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The Roadless Yaak

Air Date: Week of

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The Yaak Valley lies in the northwestern corner of Montana, and has been logged for its timber more than any other valley in the state. There are, however, 15 areas that remain untouched by loggers. Author Rick Bass has recruited dozens of writers, scientists and locals in a campaign to preserve the last of the Yaak’s forested areas as wilderness. Host Diane Toomey talked with him about his new collection of essays called: "The Roadless Yaak: Reflections and Observations About One of Our Last Great Wild Places."


TOOMEY: It’s Living On Earth. I’m Diane Toomey. In the northwestern corner of Montana sits a million-acre forest called the Yaak Valley. The Yaak is part of the Kootenai National Forest and has been heavily logged for decades. But there are 15 pockets of land in the Yaak that so far have escaped the chainsaw.

BASS: You can feel it immediately, entering such lands, such small remaining gardens. So great is the power in mystery, indeed the health that emanates from these last roadless cores, that you can feel the difference even standing at the edge of one of these last gardens.

Upper Yaak (near Canada)
(Photo: Rick Bass)

TOOMEY: Writer Rick Bass lives in the Yaak Valley and he’s waging a campaign to have Congress declare those regions "wilderness," a legal status that would keep those pockets of the Yaak roadless and prevent logging there. As part of that effort, he’s asked dozens of authors, scientists and Yaak Valley residents to write about their experiences in the Yaak. The result is a collection of essays and poems called "The Roadless Yaak." You’ll hear a few of these authors read a few of part of their essays in just a moment. But first, Rick Bass joins me from the studios of KUFM in Missoula, Montana. Welcome to Living on Earth.

BASS: Thanks for having me in.

TOOMEY: Give us a tour for those of us who have never been to the Yaak, and I’m sure that is many of us, give us a tour of the Yaak Valley. What would we see?

BASS: Sure. Well, it’s up against the British Columbia border and the Idaho border, and that’s one of the things that makes it so biologically wild. It’s this Pacific Northwest weather system in a Northern Rockies landscape. If you were to head north up off the Kootenai River, you’d start seeing a lot of clear cuts, and then you’d see some big trees, and then more clear cuts, then a lot of small trees where we’ve logged hard in the past. You’d see a real mixed assemblage of management and no management. And you’d see big, sweeping fronds of cedars, you’d see bright foliage, you’d see conifers, you’d see wildflowers. Every bend in the road would bring something different. It would remind you very much of New England, real soft, low hills. Again, being at such low elevation, there’s not a lot of scenic vistas. It’s foggy, rainy country.

TOOMEY: What kind of wildlife would I see if I went to the Yaak? Would I come across any charismatic megafauna?

BASS: That’s a good question. If you come up there, you’re not going to see the charismatic megafauna, because there’s so few of them. We’ve got five or six wolves left in a million acres. We’ve got 10 or 12 grizzlies left in a million acres, and nobody ever sees the grizzlies. I mean, you hardly ever see a track if you hike all summer long, all fall long. You may see one track if you’re lucky. We’ve got a handful of lynx and handful of wolverine. It’s like a reverse Noah’s Ark. We’re down to single or double-digit populations of this incredibly long list of threatened and endangered and sensitive species.

[MUSIC: Rick Rizzo & Tara Key, "Sinfo," ALL TOMORROW’S PARTIES (ATPR, 2001)]

RAY: Once at a campsite in the upper Yaak, a woman with long gray hair and wild eyes roared up in a pickup nearly as old as she was. She cut the motor and stalked over to where I sat in the grass talking with a group of college students who were camping beside a little creek. "A bear lives up here," she said, accusingly glaring. "She’s been here for years. You have to be careful with your food; lock it up at night. If the bear becomes a nuisance, they’ll take her away, and there’s nowhere else for her to go."

"We’re being careful," we said truthfully, placating, but the woman was severe.

"If you leave food out, that’s not the bears’ fault," she said. "This is the end of the road for her. There’s nowhere else to go."

Janisse Ray, Yaak Valley, June 1997.

TOOMEY: You’ve got about three dozen writers who contributed to this collection. There’s everyone from the former Chief of the Forest Service, Mike Dombeck, to nature writer, Terry Tempest Williams, to even one of the local fishing guides. What was the process like to get all of these people to contribute?

BASS: A lot of them are our friends, and they’ve been hearing me bellyache about the Yaak for so long, maybe they thought if they came up here and did something, I’d stop asking for help. I don’t know. But it was pleasant. It was just an excuse to go into the backcountry with friends, one at a time. Something that surprised me was how many times people referenced healing in their personal lives and a need for emotional healing, or sometimes physical healing and how that need incorporated itself into their visit. That was something I had not expected, but it was a very recurring theme.

TOOMEY: You describe, as you put it, 15 small remaining gardens is the word you used in the Yaak. Tell me about them.

BASS: Right. These last 15 little roadless areas. That’s the only land we have left in the Yaak that is still eligible for designation in the National Wilderness System. We don’t have any lands in the National Wilderness System in the Yaak, amazingly, despite this incredible biological wildness. If we lose the Yaak’s wildness, if we lose those 15 little gardens, we lose the bridge between the United States and Canada ecologically, or we lose a major part of the bridge.

TOOMEY: In this collection, there is a number of references to something called the Dirty Shame Saloon. And I want you to tell me about the Dirty Shame Saloon, Rick. What’s it like? How did it get its name?

BASS: You know, thank you for asking that question. I hate the sound of my voice when I get wound up and panicked about the future of those roadless areas. And the Dirty Shame is the cultural center, a really watering hole, another rank, rough place, check your pistols at the door, kind of thing. And dogs, and kids, and old folks have wandered around in there drinking beer or lemonade respectively. And it’s got music on Friday nights. It’s really the only island of humanity in a very wild landscape.

[MUSIC: Ry Cooder, "Feelin’ Bad Blues" MUSIC BY RY COODER (Warner Bros., 1995)]

TOM FRANKLIN: I parked the Chrysler beside a blue Nissan pickup, the only vehicle there. Inside the saloon, a man named Dick McGary was reading a Missoula newspaper. Missoula, I thought, sitting at the bar, remembering how far south that city was from here. Ken had uncased his guitar and was plucking it, while I studied the dollar bills stapled to the walls, the names of people everywhere. We were the only customers at the time and, as it turned out, the only customers that night.

McGary set Bud Lights in front of us. "Where are you guys from?" I told him. He raised his eyebrows. "You drove here? From southern Alabama?" We both nodded. "Jesus, why?" Ken paused in his playing, and I tried to tell how I thought I needed some place like a wild valley to give me back what I couldn’t put into words. I didn’t explain myself very clearly, I guess.

McGary grunted and said other tourists came up here too, too damn many. That we weren’t the first. "Nobody from as low as you though," he said. I got quiet then, feeling diminished, as McGary told us about the valley, its tiny population, the severe winters, what to do if we hiked and came across a grizzly, how to avert our eyes, slump our shoulders, and make ourselves non-threatening. But it was the opposite, he said, for a mountain lion. For one of those, you wave your arms and charge it.

Outside, the rain was picking up, spattering the roof. The crack beneath the door flickering with lighting. Low rumble of thunder rolling in from the mountains.

Tom Franklin, Yaak Valley, June 1990.

TOOMEY: Tell me about your neighbors?

BASS: Well, you won’t see, they’re part of the charismatic megafauna, and you won’t see them either. They live way back in the woods. And we’ve all moved up there to kind of check out of the main flow of the times. It’s the full gamut, as can be expected. There are people who hate the government and don’t want any kind of protection. And there’s people who hate corporations and say ‘No, we’ve got to have the government protect everything we do, everything that’s special and dear to us.’ And then there’s folks in the middle, and there’s folks who like to fight, and there’s folks who don’t like to fight. It’s a perfect cross representation of the country.

[MUSIC: Tracy Scott Silverman, "Prelude 2," TRIP TO THE SUN (Windham Hill, 1999)]

SCOTT DAILY: Driving to our cabin, we stop at the meadow. The rain has quit, and suddenly the sky is only mottled with clouds. Shining our headlights across the meadow, we see water from the river seeping over the bank into the growing pond. Ducks startled by our intrusion make their way to its safety. We turn off the headlights and shut down the engine. A loon calls as it wings its way through air above the river.

In the distance, we can hear the river gurgle as it rises slowly and powerfully, coursing toward the Kootenai, then the Columbia, and then to the sea. Shortly after we were sitting in our own cabin, our fire, like 50 or so others in the valley, is crackling and popping in the stove. Candlelight dances in the log walls, and Sammy perks her head up and lets out a muffled bark. Sherrie, my wife, found bear scat in the road yesterday while taking a walk, and we talk about how we hope our composting bin is safe now that spring is creeping in.

We borrowed a movie from a friend earlier in the day, but decided against threatening the night with a roaring generator. The night is too peaceful for such commotion. From our cabin we cannot hear the rustle of the river, or the sound of water rising over the bank to flood the land.

Instead our conversation drifts like smoke into the fog, talking first about our plans for the garden and finishing the cabin, and then moves at its own rhythm to our families in Pennsylvania, and how hard it can be at times, especially at their age, and how sometimes we wish we can be there for them, as they have been for us.

The rain starts again, and it patters on the tin roof, and the gas lantern hisses into the night, eventually growing dim. Sammy lay on the floor twitching, perhaps dreaming of running off into the rain and trees in pursuit of something untamed.

Scott Daily, Yaak Valley, Montana, July 2001.

TOOMEY: When I first got this book, before I read a word of it, I thumbed through it, and I looked and I looked, in vain, for a map. There is no map in this book, Rick, why is that?

BASS: It’s a good question. It’s not a place that I think of as a tourist destination. It’s public land. Anybody’s welcome to come up and check it out. But the point that I wanted to make is that it’s a biological wilderness and not really a recreational wilderness. There’s not a lot of scenic vistas. There’s a lot of clear cuts, a lot of fog and rain and mosquitoes, and, quite frankly, unsociable people, myself included, living up there. I wanted the reader to love the place on its own terms, not for what it has to give the reader. It’s given and given and given. More timber’s come out of this valley than any other valley in the state of Montana for the last 50 years, and it’s time for the public to give back to the Yaak, rather than looking through it as the lens of ‘What does it have to offer me?’

Aerial view of clearcuts & fragmentation in the Kootenai National Forest. Yaak Valley, Montana.
(Photo: © 2001 Randy Beacham)


LYNN SAINSBURY: We were walking up a ridge that bordered the Yaak River when I saw the larch tree. It had a blackened cat-face, a fire scar cavity beginning at ground level and ascending several feet up the trunk. A sort of oval, wavy shaped frill set the black interior apart from unscorched bark. There seemed to be something missing, gone from this black oval space. It was as if the rim were outlining a palpable absence.

As I turned to go, I realized what the space cried out for was Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of the Americas. In a miraculous appearance, she made a promise to a Mexican peasant in 1531 that she would listen to lamentations of the poor and remedy their miseries, afflictions and sorrows. I was reminded of a time while hitching a short distance in Baja when my friend and I were picked up by a Mexican family on a mission. Three generations had piled in a beat-up, old, black Ford pickup, and set off as custodians for the various shrines to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

As each small shrine appeared, the patriarch driving would suddenly swerve off the road, and the family would tumble from the truck. They removed the worn out candles and scraped off the built up wax, arranged the shiny tokens left by other wayfarers, and swept out the little enclosures. No one had left offerings in the cat-face of the larch, not a penny or a candle or a scrap of food. Why should they? But then again, why not? Why not covet a miraculous sylvan lady who looks out for unfallen trees, or gives eternal hope to the stumps? The big trees have many reasons to hope for a savior.

Lynn Sainsbury, Yaak Valley, March 2001.


TOOMEY: Lynn Sainsbury, what was your reaction when you were asked to contribute to this collection?

SAINSBURY: Well, at first, when he asked me to contribute to the collection, I said "Well, gee, I don’t know Rick, I don’t know the Yaak." And he said "Well, come up, come up." And so, I did. And after leaving I sat down to write it, and it kept coming back home. The essay would turn from the Yaak to where I live now. So what I realized is that what I was writing about were the trees, how the trees have been pretty much slaughtered all around where I live; it’s industrial forestland. And how in the Yaak there’s not that. There’s still places that there are a lot of trees. And it’s also public land. So citizens have input. We can say, "Hey, we don’t want these areas cut or entered or whatever it is," and you can’t do that on private lands.

TOOMEY: Rick Bass, how did the Yaak get its name?

BASS: It’s a Kootenai Indian word. It means arrow. The Yaak comes so straight down out of the mountains that it’s in the shape of an arrow, and it intersects the curve of the Kootenai River, which is shaped like a bow. That’s one of the great places about this landscape. There’s metaphor everywhere you look. And one of the reasons I think there’s so much metaphor and so much richness is that nothing has gone extinct there yet. We’ve still got everything that was ever there; it’s just down to the very bitter end. But it’s all still there. And there are very few places, if any, left in this country about which you can say that.

TOOMEY: Rick Bass is a writer who lives in the Yaak Valley in Northwestern Montana. He’s edited a collection of essays called "The Roadless Yaak: Reflections and Observations About One of Our Last Great Wild Places." Rick, thanks for talking with me today.

BASS: Thank you. Thanks for listening.

TOOMEY: To hear more readings from "The Roadless Yaak," as well as interviews with some of the authors, go to our web page at loe.org.




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