Mountains, like people, are largely ignored if they haven’t achieved at least some degree of celebrity status, and the Coeur d’Alene Mountain Range of Idaho and Montana, lacking that status, has been more than simply ignored; it has been severely exploited for decades.
This triangular shaped, heavily forested range extends from Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille southwest to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, south to St. Joe, Idaho and southeast to the majestic Bitterroot Mountains of Montana. It occupies a large amount of the geography of north Idaho and a swath of over a hundred miles through northwestern Montana, and is managed (or at times mis-managed) in pieces, by the administrators of four National Forests: the Lolo, the Kanitsu, the Coeur d’Alene and the St. Joe National Forests.
In the northeastern area of Idaho these beautiful mountains suffered decades of extreme abuse from the mining interests in the areas around the mining towns of Kellog, Wallace and Mullan. I remember traveling through that area many times back in the ‘50’s, and seeing the mountainsides displaying mile after mile of nothing but tree skeletons; trees killed from the smelter emissions alone. The small streams through the area were green/blue in color from the mineral waste from the mines and were devoid of all life. Most of the mines themselves are closed now and a huge restoration project has been underway for some time with a great deal of improvement; another century and a half and, well, just maybe…
Just down-slope from Thompson Pass on the west side of the range, the devastating results of large-scale placer mining can still be seen today in the huge piles of barren river rock scarring the creek bottom around Murray Idaho.
Sadly, Montana has been only slightly less unkind to the Coeur d’Alene’s: the exploitation and damage here along the northern slopes has been largely caused by poorly controlled or uncontrolled logging. In the photo that follows the remains of a few very old clear-cuts can be plainly seen on the lower slopes: they are at least a hundred years away from full recovery. The numbers 5 through 8 in the photo are difficult to read, but they are the four lower red marks and they point out these areas.
Way back inside the Coeur d’Alene’s just across the Clark Fork River from my home there is a 35 square mile area that has long been managed as non-motorized. There are no roads and only a few trails. Besides beautiful mountains peaks and heavy forest, this small area provides the headwaters for 10 creeks and contains two small lakes. It is prime habitat for deer, elk, moose, cougar, lynx, wolves, black bear and bighorn sheep. Mountain goats, wolverines and Grizzly bears are also a likely possibility there.
The new Lolo National Forest Draft Plan opens this entire area to snowmobile use and opens a large portion of two of the creeks (upper Cameron and Lynx Creeks) to timber production and off road vehicle use, essentially stripping the area of its existing Forest plan protections. I and many conservation-minded Montanans oppose this plan and I intend to be active in getting it changed.
In two to three months (when the present 10 feet of snow up there has mostly melted) I will be making a three-day backpack trip to visit the four peaks in the photo. Again, the numbers 1 through 4 are difficult to read, but the peaks from right to left are: Sunset (6355 ft), Sacagawea (6612 ft), Cherry (7352 ft) and Penrose (7232 ft). (These are not high elevation peaks, but they are nearly a mile closer to the sky than the valley floor along the Clark Fork.) There is an old road (closed) that passes near the first two and a trail (sort of) from Sacajawea to Penrose. Cherry has no road or trail and I’m just hoping I can figure out how to reach it after I spend a night atop Penrose. My topographic maps show there is a pretty good chance of being able to reach it.
Upon my return I shall write some stories about the country up there and illustrate them with plenty of photos. Since that wild country is seldom visited by humans, perhaps providing a different perspective can give the 99.99% who have never been there at least some idea of what it’s like and what some of the impact of the changes would be. Hopefully these stories will help gain more public support for keeping the area non-motorized. These mountains have suffered enough.