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Aug 10 2018

The Sapphire Wilderness Study Area – A Sparkling Gem

Let's keep fighting for WSAs - it's what Doris would've done


This piece was written by Doris Milner, with excerpts from Bud Moore's journal. Doris was the president of MWA from 1973-75, and was a tireless advocate for wilderness across Montana. 

Now, as our wilderness study areas are under attack, seems like a great time to publish this article that she wrote about the Sapphire Wilderness Study Area in 1985. Over thirty years have passed, but the observations are as relevant as ever.

Now, as then, speaking up for our wilderness study areas (WSAs) is vital. If you live in Beaverhead County, you have until Monday, August 13th to tell the county commissioners that you oppose the legislation introduced by Sen. Daines and Rep. Gianforte, which would lead to the biggest rollback of protected public lands in Montana history

Protect our wilderness study areas for Doris. Submit your comment to Beaverhead County Comissioners before Monday, August 13th telling them to keep WSAs like the Sapphires wild. 

Submit your comments to Beaverhead County Commissioners here

Take it away, Doris:

The Sapphire Wilderness Study Area is well named. The very word conjures up precious gems: gems that are blue like Montana skies; gems that are mauve like the winter alpenglow over the Sapphire Range; gems that are brilliant orange like the morning sun on the Sapphire peaks. Just so beautiful and precious are the wild resources of the Sapphire Wilderness Study Area.

Located in Ravalli and Granite counties in western Montana, the Sapphires WSA lies along the crest of the Sapphire Range and is bordered on the south by the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. The total wild area is about 116,000 acres and it is one of the few units in the unclassified Bitterroot Forest that has not been subjected to timber harvesting. Located in the headwaters of the Bitterroot River and Rock Creek - two of Montana's blue ribbon trout streams - this largely undisturbed high country represents an important watershed. In its clear cold streams and lakes are the endangered west slope cutthroat trout, grayling, Dolly Varden, rainbow and eastern brook trout.

As many as 1000 elk and numerous moose inhabit the proposed study area, along with lynx, martens, fishers, wolverines and a remnant herd of bighorn sheep. All these species depend largely on a wilderness environment for their survival. 

The Sapphires are heavily used by the residents of Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley for wilderness camping, hunting, fishing, backpacking, horseback trips, sightseeing and photography. 

There's an old saying that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The same rule holds true for judging the quality of an area for wilderness. You have to partake of it to really be a judge. Bud "Trapper" Moore, long time forester now retired, is a person who has the right to pass judgment on the quality of the Sapphire "pudding." He has tasted of the area and written about it in his journals. His impressions were recorded in his log book while taking a safari with his two malamutes along the Sapphire ridge trail. Putting in at Skalkaho Pass, he headed southwest toward the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness.


“... the backpacker enjoys alternates of lung, heart, and leg-testing climbs and then heel-digging descents." - Bud Moore. 


Bud wrote: "This divide trail in itself is an important resource. It winds up over the peaks and down into the saddles with delightful disregard for engineering standards like switchbacks and 15 percent grades. Thus the backpacker enjoys alternates of lung, heart, and leg-testing climbs and then heel-digging descents. Except for over-clearing in several places, the trail rests naturally on the land.
“The trail's history must be fascinating. When was it built? What was the trail's original purpose? Who built it and how did they do it?

"This area is obviously prime habitat for small birds and mammals of the boreal forests, and there are no indications that its natural ecological processes will soon degrade their habitat. Martens, fishers, wolverines and lynx must find good living here in the habitat of blue grouse, Franklin grouse, snowshoe hares, squirrels and other small wildlife important to their survival.

"Of all the resources along this divide, and there are many, the most significant for me today was isolation and wilderness. The forest is primeval and intimate yet a vista here and there lets the traveler orient to the great space around him. Glimpses of the high country far to the south spur him on and lend bigness to the country.

"At a point near the meadow, someone many years ago had carved his name in large letters on a lodgepole pine. And I got to thinking how eager most of mankind is to put his sign on his surroundings; somewhat like Ky, our male malamute, who claims his kingdom by spraying urine on each convenient stump, bush, car tire, etc.

“The forest is primeval and intimate yet a vista here and there lets the traveler orient to the great space around him."

“Yet I notice that Ky foregoes his claim-staking actions out here in the wild. Maybe he's more at home here in this natural ecosystem and feels no need to fight for territory. Anyway, if malamutes are sound barometers for human actions, the current trend by many to use wilderness with little impact on the earth could be a very natural evolvement. 

"From the Skalkaho Pass all the way to that first camp, water seeps in giant quantities from on, near and in the basins under the divide. Though I traveled a ridge top, at no time was I far from water. This roadless area had much to do with both quantity and quality of water supplies in the valley below. Its hydrology is too complex for me to interpret, but I know that its water values are vital - perhaps basically essential to all other values here in the valleys. Obviously, along with wilderness and forests, its water is among the highest values in this land."

In summarizing his trip through the Sapphire study area, Bud had this to say:

"My observations have drawn me to the following conclusions:

  • The unbroken wilderness of the divide from Skalkaho Pass to the Anaconda-Pintlers is the highest resource value
  • Associated with and complementary to the divide's wilderness are water production and the large and small birds and mammals
  • The divide's trail is itself an important historical resource and should remain unbroken by roads
  • As the core along this divide of wilderness, water and wildlife should be the central focus of planning with periphery values managed to protect it. Said differently, I would plan from the interior's high values outward, not from the exterior values inward
  • Likewise... north to south...the roadless area is big country. Across... east to west... it is small indeed. Thus, the divide's length is central to its quality of wilderness and this length should remain unbroken by roads
  • The entire divide area would be a fine candidate for wilderness
  • Dozer trails built during the Sleeping Child fire detract from wilderness, but under present strong anti-four wheel drive control policy, will return to near natural conditions in time

Thank you, Bud Moore, for your recommendations and observations on the Sapphire Wilderness Study Area. MWA members will keep the faith with you!

The Sapphire Study Area topped out in the Forest Service Wilderness Attribute Rating (WARS) process with a score of 26 out of a possible 28 points. Its overall rating for solitude and primitive recreation opportunities was “very high", while that of its supplemental attributes was termed “outstanding".

Current snowmobile use is being held up as an excuse or reason for denying wilderness classification for the entire Sapphire Wilderness Study Area. It was not the intent of Senator Metcalf, nor of the congress which passed the bill, to allow an interim use to interfere with the eventual evaluation of the entire area for wilderness classification. To say that snowmobile or other vehicular use is historic is to overlook the real historical use of the area. The history of motorized recreational use is generally less than two decades at most, with the greatest surge coming in the last ten years. What is historic is that national forests have been a place to which man and beast can retire for relief from the mechanized world. Wildlife habitat is a historic use of the Sapphire wild country since time immemorial. Plant and animal communities have thrived undisturbed. Hunting, fishing, and hiking all are the historic uses of the Sapphires.


“To say that the snowmobile or other vehicular use is historic is to overlook the real historic use of the area." - Bud Moore. 


In the fall of 1985, the Bitterroot and Deerlodge forests held hearings and invited the public to comment on their draft study recommendations for the wild Sapphires.

Those recommendations called for non-wilderness status for the entire area. However, the public thought otherwise. Over 80 percent of the comments supported wilderness for the Sapphires.

Despite the outstanding values of the Sapphires and overwhelming public support for wilderness, the Forest Service may be unwilling to consider wilderness designation. It may be that the agency knows what the Montana congressional delegation has in store for the Sapphires in drafting a wilderness bill. Rumors indicate the bill may fragment the Sapphires from the Pintlers and Skalkaho Pass, protecting only a small core of the Ross Fork on the Deerlodge side. When a bill is introduced, it will be up to the public to really go to bat for the Sapphires. See you at the plate! 

- Doris Milner was a long-time MWA activist who served as president of the organization from 1973 to 1975 and later on the state council.