Why is it so important to protect and preserve the Swan Valley?
The Swan Valley contains more than 4,000 glacially created wetlands. Nearly 20 percent of the valley floor is considered wetlands. By comparison, the remainder of Montana averages only 1 percent of this important habitat. The pristine water and lush vegetation make the Swan Valley one of the most productive plant and wildlife areas in the entire country. The valley is a vital link between the Mission Mountain and the Bob Marshall wildernesses. This area is a critical linkage between the Yellowstone and Yukon ecosystems, which are the most intact mountain ecosystems remaining on earth. This land within the Crown of the Continent is one of the last places on the planet where not a single plant or animal species has gone extinct in the past two centuries.
Recently, Plum Creek has sold large holdings of its timber lands to private concerns. At present, there are thousands of acres that can be subdivided. In fact, there are enough private lands to build two communities the size of Seeley Lake! In Missoula County, there are currently no zoning regulations to protect these lands.
Properties may be sold to developers for short-term gains, which would have a negative impact on the long-term traditional way of rural life for the residents of the valley.
Increased urbanization causes fragmentation of habitat from housing projects and associated road construction. Residential development represents a potentially significant threat to water quality. Sewage-derived nutrients can have a detrimental impact on aquatic ecology. Groundwater aquifers would receive more demands, resulting in potential degradation to the hydrology of some wetland areas.
In the Swan Valley there are 117 miles of critical bull trout habitat and
10,000 acres of grizzly bear linkage zones that occur on private lands. Nearly three-fourths of bear/human conflicts and bear deaths occur on private lands. During a recent study in the Swan Valley, 11 of 22 collared grizzlies were killed, all as a result of human contact. The pressure of human-caused mortality on grizzly bears is higher than acceptable. Every time a new development is permitted in the Swan, the bears and other wildlife lose secure habitat and their risk of human conflict increases.
Over the long term, the costs to sustain an urban wilderness interphase environment will be very high. The county will be faced with increased road maintenance, snow plowing, police and fire protection, social services, etc. In remote timbered areas, fire creates a serious threat. The cost to protect these home sites is very high. The need to create defensible space around each structure further reduces the wildlife habitat. The community would lose open space and the quality of life and property values for current residents will be diminished.
Impacts from logging and, to a lesser extent, mining can be reclaimed. Trees and other vegetative cover can be regenerated. Logging roads can be closed and obliterated. However, subdivisions and development are permanent and reduce wildlife habitat incrementally.
Wildlife that would benefit from careful habitat protection in the Swan Valley, include Endangered Species Act, listed and candidate species, such as the grizzly bear, wolverine, fisher and lynx. Other species that would benefit include native salmonoids, such as the west slope cutthroat and bull trout.
The Swan Valley is one of the few places in the lower 48 states that grizzly bears and man have been able to co-exist. Only a precious few survive in our valley. For most of us, just the thought of him roaming free gives us hope for the generations to follow.
Today more than ever, life must be characterized by a sense of responsibility, not only human-to-human, but also, human to other forms of life.
I hope that future generations will remember us for the roads we did not build.
Jim Quinn is a Swan Valley resident who has authored five books relating to the river ecology of some of the Northwest’s major wild and scenic rivers.