Future of proposed Great Burn Wilderness hangs in the balance

The proposed Great Burn Wilderness is west of Missoula, straddling the Idaho-Montana border. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

As fate forces a wilderness warrior to retire, the future of the proposed Great Burn Wilderness may depend on wildlife to finally gain designation.

Conservationists know that gaining wilderness designation has never been easy, requiring years of advocacy. Even getting the 1964 Wilderness Act passed took eight years.

But no one can beat Dale Harris for belief in a cause. Harris has been working to permanently protect the recommended Great Burn Wilderness west of Missoula for four decades. Had illness not caught up with him recently, it probably would have been longer.

Back in the mid-1970s, Orville Daniels hadn’t been supervisor of the Lolo National Forest for long before Harris came knocking on his door, eager to discuss the future of the Great Burn Wilderness Study Area.

Harris had founded the Great Burn Study Group in 1971 to make sure the 275,000 acres straddling the Montana-Idaho border remained in good shape while awaiting wilderness designation. It wasn’t easy – timber companies were eyeing the pines and cedars that replaced the forests burned in the fires of 1910, and snowmobilers wanted to ride in the high alpine meadows.

Daniels said Harris convinced him that the Great Burn was prime wilderness that needed protection, so they worked to carve out the most wild places to put in a wilderness proposal. In the meantime, they watched as legislation passed to protect the Rattlesnake Wilderness and National Recreation Area in 1980 and the Lee Metcalf Wilderness in 1983.

“He and his organization took the lead. When that was happening, I was in contact with Sen. (John) Melcher on defining the boundaries for the Montana portion. At one point, Dale and I and a member of (Melcher’s) staff flew in a helicopter to decide what would be a workable boundary,” Daniels said. “We were very disappointed when Reagan vetoed the bill (in 1988). It kind of stopped us in our tracks.”

It didn’t stop Harris for long. He and the study group continued to put crews on the ground fighting weeds and restoring the land. They joined forces with the Clearwater Basin Collaborative in Idaho to counter activities that could threaten the area while they waited for another chance.

But the decades have rolled on with no other opportunity. A few areas such as the Rocky Mountain Front have gained protection, and the big public lands bill passed earlier this year included wilderness in other states. But the Great Burn Wilderness almost seemed forgotten.

Stephen Capra hopes he can change that.

Capra took the lead of the Great Burn Study Group four months ago after Harris’ illness finally stopped the man who political opposition could not.

Capra’s determination does seem a fair match for Harris’s. He recently spent almost a decade in New Mexico working with conservation groups that managed to create two national monuments: Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande Del Norte.

So he knows the kind of time and work required to create special public lands.

“Anybody who has worked on landscape protection knows that there’s certainly an element of having to engage with all aspects of the community,” Capra said. “Over time, you do a lot of communicating with people who are not necessarily supportive of what you’re trying to do. You work to find as much common ground as you can.”

In the short time he’s been in Missoula, Capra has learned that things operate a little different in Montana, where collaboration has more emphasis. So he’s already had several meetings with agencies, various recreational riding groups and loggers, with more to come.

Conversations with snowmobilers and mountain bikers have been challenging, but Capra said he was pleased after meeting with loggers.

“Some of the people I’ve met are not like what I would have imagined the logging community of the past was like. They recognize that there needs to be protection for the area,” Capra said. “I think they would like to avoid litigation at all cost, and they’re more willing to work with groups like ours to find some common ground. They haven’t said ‘absolutely not’ – they‘ve been like ‘let’s figure out what we can all come to terms with.’”

New leadership isn’t the only recent change for the group – it also has a slightly new focus and a new name: the Great Burn Conservation Alliance.

The group still wants permanent wilderness protection, but it’s going to put more emphasis on the wildlife of the area, including wolverine, mountain goats and eventually, grizzly bears. Capra said the need for protected wildlife habitat is underscored by the United Nations report issued a month ago that predicts the loss of a million species due to human impacts.

“You can’t look at a landscape like the Great Burn and not look at it in terms of what is there,” Capra said. “It’s of critical importance for connectivity and managing biodiversity. We need to show the public the value of this in a broader sense.”

Both Capra and Daniels know this seems to be a difficult time for conservation. While some Congress members are supportive of conservation efforts in their districts, it’s a lot harder to get the rest of Congress to pass wilderness, let alone get the president to sign it.

Daniels still wants wilderness designation but said maybe Montanans may have to settle for a different kind of protection if they don’t want the area to remain in limbo.

“The tide is against wilderness creation politically,” Daniels said. “But the Great Burn needs to be wilderness. I hope the citizenry of this part of the country will stay solidly behind trying to get wilderness designation. This piece of country deserves it.”

With more stakeholder groups than in the early ‘80s, creating wilderness has definitely gotten more complicated. But Capra thinks the political tide may turn.

“We have insanity in Washington (D.C.) with this president that doesn’t support anything when it comes to conservation. We ‘re dealing in a very dark time environmentally,” Capra said. “I think a lot of people recognize that and are worried. That’s rallying people in a way that maybe we wouldn’t have people rally in the past.”

To help people rally, Capra said the Great Burn Conservation Alliance will have more of a public presence, doing more outreach and events to better educate people about the Great Burn.

They started with an open house last week at their new office at 2825 Stockyard Road, Suite A7.

Daniels is happy to see the organization continue.

“Dale (Harris) has been one of the most effective and dedicated proponents for land protection. Without his initiative to start with, I don’t think we would have even gotten close to getting the protection we need,” Daniels said. “I have great hope for the group that is picking up the challenge. If they can emulate his passion for what he’s been doing, I think they can continue to do well. And I hope they do.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com