cranking through the 11th Annual Lolo Lulu on May 11. This 90-mile up-and-back to the top of Lolo Pass includes fast, smooth pavement and Luau shenanigans at the pass, so bring your party hat and food to share.

It’s time to register for the 33rd Annual Tour of the Swan River Valley (TOSRV), a fundraising ride from Potomac to Bigfork on May 17 and 18. The fully-supported ride rallies more than 400 riders who have raised more than $5,000 for local non-profits, so e-mail MOB boss Wayne Kruse at for the lowdown.

Calling all endorphin junkies! The 3rd Annual Bitterroot Endurance Trail Run at Blue Mountain is happening May 10, and the 5-mile, 10-mile, marathon and 50-mile options should provide something for anyone looking to score the venerable runner’s high. There are aid stations throughout the course, and proceeds benefit the Missoula Humane Society, so call race director and long distance guru Bill Rideg (626-1500) to feel the burn.

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