ST. IGNATIUS – One of the iconic views on the Flathead Indian Reservation comes when northbound vehicles top Ravalli Hill west of here, and the snow-capped Mission Mountains explode into view and rise thousands of feet from the valley floor.
There’s a reason the view doesn’t include clearcuts and roads winding up the mountains, and they threw that reason a birthday party Thursday.
The 93,000-acre Mission Mountains Tribal Wilderness turned 30 years old.
It was a first – no American Indian tribe had ever before designated its own lands to forever remain wilderness – but it wasn’t the first time the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes had moved to protect the western front of the Missions.
The very first Tribal Council, back in 1936, had tried to establish an Indian-maintained national park there. It was an idea that had the backing of the local Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent, but the proposal died on a desk in Washington, D.C.
Nearly half a century later, a “very courageous” Tribal Council, Germaine White said, voted to establish the nation’s first tribal wilderness area where the national park would have been.
It was courageous, explained White, the information and education specialist for CSKT’s Natural Resources Department, in part because the acreage represented a full quarter of all the lands the tribes controlled on the reservation at the time.
Putting them into wilderness meant removing them from logging and other development that would have financially benefited the tribes.
It took a lot of work by a lot of people to usher in America’s first tribal wilderness, White told a couple of hundred celebrants who gathered beneath the peaks on the shores of Mission Reservoir on Thursday.
But it was three women and two men who got the ball rolling.
The idea for establishing a wilderness area belonged to Thurman Trosper, a tribal member who spent his career with the U.S. Forest Service and had served as president of the Wilderness Society.
Trosper returned home to the reservation about the time the BIA was proposing to log portions of the western front of the Missions, including Ashley Creek, on behalf of the tribes.
That’s where the three YaYas – grandmothers all, and tribal elders – came in.
Annie Pierre, Christine Woodcock and Louise McDonald marched into a Tribal Council meeting in Dixon in the 1970s.
“The YaYas requested a moment of the council’s time,” White said. “One by one, they spoke at length about the Mission Mountains. They reminded the council of its obligation to maintain a traditional way of life. They told the Tribal Council that the Mission Mountains were a treasure and that it was important we not destroy them in the short time we are here.”
Council members listened, and when the last of the YaYas had spoken, the chairman thanked them and waited for them to sit down.
The three remained on their feet.
“Is there anything else you want to say?” he asked them.
No, he was told.
“We’ll just wait here until you vote,” one of them said.
The council members looked back and forth at one another, White said, until the chairman finally called for a vote.
The Ashley Creek logging proposal was voted down 6-2 with two abstentions, paving the way for tribal businessman Doug Allard of St. Ignatius to organize the Save the Mission Mountains Committee.
The committee circulated a petition in 1975 asking the council to designate a tribal primitive area where logging would be banned.
Many proposals to protect, or partially protect, the wilderness were floated, but it was Trosper’s idea to designate it as a wilderness area that won out by a 9-1 Tribal Council vote.
At Trosper’s suggestion, the tribes contracted with the Wilderness Institute at the University of Montana, which is how a recent Forestry School graduate, David Rockwell, came into the picture 37 years ago.
“We were asked to help create a wilderness proposal for the Tribal Council,” Rockwell said Thursday. They inventoried trails and campgrounds and monitored use to put together a plan.
“No one really knew who was using the area, or how much, or for what” said Rockwell, who later became the wilderness area’s first manager, and who knew his time in the job was numbered when he did.
Part of his duties were to train tribal member Herschel Mays to take over as manager.
“Me and Dave covered the wilderness from one area to the other,” Mays told the crowd. “I’ll tell you what, it’s far more spectacular up there than it looks down here. It’s so pristine, so rugged. We couldn’t describe how beautiful it is to the Tribal Council, but our pictures sure showed it.”
Mays was eventually followed as manager by Tom McDonald, now Fish, Wildlife, Recreation and Conservation manager for the tribes.
McDonald told the crowd that as a boy he saw his first grizzly in the wilderness area, caught his first westslope cutthroat trout there, and took his first sweat there.
The wilderness area, he said, has taken on an even more vital role, with 10,000 of its 93,000 acres now designated as a Grizzly Bear Management Zone. It is closed to humans at critical times of the year, when grizzlies flock to the area to feast on lady bugs, moths and more.
Les Bigcrane now manages the wilderness area – which comes under no other jurisdiction, including the federal or state governments – for the tribes.
“It’s the most pristine place in the United States I’ve ever been to,” council member Reuben Mathias said. “I’m so proud of us for doing that.”
Added Rockwell, “It is one of the highlights of my life to have been involved in this.”
Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.