Sunday, March 29, 2009

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

There’s an old cliché that one can’t see the forest for the trees. It is used to describe people who are so focused on some detail that they fail to see the big picture. Nowhere is this failure to see the forest for the trees more evident than the rush to utilize dead trees for biomass fuel s and/or the presumed need to “thin” forests to reduce so called “dangers” and/or “damage” from wildfire and beetle outbreaks.

Contrary to popular opinion, we probably do not have enough dead trees in our forest ecosystems. And this deficit is a serious problem since dead trees are critical to the long term productivity of forests, and perhaps more important to forest ecosystems than live trees. Dead trees are not a “wasted” resource. It is questionable whether we can we remove substantial quantities of live or dead wood from the forest without serious long term biological impoverishment to forest ecosystems.

An abundance of dead trees, rather than a sign of forest sickness as commonly portrayed, demonstrates that the forest ecosystem is functioning perfectly well. For far too long we have viewed the major agents responsible for creation of substantial qualities of dead trees--beetles and wildfire—as “enemies” of the forest, when in truth; they are the major processes that maintain healthy forest ecosystems.

Recent research points out the multiple ways that dead trees and down wood are critical to the forest. One estimates suggests that 2/3 of all species depend on dead trees/down wood at some point in their lives.

Dead trees are very important for functioning aquatic ecosystems as well. Trees create structure in streams that shapes stream channels, reduces water velocity and erosion, and provides both food and habitat for many aquatic invertebrates. In general the more wood you have in the stream, the more fish, insects, and other aquatic life. Aquatic ecologists generally believe that there is no upper limit for dead wood in streams.

Once a tree falls to the ground and gradually molders back into the soil, it provides home to many small insects and invertebrates that are the lifeblood of the forest, that help recycle and produce nutrients important for present and future forest growth. For instance, there are hundreds of species of ground nesting bees that utilize down trees for their home. These bees are major pollinators of flowers and flowering shrubs in the forest.

Ants are among the most abundant invertebrates in the forest and many live in down trees and snags. Ants play a critical role in the forest, helping to break down wood, aeration of soil with their burrows, and protection of trees against the onslaught of other insects. One study found that ants killed 85% of the tussock moths that attacked Douglas fir and there are many other examples of how ants protect trees from tree predators.

And it’s not just wildlife that depends on dead trees. A recent review of 1200 lichen species found that 10% were only found on dead trees, and many others prefer dead trees as their prime habitat. Lichens, among other things, are important convertors of atmospheric nitrogen into fixed nitrogen important for plant growth.
Even the charcoal that results from wildfires burning up trees is important for soil productivity, helping to increase soil nutrients, water-holding capacity, and as a long-term storage mechanism for carbon.

Most beetle and wildlife events do not kill all the trees. Instead, they create a mosaic of age classes that actually increases biodiversity. Contrary to the popular opinion that beetles “destroy the forest” and fires “sterilize” the soils or create biological deserts, several recent studies have concluded that both beetle killed forests and the burned forests that result remain after stand replacement wildfires have among the highest biodiversity of any habitat type.

Notwithstanding, the fact that much new research suggest that both thinning or biomass removal are often ineffective at slowing or stopping large fires or insect outbreaks because these events are primarily driven by climatic/weather factors rather than fuels, there is the issue of whether the cure is worse than the so-called disease.

Logging, thinning, biomass removal and other forest management introduce all kinds of negative impacts to the forest ecosystem from the spread of weeds to soil compaction to alteration of water flow, disturbance to wildlife, creation of new ORV trails, increases in sedimentation, that all lead to the degradation of the forest ecosystem itself. Most of these negative impacts are ignored or glossed over by proponents of thinning and biomass removal.

In short, current efforts to thwart, and stop beetle outbreaks and wildfires create “unhealthy forests”. In fact, nearly everything that foresters do from thinning forests to suppressing fires degrades and impoverishes the forest ecosystem. Forest “management” is so focused on trees and wood products, that it represents a critical failure to see the forest through the trees.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Praise for the Dead (wood)

By George Wuerthner
Forest Magazine, Spring 2009

Dead. Most of us have negative associations with the word. After all how did Death Valley get its name? Not because it was a favorite vacation spot for prospectors. Is anyone interested in fishing the Dead Sea? And when we say someone looks like “death warmed over,” it’s not usually taken as a compliment. So it’s not surprising that most of us tend to view dead things as undesirable, unless we are talking about mosquitoes and rattlesnakes.

We impose this cultural bias about dead things to our forests as well. Public land management agencies spend billions annually trying to contain wildfire and insect outbreaks based upon the presumption that these natural processes are destroying the forest by killing trees. Even though there is now some grudging acceptance by land managers that wildfires and insect attacks may be potentially beneficial if they do not kill too many trees, stand-replacement fires, ice storms and large beetle outbreaks are still viewed as unnatural and abnormal—something to suppress, slow and control.

When these natural processes kill trees, managers propose logging to “salvage” the economic value of the downed trees. They operate on the tacit assumption that surplus wood can be removed without hurting the forest’s ecosystem, and until now that has formed the basis of scientific and/or sustainable forestry.

But a new perspective is slowly taking root among forest managers, based on growing evidence that forest ecosystems have no waste or harvestable surplus. Rather, it seems that forests reinvest their biological capital back into the ecosystem, and removal of wood—whether dead or alive—can lead to biological impoverishment. Large stand-replacement blazes and major insect outbreaks may be the ecological analogue to the forest ecosystem as the hundred-year flood is to a river. Such natural events are critical to shaping ecosystem function and processes. Scientists are discovering that dead trees and downed wood play an important role in ecosystems by providing wildlife habitat, cycling nutrients, aiding plant regeneration, decreasing erosion and influencing drainage, soil moisture and carbon storage.

“When you start to look at western forests outside of wildernesses and parks, you notice right away that they lack large quantities of downed wood—dead trees,” says Jon Rhodes, an independent consulting hydrologist in Oregon. “Ecologically speaking, there is a big difference between areas that have been logged compared to areas that are left alone.”

Chad Hanson, a University of California, Davis, researcher, agrees. “We are trapped by an outdated cultural idea that a healthy forest is one with nothing but green trees. An ecologically healthy forest has dead trees, broken tops and downed logs.” Such forests may not look tidy from the perception of a forester, he says, but it’s an indication that the forest is healthy and biologically diverse. “Pound for pound, ton for ton, there is probably no more important habitat element in western conifer forests than large snags and large downed logs,” Hanson says.

Studies have consistently concluded that most western forests have a deficit of large snags and downed dead wood. “Large standing trees are important,” Rhodes says, “but they shouldn’t be museum pieces. They should be part of functioning ecosystems.” When old-growth trees burn in wildfires, they aren’t completely lost, he says, but provide the ecosystem with large quantities of snags and downed wood. “While some say we can’t afford to have old growth burned by fire, it’s apparent that we can’t afford for old growth not to burn in fires, due to the importance of large snags and downed wood and its current lack in western forests,” he says.

Writing in a 2004 article in Conservation Biology, University of Montana ecologist Richard Hutto sums up the new thinking about the ecological value of dead trees. “I am hard-pressed to find any other example in wildlife biology where the effect of a particular land-use activity is as close to 100 percent negative as the typical post-fire salvage-logging operation tends to be,” he wrote. “Everything from the system of fire-regime classification, to a preoccupation with the destructive aspects of fire, to the misapplication of snag-management guidelines have led us to ignore the obvious: we need to retain the very elements that give rise to much of the biological uniqueness of a burned forest—the standing dead trees.”

Healthy Dependence

Dead trees are important to wildlife. Think woodpeckers. But many other species depend on dead trees and downed wood for food and shelter.

Hutto reports that upwards of 60 percent of species that nest in severely burned forests use only snags for nest sites. In addition, about 45 percent of all North American native bird species rely on snags for at least a portion of their life cycle.

Hutto has found fifteen species that are most abundant in forests with high numbers of snags resulting from high-intensity stand-replacement crown fire—the kind of fires that foresters pejoratively call catastrophic. Hutto notes it is doubtful that these species would have evolved such dependency on snag abundance if large stand-replacement fires and widespread insect outbreaks were uncommon or unnatural, as some suggest.

But it’s not just the use of snags for nesting, or even feeding as with woodpeckers, that attracts birds and other wildlife to recently killed forests. Burned forests also are used extensively by seed-eating species that are attracted by the abundance of new seeds shed by cones and colonizing plants.

Even the presumption that large blazes are a threat to spotted owls is being challenged. “There are several studies which indicate that spotted owls actually benefit from substantial patches of high-severity fire within their home ranges,” says researcher Hanson. “They selectively forage in unlogged, high-severity burn patches.” However, he adds, if these burned areas are salvage logged, spotted owls avoid them.

In a paper presented at a conference on the ecology and management of dead wood in western forests, researcher Timothy Kent Brown estimated that two-thirds of all wildlife species use dead trees or downed wood during some portion of their life cycle. Among Pacific Northwest vertebrates, sixty-nine species depend upon cavities for shelter or nesting, while forty-seven other species are strongly associated with downed wood. And it’s not just the obvious species like woodpeckers that demonstrate this dependence. Many bat species, for instance, hide in cavities in dead trees or under the loose bark of dead and/or dying trees.

Jim Andrews, a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, studies amphibians and reptiles in northeastern forests. “Foresters tend to look at the forest from the floor up,” he says. “I have occasionally gone on field trips with them, and they were rather proud of how they had managed their forests, but the forest has nothing in it. There’s no cover. No places to find live critters.”

Andrews notes that dead and dying trees are important for many cold-blooded species, from gray frogs to arboreal rat snakes. “Standing snags, once they get big enough so that they have hollow centers—what foresters call ‘overmature’…are the places where wildlife reside,” Andrews says. “To a biologist you don’t have overmature trees—you have wildlife habitat.”

Andrews notes that the greatest biomass of terrestrial vertebrate species found in eastern forests are salamanders, not the more charismatic large mammals like deer and moose. Salamanders provide food to many other species, from wild turkeys to shrews.

But salamanders are also significant predators in their own right, Andrews says. They eat beetle larvae, fly larvae, ground beetles, spiders, sow bugs, round worms and other invertebrates that feed on forest debris. In doing so, they shape the forest ecosystem much as wolves do on another scale. “Salamanders, by preying upon these species that consume leaf litter, help to maintain a deeper layer of leaves and other organic debris that holds moisture, reduces floods and that kind of stuff,” Andrews says.


It’s easy to identify an ecosystem for its most photogenic species, but there are dozens of small cogs that are of equal importance. One of those is ants, and downed logs are their preferred home. Ants are among the most common invertebrate in forest ecosystems and, not surprisingly given their abundance, are critical elements in forest ecosystems.

The most obvious value of ants is as food—from birds such as flickers to much larger animals like bears. In fact, research suggests that ants are among the most important food for bears in Oregon during June and July, as well as later in the summer if the berry crop is small. A British Columbia study found that grizzly bears rely on ants for food late in the fall when berries are unavailable. Reducing the number of dead trees, and thus ants, has a direct consequence for bear survival.

But ants also prey on insects that attack trees. For example, studies in Washington and Oregon discovered that ants accounted for an 85 percent reduction of pupae from two tree-defoliating moths.

Dead logs and snags are also home to pollinating insects. Solitary and colonial bees, of which there are hundreds of species that reside in downed logs and/or snags, are among the major pollinators of flowers and berry-producing shrubs.

Dead trees are even important for other plant species. Bureau of Land Management botanist and lichen expert, Roger Rosentreter, says that dead snags, by creating suitable habitat for lichen growth, carry the legacy of lichen species to the next generation of live trees in the forest. Research by Oregon State University professor Bruce McCune found that some common lichens were more abundant on barkless branches of dead trees than on live ones.

Healthy forest soils also require decomposing material. Below the litter layer in the soil is yet another layer of life that depends on dead wood. “There’s a whole complex food web in the soil that is a combination of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, micro-fauna like arthropods, springtails, mites—all those organisms thrive and are important to the composition of the forest,” says soils specialist Tom Deluca, a forest scientist at the Wilderness Society’s Northern Rockies office.

Deluca notes that while forest litter, such as fallen needles and branches, is important to forest soils, forest soil development is also “very dependent upon the influx of carbon from [whole] trees that have a life cycle of hundreds of years.”

If the carbon influx (dead trees) created after a wildfire or beetle outbreak are removed, he says, the soil is robbed of energy for micro-organisms. “The organic influx is essential to micro-community,” he says.


People commonly assume that wildfire destroys trees and leaves a smoldering pile of ashes. In truth, some live trees and a lot of dead wood physically survive blazes. Beyond the value of dead trees as feeding, hiding and resting habitat for wildlife, downed logs play an important role in forest regeneration.

Snags and downed logs modify micro-sites that can affect seedling establishment. For instance, snags provide some shade and reduction of drying winds, creating more favorable conditions for tree seedling survival. Researching the effects of fires on snags in Wyoming, Dan Tinker, of the University of Wyoming, found that only 8 percent of the downed wood was consumed in fires. He also says that 35 percent of the downed wood in clear-cuts was a biological legacy left by past fires that occurred prior to logging. Tinker and his associates found that these legacy trees intercepted precipitation and funneled it to the ends of the log, creating a moister micro-site that was often more favorable for tree seedling germination and survival.

Other researchers have found that, when it comes to trees, all death is not equal. How a tree dies affects its ultimate role in the forest ecosystem. A tree killed by bark beetles has a different decay trajectory than, say, a tree dying from disease or wildfire. For instance, bark beetles, by breeching the outer bark of a tree, create tiny openings that allow fungi and other insects to enter the tree’s core.

Bark beetles emit pheromones that not only attract other bark beetles but also insects that prey on bark beetles. And the volatiles released from the decomposing trees attract another entirely different group of organisms that feed upon dead wood. That is why one researcher in Europe found that bark beetle outbreaks increased biodiversity in forest ecosystems.

William Laudenslayer, a U.S. Forest Service researcher at the Pacific Southwest Forest and Range Experimental Station, and his colleagues experimentally girdled trees to kill them, a common forestry practice used to produce snags for wildlife. They compared those snags to trees killed by bark beetles. They found that “bark beetle-killed trees provided significantly greater woodpecker feeding activity, cavity building and insect diversity” compared to snags created by girdling.

Trees heated and killed by fire create sapwood that resists rotting and lasts longer in the ecosystem. Trees dead prior to the fire tend to become blackened and charred. Charred trees are also resistant to decay. Thus, a wildfire creates long-lasting biological legacies that can survive for a century or more.


Wayne Minshall, professor of ecology with the Stream Ecology Center in the Department of Biological Sciences at Idaho State University, points out the importance of logs to aquatic ecosystems as well. “Wherever the logs occur, they cause the stream to meander or braid. And whenever you get braiding or meandering, you’re getting a reduction in the power of the stream and delivering the water in a way so as to dissipate that energy so the flow becomes less destructive. That’s important in keeping streams healthy.”

Wildfires and/or insect outbreaks create downed logs that fall into streams and across slopes. Downed logs, by slowing the velocity of the water, allow sediment to settle out and help return sediment flows to pre-burn levels. Minshall points out that while organisms have evolved to deal with episodic sediment flush events, such as those occurring immediately after a wildfire, they are unable to cope with forestry-induced sedimentation. To these organisms, a forest fire is no big deal, he says. “We get a short few years of sediment runoff, but it’s not a major thing that organisms can’t handle.” But aquatic organisms can’t take unexpected events they haven’t evolved with, such as the presence of fine sediment all year round for extended periods of time. “If we clear-cut, salvage log or put roads in, then the sediment flows tend towards chronic, and it’s a major detriment to organisms,” he says.

Rhodes says that scientists have not identified an upper threshold of logs in streams that is too much for fish. “The more wood, the more fish, all things being equal,” he says. “Lots of wood is a big part of the productivity for streams.” The loss of salmonids in many parts of the West, he says, can be attributed to the absence of wood in streams.

The criteria for healthy ecosystems can’t be easily defined or exhaustively listed. But healthy ecosystems have a full array of processes operating unimpaired, including hydrologic function, soil productivity, carbon sequestering, provision of wildlife habitats and keystone disturbances such as fires, floods, storms and insect outbreaks.

One crucial element present in unmanaged, healthy systems is a significant amount of dead trees and downed wood, Rhodes says. “There is seldom too much dead wood in forests and certainly not in unmanaged ones. However, there is almost always a dearth of it in managed forests.”

Montana Needs More Wilderness

George Wuerthner

Montana has some of the best spectacular unprotected wildlands left in the lower 48 states, but it lags behind other western states in the amount of land protected as designated wilderness. For instance, California has 138 wilderness areas, covering than 14.3 million acres—more than 14 percent of the state. When the Omnibus Public Lands Bill before Congress passes, California will get another 700,000 acres of new wilderness areas. By contrast, Montana only has 15 wildernesses covering 3.4 million acres, or slightly less than 3.7% percent of the state.

More than six million FS roadless acres, plus at least another million acres of BLM and FWS lands, could potentially be added to the National Wilderness System. Yet for a host of unfortunate circumstances, the state has failed to see any new wilderness legislation passed for several decades. To see a map of Montana’s roaded and roadless terrain go to

The most comprehensive legislation dealing with Montana’s wildlands so far is the visionary Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act or NREPA. NEPRA was created by the Alliance for Wild Rockies, in part, after the failure of several other state-wide Montana wilderness bills to pass Congress or Presidential veto. It takes a comprehensive approach to wildlands preservation and includes most of the larger unprotected roadless lands in the Northern Rockies, including Montana.

While NREPA is the best wilderness legislation to ever be introduced, Congress may not be ready for the best. There are many obstacles to enactment, the least of which is that supporters must either convince the Congressional delegations from Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon and Washington, many of whom are hostile or luke-warm to wilderness preservation, to support this bill or garner enough votes from other House and Senate members to overrule the opposition from these delegates. I’m convinced if NREPA were enthusiastically endorsed and actively promoted by the entire environmental community, it could be enacted. Unfortunately, that wide-spread support has yet to materialize.

An alternative to NREPA is a more piecemeal, state specific approach to wilderness designation that focuses on passage of a Montana-only wilderness bill. Recently, there is a convergence in opinion that a state-wide wilderness bill is needed that can implement at least a portion of the NREPA vision for Montana. With the election of Barack Obama the opportunity for passage of such a comprehensive state wide bill has never looked better than now.

If I were creating such a bill, I would, at a minimum, propose the following areas for potential wilderness designation. My proposal is only a starting point for discussion.

In the interest of brevity many fine and worthy smaller wildlands areas will be left out of this compilation, but are included in NREPA, so if you want to see what could be protected in Montana, go to the Alliance for Wild Rockies web site. The following is only the briefest description of key areas that should be included in any state- wide bill with a rough estimate of the potential acreage to give readers some idea of the size of each area. At one time or another I have personally visited most of the areas I’ve listed so know firsthand of their wildlands qualities.

Northwest Montana includes the Purcell, Cabinet, and Coeur d’Alene Mountains. Heavily forested and relatively moist, the easily accessible timber has been logged, but many small roadless areas remain.

Starting in the Northwest portion of the state, there are a number of small wilderness areas proposed for the Yaak drainage in what many consider to be the wildest river valley south of Canada. The Yaak is home to nearly all the species (except perhaps caribou) that existed at the time of settlement, including wolves, grizzlies, wolverine, and lynx.

Roadless areas of note in the Yaak include the 15,000 acre Northwest Peak Proposed Wilderness. It lies right up against the Canadian border, supporting alpine larch forests in glaciated bowls. Other proposed wildernesses in the Yaak include 36,000 acre Buckhorn Ridge, 14,000 acre Mount Henry, 7,000 acre Robinson Mountain, 7,000 acre Grizzly Peak, and 30,000 acre Roderick Mountain, among others. Taken together, designation of all of these roadless lands will provide a quilt of wildlands that could work to begin the ecological restoration process for the heavily logged Yaak drainage.

South of the Yaak lies the 94,000,000 acre forested, but rugged Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. The highest point is 8,723 foot Snowshoe Peak. The core of the Cabinet Mountains is protected as the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, but another 100,000 plus acres of additions could be added to the existing wilderness, primarily by adding lower elevation slopes to the wilderness to create a 200,000 acre or so complex.

Extending southward as part of the southern Cabinet Mountains north of Thompson Falls are several other roadless areas including the 39,000 acre Cube Iron Silcox and 39,000 acre Catarack Peak proposed wilderness areas. Vertical relief in this part of the southern Cabinet Mountains is more than 4,500 feet.

Directly across the Bull River to the west of the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness and straddling the Idaho-Montana border lies the 88,000 acre proposed Scotchman’s Peak Wilderness. Surprisingly, for this area where logging has fragmented so much of the lower elevation forests, the Scotchman’s Peak area has remained roadless from valley bottoms to the summit of its glacier-scoured peaks. Like the Cabinet Mountains, the Scotchman’s Peak area is heavily forested with low elevation Pacific Northwest species like western red cedar, and western hemlock, including the famous giant Ross Creek Cedars. Friends of Scotchman’s Peak has worked for decades promoting this area.

A few other large roadless areas on the Coeur d’Alene-Cabinet Divide south of the Clark Fork River worth mentioning are the 50,000 acre Trout Creek Proposed Wilderness and the 41,000 acre Mount Bushnell Proposed Wilderness. These both are important for corridors linking the Cabinet-Yaak to the Bitterroot Mountains.

The Bitterroot Mountains stretch along the Idaho Montana border for hundreds of miles. The highest peaks are included in the 1.3 million acre Selway Bitterroot Wilderness, but other lovely wild country along or near the Bitterroot Divide and adjacent lands should be included in any state wide wilderness bill.

Along the Idaho border south of I-90 is the 68,000 Sheep Mountain/State Line Proposed Wilderness. More than 70 inches of precipitation, most of it as snowfall, supports forest of mountain hemlock, a rare species in Montana. An essential corridor for wildlife moving north and south from the Cabinet to the Bitterroot, the area features some small lakes, and heavy forest cover.

Moving south along the Idaho border, south of Superior, Montana, in the Fish Creek headwaters lies the 275,000 acre Great Burn Proposed Wilderness. Straddling the northern Bitterroot Mountains along the Idaho-Montana border, the Great Burn is named for the 1910 fires that swept across these slopes leaving alpine-like terrain dotted with snags. However, the lower elevation valleys still harbor some huge western red cedars. The lush vegetation and numerous cirque lakes make for scenic hiking. It is increasingly threatened by ORVers. The Great Burn has been included in many previous wilderness bills introduced into Congress, and hopefully will someday achieve wilderness protection.

South of Missoula is the Bitterroot Valley. Friends of the Bitterroot are one of the local wildlands advocacy groups romoting wilderness preservation on both sides of the Bitterroot Valley. Additions of 123,000 acres to the sprawling 1.3 million acre Selway Bitterroot Wilderness along the Bitterroot Front would bring the wildlands boundary down closer to the valley floor.

West and south of Darby on the Idaho-Montana border is the 70,000 Bluejoint Proposed Wilderness. Most of the Bluejoint drainage was burned by wildfire and is reforested with even-aged lodgepole pine forests. It is one of the wilderness study areas protected by S.393, passed in the 1970s by the late Senator Lee Metcalf and includes several geologic features including a volcanic plug at Castle Peak and Rock Arch near Jack the Ripper Creek.

Adjacent to the Bluejoint and encompassing the headwaters of the West Fork of the Bitterroot River along the Idaho-Montana border lies the 150,000 acre Allan Mountain Proposed Wilderness. (I’ve also seen this spelled Alan, Allen). Allan Mountain includes the spectacular 100 foot Overwhich Falls and provides a critical link between the Bitterroots and areas to the east in the Big Hole drainage.

Rock Creek, a major tributary of the Clark Fork River, is a small blue ribbon trout stream east of Missoula. The stream is bordered on the west by the Sapphire Range, which includes the Welcome Creek Wilderness, the only designated wilderness in this range.

South of Welcome Creek in the Sapphire Range is the 103,000 acre Stony Mountain Proposed Wilderness including headwater tributaries to Rock Creek.

Continuing south of Skalkaho Pass in the Sapphire Range is another S.393 wilderness study area, the 116,000 acre Sapphire Mountain Proposed Wilderness. The highest point is 9,000 foot, Kent Peak. The Sapphire Mountain WSA is a critical link in the Sapphire/Rock Creek Wildlands corridor that leads to the Big Hole Valley further south. The Sapphire Mountain WSA is also immediately adjacent to the existing Anaconda Pintler Wilderness, and the combined acreage of 350,000 acres makes it the fourth largest continuous roadless area in Montana.

On the east side of the Rock Creek Valley lies the 77,000 acre Quigg Peak Proposed Wilderness, a circular patch of little visited non-descript forested country that rises 4,500 feet above Rock Creek.

Another major tributary of the Clark Fork is Flint Creek. The Flint Creek Range south of Deer Lodge and east of Phillipsburg contains glacier-scoured, 10,000 foot peaks, cirque lakes and a 60,000 acre proposed wilderness.

Tucked up on the Canadian border west of Glacier National Park and east of Eureka are the rugged Whitefish and Galton Ranges which include a number of roadless areas, collectively totaling 171,000 acres. These areas are part of the proposed Winton Weydemeyer Wilderness. Weydemeyer was a long-time local wildlands advocate. Many ecologists consider the North Fork of the Flathead Valley to be one of the most biologically important areas in Montana, home to wolves, grizzlies, wolverine, lynx, elk, moose, and deer, plus some of the best bull trout spawning habitat in Montana.

Starting on the Canadian border is the 45,000 acre Ten Lakes Proposed Wilderness. The highest peaks rise to nearly 8,000 feet, and a number of sparkling lakes and lush flowery meadows dot the cirque basins. (I only count six lakes). Another S.393 protected area, the Ten Lakes area was included in the 1984 Montana Wilderness bill that President Reagan vetoed.

Immediately west and south of the Ten Lakes area lies the 126,000 acres North Fork Wildlands Complex, a series of roadless areas lying west of the North Fork of the Flathead River separated by a few logging roads. The North Fork Wildlands includes Mount Hefty/Mount Tuchuck, Mount Thompson Seton/Nasukoin Mountain. Great views of Glacier National Park’s rugged peaks are possible from many of the highest points in this proposed wilderness.

Glacier National Park has nearly a million acres of wilderness quality lands. All of it should be designated as wilderness. I don’t think I need to discuss the attributes that makes Glacier an outstanding wildlands complex. The NPS essentially manages this as wilderness anyway, so designation of this area should be politically easy.


South of Glacier National Park is the 1.5 million acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, which includes the contiguous Great Bear and Scapegoat Wildernesses. The complex is Montana’s flagship wilderness area. Proposed additions to the Bob Marshall total more than 500,000 acres in three major blocks—Swan Range, Rocky Mountain Front, and the peaks bordering the Blackfoot Valley on the south.

Starting along the western border of the Bob Marshall, is the spectacular Swan Range which stretches nearly a 100 miles from Glacier National Park south to the Blackfoot Valley. The Swan forms the border of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, but much of the range lies outside of the wilderness boundary. The 89,000 acre Swan Crest takes in the Jewel Basin Hiking Area with its two dozen or so cirque lakes and other roadless lands lying at the headwaters of tributaries to the South Fork of the Flathead River. The 169,000 Swan Front Proposed Addition to the Bob Marshall Wilderness would take in the steep west face of the Swan Range, including 9,200 plus Swan Peak and 9,300 foot Holland Peak, as well as Lion Creek drainage with its giant western red cedars.

Making up the northern face of the Blackfoot River Valley along the southern edge of the Bob Marshall is the 90,000 Monture Creek Proposed Additions. Monture Creek, along with the North Fork of the Blackfoot, are among the best bull trout spawning streams left in the Blackfoot River drainage.

The eastern edge of the Bob Marshall consists of the Rocky Mountain Front where the mountains rise for 110 miles north to south abruptly and dramatically from the Great Plains. It is probably the premier unprotected wildlands in Montana. Ecologists have documented that approximately a third of all plant species found in Montana are known to grow here as well as 290 species of wildlife. During the Forest Service’s RARE11 inventory, some of the roadless lands on the Front had the highest wildlands ratings in the lower 48, comparable to some of the Forest Service lands in Alaska. Some of the larger roadless areas along the Front include Badger Two Medicine, Choteau Mountain, Teton High Peaks, Deep Creek, Renbshaw, and Falls Silver King.

Central Montana includes the communities of Lewistown, Butte , Great Falls and Helena. A number of isolated mountain ranges, as well as a diverse number of roadless lands along the Continental Divide provide linkages between the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Bob Marshall/Glacier Ecosystem.

Along or near the Continental Divide are a number of proposed wildernesses. Most of these roadless areas consist of more gentle terrain of rolling mountains, open parks, and great wildlife habitat. Among the largest roadless areas are the 50,000 acre Nevada Mountain Proposed Wilderness, 50,000 acre Electric Peak Proposed Wilderness, and east of I-15 the 84,000 acre Whitetail-Hay stack Proposed Wilderness with its extensive wetlands.

Just south of Helena is the 88,000 Elkhorn Mountains Proposed Wilderness, home to one of the more productive elk herds in the state.

To the southeast of Helena in the Big Belt Mountains that harbor a series of small roadless areas like a string of beads. Anchoring it on the north is the 28,000 acre Gates of the Mountains Wilderness. Named by Lewis and Clark, the Gates signaled where the Missouri left the mountains. Additions to this area, including 10,000 acre Sleeping Giant and adjacent state Beartooth Wildlife Management Area, would make a 65,000 acre complex.

South of the Gates of the Mountains, the two largest roadless areas include 20,000 acre Camas Creek Proposed Wilderness which features Camas and Boulder lakes lakes, plus the 18,000 acre glaciated cirques of the Baldy Peak/Mt. Edith Proposed Wildernesses.

East of Great Falls is the isolated volcanic Highwood Mountains, that contains aspen-lined coulees and a patchwork of meadows and forest in a 40,000 acre proposed wilderness split by one road. Southeast of Great Falls are the Little Belt Mountains. There are many roadless aeas in this range that collectively total more than 450,000 acres. Three of the notable wildlands include the 43,000 acre Pilgrim Creek Proposed Wilderness, a prime hunting area with many open parks.

The center piece of the Little Belts is the 105,000 acre Tenderfoot/Deep Creek Proposed Wilderness encompassing the Smith River Canyon, a sixty mile float through wild country with magnificent limestone cliffs and excellent fishing.
The Little Belts are also the location of the rolling terrain that makes up the 92,000 acre Middle Fork of the Judith River Proposed Wilderness, another S.393 WSA, featuring dramatic limestone canyons.

The 105,000 acre Big Snowy Mountains Proposed Wilderness, south of Lewistown, is another S.393 area. The Big Snowy Mountains rises 3,000 feet above the surrounding plains and features an extensive above timberline plateau, and the singular beauty of aptly named Crystal Lake.


Southwest Montana takes in Montana’s largest national forest—the sprawling 3.3 million acre Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest and the greatest acreage of unprotected roadless lands in the state. A number of conservation groups have proposed the Beaverhead Deerlodge Partnership which would guarantee access to 730,000 acres, including many roadless area of forest, for logging in exchange for timber industry support of wilderness. While the timber giveaway of the partnership is inappropriate, there are quite a number of wildlands on the BDNF worthy of wilderness protection in the proposal as well as a few not included in the agreement. Many of these wildlands form the headwaters of the famous Big Hole River.

Just south of Butte are three roadless areas that have important wildlands values.
The 12,000 acre Humbug Spires, 21,000 acre Highland Mountains, and 36,000 acre Fleecer Mountain proposed wilderness areas. The spires features many granite knobs that are a favorite for climbers while the Highlands feature flat-topped Table Mountain with expansive views. Finally, Fleecer Mountain is part of an important game range just north of the Big Hole River.

Starting in the north end of the Big Hole Valley is what has become known as the 50,000 acre North Big Hole proposed additions to the existing 158,000 acre Anaconda Pintler Wilderness which would expand significantly protection for the lower slopes of the range. This would secure some of the more productive lands in the valley, including the most important big game habitat.

Immediately south of Chief Joseph Pass along the Montana-Idaho border and on the north end of the Beaverhead Mountains is the 50,000 Anderson Peak Proposed Wilderness, a land of mostly rolling lodgepole covered hills.

South of Big Hole Pass are the rugged glaciated peaks and more than 30 cirque lakes of the 130,000 acre West Big Hole Proposed Wilderness, including 10,621 foot Homer Young Peak, the highest in the range.

East of Wisdom is the 240,000 roadless acres of the West Pioneer Mountains, one of Montana’s largest roadless areas and another S.393 wilderness study area. The rolling forested mountains of the West Pioneers Proposed Wilderness top out at 9,000 feet. This area has been greatly impacted by ORV intrusions in recent years.

Directly east and across the Wise River, are the 145,000 acre East Pioneer Mountains Proposed Wilderness. The East Pioneers are extremely rugged, with many cirque lakes and glaciated high peaks including 11, 154 foot Tweedy Mountain and 11,146 foot Torrey Mountain.

The 50,000 acre South Big Hole/Tash Peak Proposed Wilderness, as its name implies, takes in the high peaks at the south end of the Big Hole Valley, including 9,800 foot Bloody Dick Peak.

The 90,000 acre Italian Peak Proposed Wilderness is part of a larger nearly 300,000 acre chunk of roadless country straddling the Continental Divide on the Montana-Idaho border. The lonely, but rugged limestone peaks, including 10,998 Italian Peak reminds me of the Canadian Rockies. Other major peaks include 11,141 foot Eighteenmile Peak.

The arid 83,000 acre Tendoy Mountains Proposed Wilderness east of Dell, Montana, consists of open grass-sagebrush slopes rising to the top of 10,000 foot mountains with pockets of conifer and aspen. The open country is superb for cross country hiking and excellent hunting terrain.

The 42,000 acre Lima Peak/Mount Garfield Proposed Wilderness also straddles the Continental Divide, and includes 10,961 foot Mt. Garfield. This area features many aspen groves, along with patches of conifers intermixed with open grassy slopes that can be hiked for miles.

Several other small BLM roadless areas are also found in this region including 27,000 acres in the Ruby Range east of Dillon, 15,000 acres in the Blacktail Mountains southeast of Dillon, and 12,000 acres in the dry, open limestone summit of Henneberry Ridge area southwest of Dillon.

Surrounding Yellowstone National Park are some of the largest wildlands in the Rockies.,

The centerpiece in Montana is the 920,000 acre Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness in Montana, which includes Montana’s highest summits such as 12,799 foot Granite Peak, and some of the most extensive alpine tundra in the lower 48 states. Starting near Gardiner and working around the edge of the existing wilderness significant proposed additions include Dome Mountain and Emigrant Peak, wintering habitat for thousands of elk that migrate from Yellowstone, the Paradise Face that provides the scenic backdrop for Paradise Valley, Shell Mountain, Mount Rae, and the Deer Creeks, a lower elevation unglaciated terrain between the Boulder and Stillwater Rivers, home to genetically pure cutthroat trout and as its name implies lots of deer. Nearer Red Lodge are the Beartooth Face and the 20,000 acre high-elevation alpine Line Creek Plateau.

Lying north of the Yellowstone River by Livingston is the 140,000 acre Crazy Mountains Proposed Wilderness. The Crazies have 23 peaks over 10,000 feet with more than 7,000 feet rise from the Yellowstone River to the top of 11,214 Crazy Peak, rivaling the Tetons in total elevation gain. The wind- blasted glacier-carved summits have an Arctic look that makes them more like something in Alaska, especially in winter, when the snowy peaks are set against a cold winter sky.
Directly across the Shields Valley from the Crazy Mountains, and just outside of Bozeman, is the 42,000 acre Bridger Mountain Proposed Wilderness. The Bridgers are a critical link in the chain of roadless lands that leads from the Greater Yellowstone north to the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

Marking the southwestern edge of the Gallatin Valley is the 96,000 acre Tobacco Root Mountains Proposed Wilderness. Extensively fragmented by old mining roads, the Tobacco Roots still harbor some small roadless areas. These glaciated mountains possess 28 peaks over 10,000 feet and dozens of small lakes and tarns.

To the southwest of Dillon and the headwaters of the Ruby River lies the wildly fe-filled 110,000 acre Snowcrest Range Proposed Wilderness. A long narrow range with a number of 10,000 plus peaks, the Snowcrest Range is a mixture of open grassy/sage slopes, pockets of aspen and conifers, topping out with tundra along the ridges and higher peaks. You mightee pronghorn as elk on the high slopes of this range.

The rolling Gravelly Range lies south of Virginia City and forms the western border of the Madison River Valley. It has some important elk and bighorn sheep habitat, but is severely compromised by heavy livestock grazing. There are four major roadless areas in this range including 39,000 acre Black Butte, 14,000 acre Lone Butte, 70,000 acres West Fork Madison and 53,000 acre Bighorn units.

Straddling the Continental Divide west of Henry’s Lake, Idaho, the 82,000 Centennial Mountains Proposed Wilderness is one of the few east-west running mountain masses in Montana, making it an important corridor and connector between the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Central Idaho wildlands to the west. Directly below this range is the remote Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Most of the range on the Montana side of the border is managed by the BLM which has identified a 27,000 wilderness study area in the central portion of the range. Aspen is abundant here, and the valleys are surprisingly lush.

The 255,000 acre Lee Metcalf Wilderness near Big Sky honors the late Senator Lee Metcalf, one of Montana’s wilderness champions. Unfortunately, when the wilderness was created, several important areas were left out of the wilderness, including Cowboy’s Heaven proposed addition on the north, taking in Cherry Creek, a proposed westslope cutthroat trout restoration site.

The 32,000 acre Lionhead Proposed Wilderness straddles the Continental Divide and Idaho-Montana border just west of West Yellowstone, Montana. It is really the southern extension of the Madison which is largely protected as the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. The area features a number of 10,000 foot peaks. The Lionhead is an important corridor in the east-west movement of wildlife from Yellowstone to the various ranges in southwest Montana. Grizzlies, for instance, move from the Lionhead to the Gravelly and Centennial Ranges through this area. In recent years, snowmobiles have taken to riding to the top of Lionhead Peak, significantly compromising the solitude and wildlands qualities of this area.

The 200,000 acre Gallatin Range Proposed Wilderness is on Bozeman’s doorstep and extends southward into Yellowstone National Park where more than 325,000 additional acres of proposed wilderness are found. The Gallatin Range features many glaciated peaks exceeding 10,000 feet, and some of the best unprotected wildlife habitat in Montana.

The proposed wilderness is home to nearly every major large mammal found in Montana, including grizzly, wolf, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, moose, wolverine, lynx, marten, and even bison on occasion. The Gallatin Range contains many headwaters streams for two blue ribbon trout rivers—the Gallatin and Yellowstone. One hundred and fifty one thousand acres are tentatively protected by Congress as the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area in S. 393, but unfortunately, ORVs have established many new “routes” in the range.

South of Billings and lying in the rain shadow east of the lofty Beartooths is the Pryor Mountains, a mix of BLM, Forest Service and National Park Service and Indian Reservation lands.

A limestone northern extension of the Bighorn Mountains, the Pryors has several major roadless areas including Lost Water Canyon Proposed Wilderness, as well as four other roadless areas. In some areas, the narrow limestone canyons might make you think you were in southern Utah. Numerous caves provide habitat for ten species of bats including the spotted and Townsend's big eared bats, both candidates for listing under the ESA. The Pryors contains 10 distinct ecological systems which support a variety of wildlife, including bighorn sheep, black bears and mule deer, and more than 200 species of birds. Unfortunately the dry and fragile Pryor Mountain landscape is being torn apart by ORV use.


Most of the private land in Montana is found on the Great Plains, but there are some patches of public lands, mostly managed by the BLM and FWS. So far only two small prairie wildernesses exist in Montana: 11,000 plus acre Medicine Lake Wilderness in extreme Northeast Montana, and 20,000 acre U Bend Wilderness along the shore of Fort Peck Reservoir. There are, however, many other areas that could be added to the prairie wildlands protection list. Here are three of the best.

Nearly on the Canadian border northwest of Glasgow, the 60,000 acre Bitter Creek Proposed Wilderness is one of the largest grassland roadless areas in the state. Past glaciations has left gently rolling terrain that invites long walks across an endless horizon. With a name like Bitter Creek, it’s not difficult to imagine why this part of the plains was never settled.

Another prairie BLM wildlands is the 50,000 acre Terry Badlands. The proposed wilderness borders the lower Yellowstone River near Terry, Montana. Water and wind have sculpted the soft sandstones in numerous buttes, pinnacles, and spires. One of the eastern most stands of limber pine is found growing on the rims.

The largest prairie wildlands complex is found along the Missouri River in the Missouri Breaks National Monument and Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. The roadless areas are too numerous to name here, but as much as 400,000 acres may qualify as wilderness. All of this country consists of steep escapements and coulees bordering the Missouri River.