LINCOLN — A visitor flying above Highway 200 looking north sees fishing lakes, rugged canyons and the thrilling palisade of Scapegoat Mountain in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
Look south toward Helena, and the landmark list shrinks. Most of the mountains don’t have names. The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail snakes 50 miles across the ridgetops, but those miles probably won’t get highlighted in most hikers’ journals.
Rick Graetz wants to change that.
The University of Montana geography department faculty member and founding publisher of Montana Magazine has a campaign to make the landscape between Lincoln and Helena included as a jewel in the Crown of the Continent. It’s easier to say what that does not mean than what it does. In the same fashion, the landscape’s blankness obscures its true qualities.
“It's important to note,” Graetz explains, “that this is not a new designation by any means, at least in terms of federal concern. Rather it is a piece of ground added to the already 13 million-acre Crown of the Continent that Lincoln can brag about.”
Conservationist George Bird Grinnell coined the term in 1901, when he was raising support for the creation of Glacier National Park: “Far away in Montana, hidden from view by clustering mountain peaks, lies an unmapped northwestern corner — the Crown of the Continent.” Grinnell now has his name immortalized on the best-known glacier in that park. Following conservationists borrowed his description to encompass a stretch of relatively pristine Rocky Mountain wild country from Jasper, Alberta, south to the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Lincoln fell just outside the imaginary line.
Last week, Ecoflight pilot Bruce Gordon took Graetz, Lincoln resident Paul Roos and a reporting team for an aerial tour of what sometimes gets called the Upper Blackfoot, and what Graetz eventually wants to be considered the Southern Crown of the Continent. They flew around roadless meadows and old logging clearcuts, old-growth forest and beetle-killed ghost stands. Aside from the Stemple and Flesher pass roads, the only signs of human presence in those 250,000 acres of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest are fading logging roads.
“The country we just flew over hasn’t been messed with too much,” Roos said. “Everyone agrees it’s a pretty big apple left in the bowl.”
Roos belongs to a volunteer group called Envision Lincoln, which seeks ways the community can move beyond its played-out logging and mining heritage and build a new economic and social identity. That group and others have floated a lot of proposals for official action, from wilderness designations to snowmobile playgrounds to to business investments. The Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest has a draft forest plan in the works that may affect lots of those ideas.
“The Forest Service is working on a replacement to the 31-year-old plan they have in place,” Roos said. “Our collaborative group has been commenting on it throughout that process. We don’t have a proposal we all agree on, except that we agree the no-action alternative is worse. That’s where we’re at, and nobody’s happy with that.”
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Graetz’s plan sidesteps those discussions, but involves just as much work. He helped generate interest in a marketing effort known as Lincoln Base Camp, which emphasized the town’s jumping-off-point status for year-round recreation in the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the north. But that overlooked the other side of Highway 200.
“Everybody was talking about that area as a continuation of the Crown of the Continent,” Graetz said. “But you can’t just say that. You have to have proof.”
So Graetz encouraged some graduate geography students to focus their research on describing the uncataloged resources of the land between Lincoln and Helena. Starting in 2014, they hiked miles of trail and road and wrote down what they found. Tracks of more than 20 mammal species. Slopes for backcountry skiing or snowmobiling. Meadows full of wildflowers. Evidence of rare animals such as Canada lynx and grizzly bear.
Verena Henners did her master’s degree project mapping on the upper Blackfoot country from the Bob Marshall to the southern Swan Valley. Katie Shank did her master’s answering the question of whether the biological diversity was there and connectivity was in place. Undergraduate student Josh Hoerner did an independent study project combining topographical maps and GPS readings to come up with the boundaries. He drew a line following Highway 200 on the north, over to Avon and Nevada Lake on the west, east to Wolf Creek on the edge of the Rocky Mountain Front, and south to MacDonald Pass.
“We branded this big chunk of country as no different than what’s north of town,” Graetz said. “It’s biologically connected. If you look at the Scapegoat Wilderness, as you come south out of that country, it’s all forest and meadows and open hills. The defining factor is the ribbon of the Continental Divide trail. It’s best for hiking and hunting, not great fishing country, but biking and backcountry skiing. There’s clearings and water and forest cover and plenty of recreation opportunities. Not everything has to have rocks and 10,000-foot peaks.”
Branding that landscape means Lincoln residents can say they’re surrounded by the Crown of the Continent.
So what does that mean?
“It’s really a matter of opinion where the Crown begins and ends,” said Karyn Good, the Blackfoot Challenge’s rural sustainability program coordinator in Lincoln. “Rick thinks this area deserves that recognition. We’re not going to be changing rules or boundaries or access. It certainly isn’t going to hurt, and maybe it will get people to stop a while longer.”
That translates to meals at local restaurants, hotel rooms filled, snowmobiles rented and word-of-mouth referrals to friends and relatives about why to visit Lincoln. The jobs derived from that business won't pay as well as the old mining and logging work. But those resource jobs rose and fell with the world commodity markets far beyond Lincoln's control.
The landscape has stayed around. And if visitors come and stay longer, they might learn about interesting things in nearby Augusta, or Ovando, or Choteau. In fact, Graetz’s next step involves plotting a trail that travelers might use to link those Crown communities.
“I wish we had more time on this so I could take you on the ground and show you the enormous expanse of high, open ridgelines that offer great summer habitat for ungulates,” Graetz said. “Just passing by the southern sector today on the way to Helena was beautiful. And the scenic roads we could take into the interior, as well as climbing into the Granite Butte Lookout to get a great view would amaze you. This is a fine piece of country and you need to see more of it.”