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Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail Yaak segment

The future of a national scenic trail through northwest Montana’s most isolated grizzly bear country has wildlife and recreation experts tangled in a messy debate.

The problem could damage a fragile collaboration among environmentalists and timber interests who’ve been working together on projects like the East Reservoir Timber Sale. It also pits the efforts of a Seattle-based trail promoter and U.S. Forest Service officials in Portland against residents in the Yaak Valley on the Montana-Idaho border.

Congress designated a route for the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail between the Washington Coast and Glacier National Park in a 2009 omnibus lands bill. 

“We’re trying to figure out how to get back to the table,” said Yaak Valley Forest Council member and author Rick Bass. “We believe the Forest Service and Pacific Northwest Trail Association are trying to isolate our group. The Forest Service wants to use us to get timber out, but when we have a real environmental concern, we get kicked to the curb.”

The national scenic trail aspires to provide a backcountry experience similar to the Appalachian Trail or the Continental Divide Trail, where hikers often spend months backpacking hundreds of miles.

Bass and his colleagues warn that a portion of the Pacific Northwest trail sends hikers through the Yaak portion of the Cabinet-Yaak Grizzly Recovery Area. They have proposed a re-route that would send the backpackers south of U.S. Highway 2, which they tout as equally scenic and cultural.

The Yaak covers about 1,000 of the 2,600-square-mile recovery area, and provides core habitat for 25 to 30 of its estimated 55 to 60 grizzly bears. The highway and the Kootenai River split the area roughly north and south, with the northern Yaak portion the more isolated.

“It’s not that we want to keep people away from the Yaak,” said Jessie Grossman, a former employee of the Yaak Valley Forest Council who now works for the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. “We’re asking if this is the right place to be nationally and internationally promoting 'hey, everybody in the world come experience nature right here.' Because, unfortunately, the path of the trail coincides with the last remaining place where grizzly bears can get away from humans. And that’s an essential need for their survival.”

Forest Service officials did not respond to requests for comment on the issue, although Pacific Northwest Trail program manager Matt McGrath did release a briefing paper disputing some of the arguments Bass and others have made.

“A local group in Northwest Montana disapproves of the Congressionally-designated route and is recommending a reroute that would add more than 100 miles of road walking to the route,” the briefing paper states. “USFS estimates it would require construction of more than 40 bridges to eventually move the PNT off of these roads as required by law with an estimated cost of more than $8.2 million. This proposal also fails to meet the National Trails System Act standards for maximum outdoor recreation potential.”

The Forest Service statement also notes it intends to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about how the trail might affect grizzly bears. FWS Cabinet-Yaak grizzly recovery coordinator Wayne Kasworm said that consultation awaits more specific biological opinions and management plans for the trail.

“I’m familiar with the alternative trail Rick’s proposing,” Kasworm said. “The only thing I would say about that is this is also our linkage area between the Cabinets and the Yaak. We’ve already got a railroad, a highway, a river corridor, and a fair amount of human settlement there. If we add a trail to it as well, are we increasing the difficulties for bears moving back and forth? I don’t know all the answers to that.”

Pacific Northwest Trail Association Director Jeff Kish has also published responses to the re-route. Although he did not return phone messages this week, Kish has argued the Yaak Valley Forest Council doesn’t have the science to back up its claims that hikers would hurt bears or the trail would otherwise damage the area’s economics or character.

Some of that science is coming together. The University of Montana School of Forestry and Conservation has a research project on the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail, and some of its results were published earlier this year. Research supervisor and assistant professor Jennifer Thomsen said trail counters show about 70 people a year attempt the whole route, and most of them prefer it to the other national trails for its extreme remoteness and isolation. Additional studies this summer will look at exactly where the hikers travel and how those routes might overlap with grizzly bear habitat.

“I think the Forest Service is very conscious about the exponential growth they’ve seen on other trails,” Thomsen said. “They’re trying to be proactive so they can get ahead of the curve, This trail goes through multiple states, forests, national parks, and towns. All those considerations need to come into place, and that’s exactly why it takes a long time to come up with management plans.”

Bass fears the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail will soon get the same overuse that the Pacific Crest Trail got after author Cheryl Strayed’s book “Wild” popularized its features: more than 4,000 people a season through-hiking the sensitive area. The Forest Service estimates 400 people a year might attempt it. Kasworm said regardless how many come through, they need to know they’re visiting grizzly bear country.

“There are three things I believe are important for the trail, regardless of reroutes,” Kasworm said. “We need a good education program for hikers out there. There have to be food-storage orders so it doesn’t become an attractant to bears and other wildlife. And they have to be aware of bear spray. Regardless where it goes or who’s out there, that’s all pretty important for this trail.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.