Saving the Great Burn

April 11, 2020  •  1 Comment

The Great Burn through the Seasons

"A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." - Howard Zahniser


As a rule, I do my best to steer clear of potentially controversial issues on this page. The goal has always been to make it about the act of photography and simply sharing images from around Western Montana. That’s it. Photography is a simple act of visual communication that suits me well. It encourages me to get outside, wander and share. It has equipped me a sense of purpose. What’s more, I am in love with the process of composing an image, determining exposure, calculating focus and, finally, firing the shutter. It is such a lovely cycle of small decisions that carry a bit impact on the ultimate outcome.

However, every once and awhile, a little alarm bell goes off inside my head that indicates, “pay attention.” I sit up a little straighter, focus my attention with greater resolve and scheme what actions I can take to serve the greater good. This is one of those moments. This is about protecting the Great Burn Recommended Wilderness. 

The Great Burn holds a special place in my heart. Named for the Big Burn of 1910 and comprised of 275,000 roadless acres straddling the Montana/Idaho border between Highway 12 (south) and I-90 (north), the Great Burn is as wild as they come. The space contains 33 subalpine lakes, 40 free-flowing streams, old-growth forests, sweeping mountain ridges and loads and loads of wildlife. Black bear, lynx, wolverines, mountain goats, wolves, elk, moose, otters and even the occasional wandering grizzly call this place home.

The Great Burn has been living in ‘Wilderness purgatory’ for over 40 years: ‘Recommended’, but not ‘Designated.’ The vagaries, namely gridlock, of politics have prevented the Great Burn from receiving full Wilderness designation. Fortunately, while awaiting its ultimate fate, the Great Burn has largely been managed by the Nez-Perce Clearwater National Forest (Idaho) and Lolo National Forest (Montana) as a Wilderness Area: non-mechanized travel only. Unfortunately, all that could change. 

As a part of the current forest planning process, the Nez-Perce Clearwater National Forest is considering opening up sections of the Great Burn Recommended Wilderness to snowmobiling. This doesn’t concern me from a user conflict perspective: I witnessed no other signs of skiing and know of very few people that make an effort to do so in the Great Burn. Rather, it concerns me from a wildlife perspective. The Great Burn Recommended Wilderness is home to many sensitive species that, under the best conditions, struggle to eke out a living during the winter months. Wolverines and lynx, two threatened species, continue to struggle in the face of a changing climate. The native mountain goat population in the Great Burn is in decline. The added stress of loud machines moving through the subalpine is not insignificant. My Great Burn travels last winter demonstrated that todays snow bikes are incredibly nimble and capable. Places where snowmobiles hesitate to go are easily accessed by snow bikes, further reducing zones where animals can seek winter shelter. Studies have shown that snowmobile use in critical habitats negatively impacts wildlife by straining animals that are already resource deficient.

I have nothing against snowmobiling. In fact, I used one to legally access trailheads in the Great Burn via Forest Service roads. In addition to being great tools for winter travel, I recognize how fun they can be. This is not an anti-snowmobiling letter. I am not advocating to take anything away from currently legal snowmobiling terrain. Rather, I am advocating for retaining the primitive status of the roadless Great Burn Recommended Wilderness. There are so few of these unprotected pristine roadless habitats remaining. It is difficult to imagine regretting the decision to protect the Great Burn in 100 years. A protected Great Burn will ensure that future generations of hunters, anglers, hikers, skiers and backpackers will be able to enjoy the rich experience of recreating in an intact ecosystem. 

We have the opportunity to add our voice to the forest planning process as forest managers collect information from the public. The outcome of this forest planning process will inform the next 20 to 30 years of recreation in the Great Burn. The future of the Great Burn Recommended Wilderness is in our hands. This is our opportunity to make prudent decisions about where and how recreation takes place on our public lands. 

PLEASE consider sharing your thoughts with the Nez-Perce Clearwater National Forest team via public comment (see below). The process only take a few minutes and carries enormous weight: the National Forest Service reads this stuff. COMMENTS ARE DUE BY APRIL 20TH!


A few talking points to share, should you want a prompt to get started:

  • The Forest Service should continue to protect the entire 151,874-acre Hoodoo Roadless Area (Great Burn) as Recommended Wilderness in the revised forest plan.
  • The Forest Service should not allow snowmobile use in any Recommended Wilderness areas. This use is not compatible with protecting wilderness characteristics or potential for designation within the National Wilderness Preservation System.
  • Any part of this blog!




Craig Christopherson(non-registered)
Please keep snowmobiles and snow bikes out of the Great Burn Roadless Area so it may retain its Wilderness characteristics into the future.
No comments posted.

January February March April May June July August September October (3) November (1) December
January (1) February March (1) April (1) May June July August September (1) October (1) November December (1)
January (2) February March (1) April May June July August September October November December