Relative to other, drier regions of Montana, my home valley of the Yaak grows big timber, and for this reason primarily was excluded from earlier Montana wilderness protection bills in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Yet the Yaak’s wildness is amplified by its extremely low human population — roughly 150 people live year-round in the half-million-acre upper portion of the valley, and not many more than that in the lower half. In addition, 97 percent of the valley is public land, part of the Kootenai National Forest.
This is the Year of the Yaak, I have been telling people, with regard to the possibility of finally getting some lands here designated and protected as wilderness. I thought we were close in the 1980s — we were, only to have President Reagan veto a bill — and we were close again in the 90s, when Montana Rep. Pat Williams put a bill through the House with 302 votes, only to see it stall in the Senate. And we were close at other times over the last 10 years.
Yet across the decades, traditional opponents of wilderness — snowmobilers, ATV riders, loggers, millworkers, and general anti-government or anti-regulatory zealots — have proved themselves adept at blocking wilderness throughout Montana. About five years ago, a small community group of which I’m a board member, the Yaak Valley Forest Council, began informal, open discussions with those various stakeholders, aimed not so much at telling them what we wanted — wilderness designation for the last roadless lands in the Yaak — but instead asking what they wanted.