The Wild Crossroads of the Northern Rockies
Wilderness designation for this unique place is long overdue
Larger than the state of Delaware, the Great Burn and the String of Pearls are a chain of wild, roadless, and unprotected landscapes stretching nearly 100 miles along the Montana-Idaho border, from Lookout to Lolo Pass. Spanning elevations from 3,000 to 8,000 feet, the landscapes are a mosaic of old-growth forests, lush meadows, alpine tundra, dramatic cliff faces, and crystal-clear lakes and streams – a haven for fish and wildlife and a dreamland for backcountry travelers. National Geographic calls this landscape a “gem of wild beauty” and a “quintessential wilderness.”
In the Great Burn, it all comes down to history, habitat, and H2O.
It’s been more than one hundred years since the northern Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho and Montana were engulfed in a spectacular and deadly conflagration – a fire that single-handedly altered the course of forest management in the West. Since then, the landscape has slowly become one of the most vibrant wild places in the Rockies.
An adventure into the Great Burn is a journey through time. You can wander its windswept ridges, where ghostly, gnarled trunks of whitebark pines evoke the fires of 1910. You can stroll along sheltered creek bottoms and marvel at the giant ancient cedars that survived the flames. The Great Burn also features the once-busy trails that led the Bitterroot Sélish (Salish) and Qíispé (Pend d’Oreille) people to their historic hunting grounds, as well as led Lewis and Clark to the Pacific.
Watch "Shaped by Fire," the collective dream of Nick Littman and Nick Triolo, Missoula-based trail runners, writers, and lovers of wild places. Filmed and directed by Jahrig Media, this film takes us on a journey into the heart of the wild Great Burn and inspires action to designate the Great Burn Wilderness.
The Great Burn is a keystone landscape connecting the Crown of the Continent and the Selkirk-Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem with central Idaho’s wildlands and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Traveling in all directions, wildlife from northern Idaho and northwestern Montana are funneled through the crossroads of the Great Burn. Elk, mountain goats, wolverines, pikas, and countless other rare or endangered species make their home in the Great Burn or use it as a transit corridor on their migrations to other wild places. In 2007, after 60 years without a verifiable sighting, an adult male grizzly bear made its way into the Great Burn from Idaho’s Selkirk Mountains.
Uniquely positioned to capture abundant winter snowfall, the Great Burn is a natural storage tank for fish, wildlife, and communities downstream. Legendary trout streams like Fish Creek and Kelly Creek tumble down from high-mountain lakes, cascading through dark, luxuriant forests carpeted with ferns and berries. The wilderness valleys of the Great Burn provide superb habitat for native westslope cutthroat and bull trout. In the Crooked Fork, a rare population of ocean-going salmon – one of the last in the Bitterroot Mountains – holds on despite a century of downstream dam building.
Wild but Vulnerable
The Great Burn has received one of the highest wilderness ratings of any area managed by the Forest Service, which has been recommending that Congress designate the area as Wilderness since the 1970s. The Great Burn remains unprotected, nonetheless.
Portions or all of the Great Burn Proposed Wilderness have been included in more than twenty legislative proposals, including one that went to President Reagan’s desk in 1988 and was pocket vetoed – the only Wilderness veto in American history.
Today, the Great Burn is among the largest areas in the Lower 48 recommended for Wilderness designation by the U.S. Forest Service, but the area’s status could be changed with the stroke of an administrator's pen. Only a congressional Wilderness designation can withstand mounting pressure from motorized use, which could undermine the wild legacy of this unique and fragile landscape.
Let’s Keep It the Way It Is
From Spokane to Wallace and St. Regis to Missoula, those who love the Great Burn want to see it stay just the way it is. That’s why the Montana Wilderness Association and our partners at the Great Burn Study Group are leading a renewed effort to keep this crossroads of the Northern Rockies wild. In the past year, we have joined forces to raise awareness of this unique landscape, seize opportunities to secure permanent protection, and inspire the public to action.
How You Can Help
Ready to feel the Burn? Join MWA and the Great Burn Study Group for a guided hike or stewardship project.
For more information, contact Erin Clark, MWA western Montana field director, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (406) 823-0477.