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Debating the future of the Pacific Northwest Trail

by Duncan Adams Western News
| March 13, 2020 11:30 AM

Jerry Bennett’s rebuttal began with a reference to promises made and promises broken.

He distributed copies of a brochure published years ago by entities that included the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It reported that “Timber sales and access to public lands should not be affected by [grizzly] bear presence.”

Bennett, a Lincoln County commissioner, spoke during a Libby Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon focused on the pros and cons of re-routing a regional section of the Pacific Northwest Trail. He and his colleagues on the board of commissioners oppose the re-route, partly because they believe the alternative route could create additional restrictions in the Kootenai National Forest on timber sales in areas abutting the trail.

“We don’t favor a re-designation of the trail at this point,” Bennett said.

His talk at the March 11 luncheon at The Shed restaurant followed a presentation by the Yaak Valley Forest Council touting the potential benefits of a re-route.

Robyn King, executive director of the Yaak council, began by saying the alternative route proposed by the council is meant to be a suggestion that can stimulate discussion and collaboration.

“We’re trying to find common ground,” she said.

King said the existing route, which passes through the Yaak Valley, was never the subject of a feasibility study or environmental impact statement.

She and Jane Jacoby, conservation director for the Yaak Valley Forest Council, emphasized that the trail’s current route passes through miles of a landscape considered core habitat for grizzlies.

King has said that once use of the current route by hikers reaches a “high use” threshold established by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee for such habitat, the Forest Service would be obligated to create additional core habitat in that section of the Kootenai National Forest.

That would almost certainly require road closures, she said.

King said the current route passes through about 27 miles of core grizzly habitat in four “bear management units,” a reality she said would compel the Forest Service to close 27 miles of roads in that area if the high use threshold was reached.

“This will place severe limitations on current access — an unintended consequence that legislators and local officials may not yet be considering,” King said. “Closing the few roads left in the Yaak isn’t good for our recreation partners or our timber partners.”

The alternative, Jacoby said, would mean restricting use of the trail with permits, which would be required of both through-hikers and residents.

Forest Service officials have declined to comment about the proposed re-route because of a lawsuit related to the Pacific Northwest Trail filed in August against the agency by the Yaak Valley Forest Council.

“I’m sorry but because of current litigation we won’t be able to comment on these topics,” said Becky Blanchard, Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail Administrator for the Forest Service.

The Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem is believed to have a population of about 50 or 60 grizzlies, with roughly half of the bears in the Cabinet Mountains and the remainder in the Yaak. Wildlife officials have worried about a lack of genetic diversity in this population and have added 20 bears — captured elsewhere — since 1990.

Grizzly bears in the Lower 48 continue to be listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

The Yaak council has long said that hikers following the Pacific Northwest Trail’s current route through core grizzly habitat threaten a comparatively small and vulnerable population of grizzlies because of the potential for human-bear conflict and displacement of the bears.

King also is a member of the Governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council. During a Feb. 26 council meeting in Libby, King asked grizzly bear expert Chris Servheen for his thoughts about a hiking trail that passes through a landscape considered core grizzly habitat.

Servheen, a wildlife biologist and former grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said hiking in core grizzly habitat isn’t necessarily a problem as long as hikers know what to do and what not to do in such habitat.

“Do it carefully,” Servheen said. “Do it with knowledge about how to be safe.”

He acknowledged that hiking activity might displace grizzlies but not for a long distance or prolonged period.

King has said that “pushing large numbers of people into the same small area where female grizzly bears with cubs spend the summer is not what is highest and best for recovery of the Cabinet-Yaak Ecosystem grizzly population.”

The 1,200-mile Pacific Northwest Trail, established in 2009, travels between Glacier National Park and Olympic National Park. Portions of the trail remain unmarked and through hiking can require orienteering skills with a compass, a GPS device and map.

The Pacific Northwest Trail Association advises, “Carrying multiple navigation tools and having the knowledge to use them is essential on the PNT. Even experienced backpackers are surprised by how challenging it can be to traverse compared to longer established National Scenic Trails.”

As a result of such challenges and a comparatively low profile, the trail isn’t heavily traveled by through hikers at this stage in its development. The trail association estimates about 75 people completed a through hike in 2019.

Jeff Kish, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Trail Association, based in Sedro-Wooley, Washington, recently expressed opposition to the re-route proposed by the Yaak Valley Forest Council. He described it as a “lose, lose, lose, especially for the hikers.”

Kish said he traveled much of the roughly 160-mile alternative route last year, following maps and GPS coordinates, and determined that a large portion traveled Forest Service roads, not trails. He noted that National Scenic Trails are supposed to be primarily non-motorized.

The Yaak council has countered that portions of the existing route also travel Forest Service roads.

Bennett and county commission colleagues Mark Peck and Josh Letcher, in a recent letter to U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, expressed “strong opposition to the southern re-route proposed by the Yaak Valley Forest Council.”

A recent gathering by the council at Cabinet Mountain Brewing in Libby was attended by regional representatives for Daines and U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana.

Both of the representatives said they were simply collecting information about the issues for their bosses.

Trail relocation, which could bring hikers closer to businesses in Libby and Troy, would require Congressional approval.

The letter from Lincoln County commissioners reported that the board’s opposition is linked to several concerns. Commissioners suggested that “the economic benefits to Troy and Libby are greatly inflated and lack a comprehensive, validated study.”

In addition, the board said they have seen no peer-reviewed study supporting the theory that the current route would cause significant impacts to grizzly bears.

“Casual observation of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, including Glacier National Park, shows a recovered and growing bear population. The number of hikers in these areas are magnitudes more than the trail currently experiences in the Yaak, or will ever see in the future,” commissioners wrote.

The board said the southern route proposed by the Yaak Valley Forest Council “moves the trail from already heavily restricted forest lands to arguably the best suitable timber base on the forest.” Commissioners said they will not support any re-route that increases restricted acres, only routes that are neutral or decrease those acres.

State Rep. Steve Gunderson, State Rep. Neil Durham and State Sen. Mike Cuffe also have expressed opposition to the re-route as proposed by the Yaak Valley Forest Council. A letter to the editor penned by the three regional Republicans argues that “the tiny economic gains they tout are far outweighed by huge impacts of additional loss of a vast swath of prime timber-producing lands.”

King said during the chamber luncheon that legislation defining a re-route could include provisions protecting access to timber.

The Yaak Valley Forest Council has said that their advocacy for the re-route isn’t solely about protecting bears. The alternative offers other advantages, the council has said.

It features more peaks, the council says, providing high elevation experiences in the Salish Mountains and Cabinet Mountains. It encounters the scenic Kootenai River Valley, the council says.

The alternative route would diverge from the existing trail south of Rexford and would travel east of Lake Koocanusa and south of U.S. Highway 2, providing access for through hikers to Libby and Troy, towns where the backpackers could resupply, rest, shower and launder clothes, the council says.

Jacoby said it seems the current route doesn’t yield many economic benefits for Yaak because hikers face a detour of 14 miles round trip to reach the small community.

But a group of Yaak residents at the chamber luncheon said they appreciate the hikers who visit.

“This is a big deal to have these few people come to our community,” said Sandy Beder-Miller.

She said many Yaak residents would like there to be a public meeting in the community to talk about the trail. Lincoln County commissioners also favor such a gathering.