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  September/October 1997 Features:
Hold Nothing Back
Heat Wave
Pockets of Paradise
Field Guide
Ways & Means
Good Going
Way to Go
Hearth & Home
Lay of the Land
Home Front
Natural Resources
Last Words

Sierra Magazine
Hold Nothing Back

You don't need a fortune to defend your favorite places--just paper, a pen, and a passion for the wild.

By Rick Bass

For eight years now I've been fooling with this letter-writing campaign to protect as wilderness the last few roadless areas in Montana's Yaak Valley, where I live. I send out two or three mailings a year to several hundred people and pass out brochures and petitions at my book readings and signings, at weddings, and in parking lots.

Some writers answer their mail, some don't. I do worse than answer mine. I put the names and addresses of correspondents into an address book. Six months later, those letter-writers receive one of my newsletters and a note informing them that they've been drafted. "Dear Friends of and Letter-Writers for the Yaak Valley," the letter begins.

The Yaak Valley, in Montana's northwest corner, has the magic of two places: the dense, giant rainforests of the Pacific Northwest and the mountains of the northern Rockies. We're more like an indigenous people up here than anywhere else I've seen in the Lower 48. We're trappers, loggers, mushroom pickers, tree planters, log-home builders. Two schoolteachers, three preachers, two bars-at the edge of what is still wild, still wilderness.

Shy things live back in these woods and along the river: great gray owls, wolves and wolverines, moose and black bears, grizzlies and bald eagles, golden eagles and bull trout, and sometimes woodland caribou. I believe grassroots support can save the Yaak's wildlands, that a logging-based culture, a woods-products culture, can be preserved, even strengthened here as well, and that the ravaged lands of the Yaak can be healed.

Twenty years ago there were few roads in the whole Yaak Valley and 471,000 acres of wilderness, though none of it protected as such for future generations. Today thousands of miles of logging roads crisscross the valley, and still not one acre is protected. Montana's senators and representative have shown no plans or inclinations to change this. Especially galling is the fact that we--you and I--have paid for many of those roads.

I do not want any more of this kind of loss for me or my children, or our children. They are our children, all of them, and this is the diminishing world that we are allowing to be prepared for them. It's a world in which there is not just violence against the land and the wilderness, but violence, confusion, and anger driving nearly everything--violence in the selling of goods and services, in humor, in entertainment--a violence of the spirit.

Now I've gone and done it: I've gotten all stern and pious, all calamitous. Our largest flaw as environmentalists is--understandably--an inability to lighten up in the face of disaster. The Perpetual Scowl: it lost an election for Bob Dole, and it threatens to lose the earth for us. Or rather, our place on the earth.

But in our letters to elected officials and editors of newspapers and magazines and in conversations with both strangers and friends, I notice a most encouraging trend: we are discussing things of the spirit. It would be easy for us to talk about open-road densities, arsenic levels, nitrate levels and the like, for we have science as well as economics on our side. But I see us discussing these issues from new levels of the heart, depths that we have always felt, but have sometimes been hesitant to articulate, as if wondering, are we the only ones who feel this way?

Our letters and conversations, our grassroots passions, must increasingly speak along the lines of poetry. Wallace Stegner's phrase for the West was "the geography of hope." Where once our scowling, brooding faces drove away those who would help fight for the earth, now our conversations must include those who previously turned away. We are going to have a greener world, and we are going to turn big industry around, and the people will rule the government one day again soon, rather than big business ruling both the government and the people--and, yes, it's going to take everything we've got to make it so. But so what? What else are our lives but a slow, delicious rot, in which we give everything we've got back to those around us, and those coming afterward?

In the early 1990s an environmental impact statement elicited 160,000 letters supporting the reintroduction of wolves south of here in Yellowstone National Park, and now wolves roam freely there. I'm surprised at what a small number that is. I've personally sent almost 10,000 letters for Yaak wilderness, and I know that others have sent at least twice that many. The postage for 160,000 letters is only about $50,000, which is shocking: in Montana you can buy a good senator for only slightly more than that.

In 1995 I felt ashamed of my state legislators, and the message they sent to big industry and the rest of the world. They voted to lower the state's water-quality standards. Later polls showed that two-thirds of the population opposed the measure.

When bills like that are passed, or when a majority of Montanans and Americans don't want new logging roads and clearcuts in our last roadless areas and yet the logging continues, I get discouraged. But then I remember who and what we are fighting for, and I regain my energy. If 160,000 letters won't do it, we'll get 170,000. And if two-thirds won't do it, we'll get three-quarters. We will save both the woods and the human communities around those woods.

I think we all realize the battle has been stepped up to a new level. Each day we have to ask ourselves and our friends and neighbors whether we are willing to accept what we are allowing to happen to our wildlands. The way to keep writing letters, with a passion so intense as to threaten to burst the paper into incandescent flame when opened and read, is simply to remember the magic of the woods. The question is not how to avoid burnout, but rather, how to burn hotter--more purely--and how to give ourselves up to loving the woods, and life, and the earth. I think once we make the commitment to hold nothing back, to give all we have to the next generation, some of our scowls and angst will disappear. We will win the woods back, and the magic that was, and is, our birthright.

Rick Bass has written three collections of short stories and novellas, including The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, to be published this fall by Houghton Mifflin. His nonfiction works include Winter, The Book of Yaak, and The Lost Grizzlies.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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