SUPERIOR – You might think the trailhead to a ridgetop view of a wildflower-bejeweled wilderness lake just 90 minutes from Missoula would have an overcrowding problem.
“With the Great Burn, it seems to me there’s so many other opportunities, it’s out of sight, out of mind,” said Missoulian Dale Harris, who’s been marshaling support for this stretch of the Montana-Idaho border for 44 years as leader of the Great Burn Study Group.
“But what’s unique about the Great Burn is it’s a horizontal wilderness – not vertical," he said. "On top of Rhodes Peak, you can look forever and you don’t see the impact of man.”
Well, except for the namesake scars of the Great Burn of 1910, which scorched almost 3 million acres along the border in three days.
In a bit of historical irony, the fire that’s credited with turning the U.S. Forest Service and timber management into national priorities also removed the Great Burn from the logging industry's radar. That’s left 252,000 acres between Lolo and Hoodoo passes unroaded for more than a century.
For a place with such isolation, the Great Burn finds its fate tugged in a tangle of different directions. The Lolo and Nez Perce-Clearwater national forests share jurisdiction. Both forests consider their portions of the Great Burn “recommended wilderness,” but haven’t nailed down their land management plans.
The Nez-Clear, as it’s known, is a year or two away from finalizing its new forest management plan, which should set the rules for motorized use, recreational activity and wildlife protection for decades to come. The Lolo is due to start drafting its new plan next year, which will do the same on the Montana side of the border.
The Great Burn has been proposed for federal wilderness designation at least 20 times in the past 50 years, but never made the cut in Congress. That could be because the Idaho and Montana congressional delegations would have to cooperate on a rare bi-state decision.
Or they’d have to float some alternative “almost-wilderness,” like Montana’s Jewel Basin Hiking Area or Idaho’s Mallard-Larkins Pioneer Area. And there’s the specter of a president applying the federal Antiquities Act, as was once contemplated in a “Lewis and Clark National Monument” covering the area.
“In a way, we’ve achieved our goal without legislation,” Harris said.
Great Burn Study Group members fought hard for federal designation until President Ronald Reagan used a pocket veto to kill the 1988 Wilderness Bill championed by U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont.
After that, they changed tactics, becoming a quiet but constant volunteer workforce helping the Forest Service maintain trails, control weeds and preserve the wild character of the Great Burn. The area has retained recommended wilderness status ever since on both the Lolo and Nez Perce-Clearwater.
The crumbling larch and whitebark pine snags of the 1910 wildfire are almost hard to find among the 50 lakes that water the Great Burn's landscape.
So are Montana license plates at the trailheads. Despite its closeness to Missoula, the Great Burn sees much more visitation from Washington and Idaho explorers.
Last Tuesday, the only person at Hoodoo Pass was Steve Call, who drove over from Bellevue, Washington, to join his family on a Kelly Creek fishing trip.
“We’ve come over every year for the last five years,” Call said. “We usually come in September, but I’m worried about the water levels this year. Ever since I read that Tim Egan book, 'The Big Burn,' we’ve been coming here.”
Kelly Creek was also where the first grizzly bear from the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem started exploring the mountains south of Interstate 90 since the predators were extirpated from the Selway-Bitterroot Mountains in the 1950s.
We know that because a black bear hunter accidentally shot one in Kelly Creek in 2007.
“This is a prime piece of connectivity for wildlife movement,” said Sharon Sweeney, retired Superior district ranger and now a board member of the Great Burn Study Group. “This is the link that connects the Cabinet-Yaak and the Crown of the Continent of Glacier Park and the Bob Marshall to the Selway-Bitterroot, the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness and all the way down to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.”
On a short hike on the Stateline Trail above Heart Lake, Sweeney said she was constantly amazed at the lack of awareness Montanans had for the Great Burn.
“It seems Missoula people go north to the Bob Marshall or south to the Bitterroots, while all the Idaho and Washington people come here,” Sweeney said. “It’s too rugged for mountain bikers – they end up walking more than riding, so they only come up once. The overwhelming majority of visitors come to hike or hunt in the fall. The Forest Service’s premier horse-packing center in the country is at the Ninemile Remount Center, and they use the Great Burn for their training grounds. So it’s frequented by people from all over the country on training trips.”
One other group of potential users is snowmobile riders. Before a 2012 Forest Service travel plan banned them, Missoulian Stan Spencer of Backcountry Sled Patriots said his 800 members established a precedent for reasonable sharing of the area.
“The most snowmobilers can access is 12 to 13 percent of the Great Burn,” Spencer said. “The argument I and the Idaho State Snowmobile Association put forward is there are no conflicts in the wintertime. While there was a strong advocacy it should be a quiet area, our argument was does a tree make a noise in the forest when no one’s around? Those areas we snowmobile aren’t accessed – unless you’re on a snowmobile. If there were a lot of people up there cross-country skiing or downhill skiing, it would be a different discussion. But there isn’t.”
The snowmobilers are negotiating to put 20,000 acres on the Idaho side of the Great Burn into a “special management area” designation that would allow winter motorized use. They would argue for similar treatment on the Montana side.
That faces opposition from the Montana Wilderness Association and related groups, which maintain snowmobiles should never have gotten that toehold in the first place.
“With all due respect to my former employer, the Clearwater National Forest, it was a management blunder to allow motorized recreation in a place the Forest Service identified as one of the top five wild areas in the nation, based on its own wilderness attributes rating system,” said Zack Porter, field director for the Wilderness Association in Missoula. “There are more appropriate places to ride a snowmobile. But you cannot find another Great Burn.”
Finding the Great Burn may be one of its defining features.
While the historic burn scars cover roughly a million still-roadless acres of Montana and Idaho, the proposed wilderness includes about 100,000 acres west of the new state park in Fish Creek (south of Alberton) up to Hoodoo Pass, 20 miles south of Superior.
While all of that lies parallel to Interstate 90 on its way to Lookout Pass, it lacks the landmark crags of the Bitterroot Range or the long front ridges of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
The Idaho side is even harder to find.
The closest towns are Pierce on the North Fork of the Clearwater River, and Powell on the Lochsa River. Ironically, Montanans driving up the gravel Trout Creek Road to Hoodoo Pass will find a paved road on the Idaho side.
Inside, a unique subalpine tundra dominates the burned-over mountaintops. But some glacial valley bottoms escaped the fire. That’s left places like Clearwater Crossing with massive groves of cedar trees and rainforest habitat.
“It’s been the last, best secret of the last, best place,” Sweeney said. “Montanans should get up and enjoy it. It’s in their backyard.”