Grizzlies and Bushwacks: How Trails Come to Be
Dec 18, 2015
If you had the chance to save the habitat of a threatened species, would you do it? When Brad Smith was posed with that question, he didn’t hesitate to respond. “The Pacific Northwest Trail passes through the heart of vital grizzly habitat in the Selkirk Mountains. I’m excited to find a route that minimizes impact to their habitat and reduces human caused mortality while still providing for the recreation and scenic quality of the trail, ” explains Smith. He is searching for a new route for the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) as part of his duties on the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail Advisory Council.
In August 2015, Smith and 23 other volunteers were specially chosen by Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack to sit on the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail Advisory Council. The purpose of the council is to provide recommendations to the Secretary about matters relating to the administration and management of the Pacific Northwest Trail. Specifically, members will advise on trail uses, establishing a trail corridor and prioritizing future projects. Each council member represents a specific interest for the Council and they come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some work in conservation, others recreation; some speak for the voice of agriculture and tourism; but together they will be working towards a completed Pacific Northwest Trail.
Smith sits on the council as a representative for wildlife organizations. It’s a fitting role, as one of his biggest personal and professional passions is protecting wildlife habitats. As the North Idaho Director of the Idaho Conservation League, Smith works to protect forests, clean water, wildlife and fish in the Panhandle region of Idaho. He came to this role as a hiker, first struck by the majesty of wildlife. “In college I saw woodland caribou in the Selkirks for the first time,” recalls Smith. “As they are the only population of woodland caribou in the lower 48, that interaction really struck me and it has influenced my views about conservation. I try to make sure my recreation interests are balanced with the needs of wildlife.”
Smith’s path to the Advisory Council was circuitous. “The Idaho Conservation League had a wilderness bill in the 2009 Public Lands Omnibus Legislation (the same legislation that designated the PNT). We weren’t paying too much attention to what other pieces were in the Act, and I didn’t learn about the trail until a few years later,” says Smith. At that point, he connected with PNTA Director of Trail Operations and fellow Advisory Council member Jon Knechtel, and as they say ‘the rest is history’. “Through my work with the Idaho Conservation League and my recreational interests, I have become very familiar with the landscape of the Idaho Panhandle. I realized that this knowledge, combined with my great working relationships with local land management authorities could be of use to the Council. We have much to do, and I’m excited about being part of the process, ” explains Smith.
When Smith mentions that the Council has much to do, he refers to the unfinished nature of the trail. Like many other National Scenic Trails, the PNT is not yet complete. Ever a work in progress, it is not unusual for the PNT to have many sections of trail that will, in time, be moved. Idaho represents a unique challenge, in that much of the trail through the State will change. Currently the trail follows an existing trail system from Montana one third of the way into Idaho. The trail system allows for motorized recreation and is potentially dangerous for PNT users. As the trails are some of the few in the region that allow for motorized use, closing them to off-road vehicles is not an option. That section of trail is soon followed by one of the most notorious pieces of the PNT. “The area of trail passing through the Selkirks can be extremely dangerous,” says Smith. “There are 4-5 miles of intense bushwhacking, and vegetation so thick that it would be extremely dangerous for a hiker to get lost or injured there.”
The danger of getting lost in the Selkirk Mountains is not the only hazard faced by PNT hikers. The Panhandle of Idaho is home to two listed populations of grizzly bear. The populations have relatively small numbers when compared with the Glacier or Yellowstone populations. The primary source of mortality for these bears is human caused mortality; they are mistaken for black bear during hunting season, or become habituated to humans and pose a threat to themselves and people. Smith sees a solution to the problem that will bring hikers into safer territory. “I have a route in mind that I’ll be presenting to the Council to move it out of that section of the Selkirks. The suggestion would bring the trail south and out of grizzly country.There is an easier way to cross the Selkirk Crest that will also bring the trail closer to communities. This means less hitchhiking to trail towns for hikers, but equally gorgeous views,” says Smith.
Smith recognizes that re-routing the trail through the Selkirks is just one of many tasks faced by the Advisory Council. “The management plan is extremely important, and something that we’ll all be part of, but I most look forward to the process of rolling out maps, choosing routes and building tread. It’s really gratifying to work with your hands, especially when you are using traditional tools,” Smith says. “The PNT is the only National Scenic Trail that runs through Idaho. Being part of the council gives me the opportunity to make a difference in something big.”
The PNT passes through three States, three National Parks, seven National Forests and countless parcels of other federal, state and private lands. Involvement in the Advisory Council process presents the public with the opportunity to have a say in their public lands. Advisory Council members hold two-year terms, and applications are accepted on a rolling basis for 2017-2019 terms. If you don’t have time to serve as a council member, consider attending a meeting or sending in written or oral comments. For more information on how to get involved, visit the US Forest Service website. The next meeting of the Advisory Council will be on May 4-5, 2016 from 8AM to 5PM PST at the Northwest Maritime Center in Port Townsend, WA. Meetings are open to the public, with time each day for people to talk to the Council.
Samantha Hale was the Marketing and Communications Manager for the Pacific Northwest Trail Association. She has never seen a grizzly or caribou in the wild but hopes to change that this year. Have questions about the Advisory Council? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or (360) 854-9415.
Please add a comment
So do PNT hikers represent such a threat to the grizzly bear population that it's worth relocating the trail? I'm extremely doubtful. Has this assumption been verified by biologists from US F&W or state DNR's?
I'm interested to see the alternate route that may be proposed. Terrain of equal quality is not immediately obvious to me when I look at the maps. It'd be a shame for this section of the PNT to turn into a dud from its current status as a highlight.
I think that you raise some important questions that the PNT Advisory Council is grappling with. Indeed, the PNT is not well used at this point in time, but we need to look to the future. Through the management planning process and location of the trail corridor, we have a unique opportunity to create an experience that is special and protective of the environment at the same time. I won't profess to have all the answers right now, but I think we will find them as the process moves forward.
There will be many opportunities for hikers to weigh in along the way. I anticipate that there will be opportunities to scout some of the potential route relocations. I invite you to join me in Idaho to do some scouting and also to provide input during the planning process.
As a thru-hiker of the PNT the highlight of the experience for me was a balance between a wild hiking experience and the lack of people. I was able to move quietly across a huge chunk of America bothering few or being bothered by few.
Of the three criteria determined by the USFS in the 1980 feasibility study ("most scenic", "least cost", "minimal environmental impact") I am of the opinion that continuing the vision of PNT pioneer Ron Strickland and keeping focus on "most scenic" is the most fitting for the this particular National Scenic Trail.
I echo Mr. Skurka's sentiments above regarding the purported pressure on wildlife. His commentary regarding the volume of hikers in Glacier National and how spectacular a job the NPS has done in balancing that activity among one of the largest populations of wild animals in the lower 48 is hard to deny.
I look forward to continually following the work of the Advisory Council as they work together for compromise, all the while keeping the original vision this trail has held proudly for nearly 40 years.
I will supply my comment here in letter form to the PNNST Advisory Committee for placement on public record.
Sam Haraldson, 2007 thru-hiker