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  March/April 2000 Features:
Salmon's Second Coming
One Man's Wilderness
High Noon in Cattle Country
Inside Sierra
Ways & Means
Lay of the Land
Food for Thought
Bulletin: News for Members
Last Words

Sierra Magazine
One Man's Wilderness

This is rule number one for Hiking with Howie: Don't get too close. A gangly and earnest young guy named Christopher made that mistake a mile down the trail. Wolke didn't exactly bark at him; what he said was, "Please. Don't. Hike. So. Close. Behind me." He said it in the manner of a long fuse burning evenly but inexorably toward a very large stick of dynamite.

With Wolke in the lead and Olsen bringing up the rear, we hiked nine miles that first day, entering the Selway- Bitterroot Wilderness and climbing quickly through a thick forest of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, and western red cedar into higher country dotted with Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, and lodgepole pine. Wolke identified the trees, the flowers ("That spiky white puffball is bear grass. It's actually a lily, and bears don't eat it"), the birds ("Hear that—'free beer, free beer'? Olive-sided flycatcher"). We made camp next to the I Can't Tell You River. In the morning—cold, clear, gorgeous—Wolke blew reveille on his harmonica and euphemistically announced that we'd soon encounter "some interesting navigational possibilities."

The trees thinned, dirt gave way to snow, the trail disappeared, and we slipped and slid and slithered through a narrow pass before entering a moonscape of rocky peaks and ice-rimmed lakes. We camped on the ridge that second night, got blasted by 40-mile-an-hour winds, and elected to lay over a day; in the morning we scrambled up through snow and bouldery scree and bagged an 8,500-foot peak. Below and all around us, rolling into the horizon in waves of gray and green, lay an expanse of forest and ridge that reached as far as the heart could bear to imagine.

This was a small corner of the Greater Salmon–Selway Ecosystem, which comprises some 40,000 square miles of wildlands—an area, as Wolke pointed out, that is roughly the size of Ohio "but much more pleasant." Looking southwest we could see the wild Selway River Gorge; on its far side, drained by the Main and Middle Forks of the Salmon River, began the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area, the largest designated wilderness in the Lower 48. Beyond the Frank were the Gospel Hump and Hells Canyon wilderness areas; farther south, the Sawtooth; and, in and around them, at least 10 million acres of roadless wilds.

"This is an ecosystem no one knows is here," Wolke said. "It's far bigger than Greater Yellowstone. It has thirty-four roadless areas exceeding a hundred thousand acres. But threaten Yellowstone with a mine and Bill Clinton shows up and shuts it down. Do it here and nobody knows."

Until Wolke took up the cause of the Greater Salmon Selway Ecosystem, no one had given voice to what now seems obvious: This massive checkerboard of roadless areas and protected wilderness is a biological whole. It includes the largest temperate forest in the continental United States, some 90 percent of which has never been logged; spectacular granitic peaks and glacial tarns; high, dry, sagebrush-filled basin and range; deep, undammed gorges of the Salmon and Selway river basins. All this makes it prime "big tracks" country, perhaps the last best habitat in the Lower 48 for wolf, bear, elk, moose, puma, wolverine, marten, lynx, and fisher—wide-ranging, top-of-the-food-chain carnivores that survive by spreading themselves thinly over a broad landscape.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that the roadless areas are controlled mainly by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, and that a lot of them are scheduled for logging and mining.

That will change if a visionary bill now working its way through Congress ever becomes law. The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA), would protect a 26-million-acre web of wildlands with the Greater Salmon– Selway Ecosystem at its hub. Sponsored by Representatives Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), it is the first wilderness bill based on the biological health of an entire ecosystem rather than on recreational and scenic values.

It would protect some 6.5 million acres of migration corridors that connect five major ecosystems: Greater Salmon-Selway, Bob Marshall–Glacier National Park; Greater Yellowstone, the Cabinet-Yaak-Selkirk roadless area in northern Montana, and Hells Canyon in eastern Oregon. The bill also contains a pilot program that would rehabilitate nearly a million acres that have been destroyed by roadbuilding, logging, grazing, and mining. In other words, NREPA is about wilderness as habitat rather than playground. If passed, it would make real, on a spectacular scale, the vision Wolke has been pushing for most of his adult life.

Big if.

The Sierra Club supports the bill, but, says Larry Mehlhaff of the Club's Northern Plains office, "this is a long-term campaign. We believe that eventually those areas will be protected as wilderness, but like any vision, it's going to take a while." Bob Clark of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies (which has played a central role in crafting and selling NREPA) says that even though the bill has 82 cosponsors thus far, "that's not enough to push it through. We need to reach representatives of the western states, particularly the Northern Rockies, and the sort of moderate Republicans who have traditionally been conservationists but have fallen off the bandwagon in the last fifteen years."

Of some immediate comfort is the likelihood that the majority of the NREPA lands will be included in the Clinton administration's recent initiative to gain protection for up to 60 million acres of roadless national forest. (See "Bill Clinton, Roadless Warrior," page 18.) "That's a great thing, and it really helps to raise awareness of the roadless issue," says Mehlhaff. "But it's an interim move. It's an administrative action, and though it would be difficult to do, it can be overturned by the next president. We want full wilderness designation as soon as possible. Only Congress can do that."

Standing on that ridge, I saw postcard scenery; Howie Wolke saw habitat and duplicity. For example, wolves are thriving in the Greater Salmon–Selway. "They were never really extinct here," said Wolke. "The government won't admit that. They 'reintroduced' them at the same time they did in Yellowstone, but it was really an augmentation of an existing population." He's convinced, too, that grizzly inhabit the area. The last official sighting, a kill, was in 1956, but Wolke said that he recently spotted a den by helicopter.

A Forest Service packer reported a 1998 sighting, he said, that "the government basically buried in its files." (A confirmed sighting would undermine a federal proposal to reintroduce grizzlies on an "experimental nonexploratory" basis, which provides far less protection than the Endangered Species Act.) The Greater Salmon–Selway, he noted, is closer to Glacier and Yellowstone than either one of them is to the other. "If we connect the ecosystems, the Northern Rockies can probably support two thousand grizzly bears." That's probably twice the current population, at least. "Two thousand griz!" he said. "Imagine that!"

We sat on top of the ridge for an hour or so, locked in the heavens, contemplating griz and wolves and feeling both very small and a part of something very big indeed. Thick gray clouds scudded in from the west. Half a mile to the southeast lay a small lake tucked into the flanks of a neighboring peak. The lake was not on any maps—a clue, perhaps, to just how wild the Big Wild is—and though access might be difficult, it wouldn't be impossible. "You could climb right in through there," Wolke began, and then he smiled and stopped. You could see the wheels turning. We boot-skied down to camp and, giddy and flushed with adrenaline, climbed up and did it again.

While our snowy descent from the ridge the next day might fairly be described as harrowing—Wolke shepherding his clients from boulder stand to tree island, lowering their packs by rope, setting up like a linebacker at the bottom of the odd ice chute to snag free-fallers—it was nonetheless exhilarating, and the deeper we pushed into the backcountry, the more relaxed Wolke became. He's a good cook and a fine raconteur—essential qualities in a guide—and though his knowledge of the area was obviously immense, it was less imposed than shared. "Howie's a wilderness person through and through," says Bob Clark. "That, and a big-time good guy. He's inspired an awful lot of people, me among them."

Wolke's clients seem to agree. Though he calls himself a misanthrope, you don't stay in a business like his for 20 years unless you like people and—more to the point—they like you. Christopher had read Wolke's book and was an unabashed admirer. Deb, a businesswoman and mother of two, was back for her third trip with Big Wild Adventures. This was the first backpacking trip for Rick, who makes his living building theater sets in Tennessee, and the second for John, a financial editor from Manhattan. Neither had heard of Earth First!, Edward Abbey, or, for that matter, Wolke himself, but when they started looking for someone to take them into the Northern Rockies, all fingers—including those of other outfitters—pointed toward the only guide service in the Rockies that specializes exclusively in backpacking.

Most of the crew were doing well thus far; spirits were high, and laughter rang out from the campfire morning and night. But John was not having an easy time—his backpack hurt, he had trouble sleeping, and traveling over snow unnerved him. Still, he was loving it. "This is the best camping trip I've ever been on," he said one night. "I could never see this sort of country on my own, and I've had more quality conversation this week than I have in a year with my friends at home. Howie's passion for wilderness just infects you."

One of Wolke's friends describes him as "an East Coast Jew who has turned himself into a genuine Montana redneck. But don't tell him I said that or he'll punch me in the nose." Wolke said that when he was growing up, in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, "the only thing I ever wanted to be was a forest ranger." That dream died in a computer-modeling class at the University of New Hampshire, where he was studying forestry: "I didn't see the point of computer modeling, and anyway I couldn't do it." Announcing, "This is BS," he stomped out of class and wound up with a degree in conservation biology.

From there, it was a short step to the profound conviction that the biggest evil in the national forests is the Forest Service itself, that the agency is devoted to one purpose only, and that is to cut down trees. "The people in the pickle suits," he calls its employees, or "the Freddies," after an old movie in which Fred McMurray plays a hapless ranger. He recites Forest Service doublespeak with perverse glee (clearcuts are "temporary meadows," timber sales "vegetation management systems"), and he successfully challenges timber sales regularly, both on paper and in person. When Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck visited Montana to look into the agency's decision to allow a key section of the Salmon-Selway to be clearcut, Wolke found himself left off the list of conservationists invited to the meeting. "They tried to stop us at the door," he said. "Right. We just walked in and sat down at the table." As far as he's concerned, "They've had a century to prove they can manage small-scale logging and all they've proven is they can't. Two-thirds of the national forests are roaded and developed. At what point do you say enough is enough?"

Dave Campbell is district ranger of the West Fork office of the Bitterroot National Forest, which includes a significant chunk of the Greater Salmon–Selway Ecosystem. He has often butted heads with Wolke. Nevertheless, he says, "Howie Wolke is a top-notch professional outfitter. When it comes to things like client safety and minimum-impact camping, he's as good as it gets." Politics is another matter. As a rule, Forest Service personnel won't comment on the sort of clashes they regularly have with Wolke, but Campbell does allow that Wolke "feels that any time you have stumps or logs you've precluded the possibility of that area gaining wilderness designation, and he tends to come in with all guns blazing."

As we worked our way down into the basin our view encompassed thousands of square miles, but other than ourselves there was no sign of people. Not, that is, until we broke for lunch. While the rest of us watched a bald eagle gyre up and away from the lake, Wolke studied the trail we'd carved from the ridge. Five very human bodies were hurrying toward us in a way that might best be described as purposeful. It was the only time I saw Wolke get a look in his eyes that could be called panic. A one-syllable expletive was his only comment, that and, "Let's go."

Double time, he led us so deeply into the bush that no one could follow. We slushed along the lake and made camp below it. "People," he groused after the fire was going and supper on. It had the force of an epithet, and it set him off on a tirade that indicted politicians, Boy Scouts ("Every experience I have had with them has been horrible"), the Forest Service (of course), and pulp mills. "They should be built right in the middle of cities. Let people live in the mess they make."

But wouldn't this force them into the suburbs and beyond—into the very habitat, in fact, that he so values?

"You're right," he said, without hesitation. Then he sighed, deeply. "But sometimes I just have to say things like that."

That afternoon Christopher and I caught five trout for dinner, the biggest of them about 16 inches. Wolke grilled them expertly and we ate with gusto. "Best part of fishing," he said. "I'm no purist. I'll use grubs, worms, bugs, flashing metal. Whatever it takes." (He hunts as well, but he's no fan of the National Rifle Association: "They are absolutely on the wrong side of every conservation issue.") In the morning we were off early, following the creek, a tumbling, explosive cataract swollen by snowmelt. It was a good couple of hours before we could find the actual trail, and Wolke got himself a workout, nursing shaky clients over the creek on deadfall trunks, carrying their packs, clearing a path. By midday, though, we were below the snow. We crossed the creek once more, on a log that had been nicely flattened and notched with a chainsaw.

"Nice little bridge," Wolke said. I pointed out that it was a Forest Service bridge. "Yes, and a fine duplication of effort it is," he said, indicating various logs that had fallen into the creek above and below it. "Nature has already done a pretty good job." Never give an inch.

We worked our way into a dense old-growth forest of spruce and Douglas fir, its floor thick with moose and elk tracks. "They're watching us," Wolke said. I dismissed this as sentimental, but as we set up camp everyone spoke in low tones and whispers, and before dinner Wolke glassed an elk a few hundred yards up an avalanche gully, still as stone, indeed watching us. Later, I heard a loud splashing in the creek—a bull moose. "Some of the biggest paddles I've ever seen," Wolke said. Then he exploded in laughter, very much like a kid who can't believe what he found under the Christmas tree. In the morning the moose walked right through camp. Wolke was beaming. "Good trip," he said, reeling off the list of big-track-makers we'd seen: moose, elk, mule deer, marten, coyote. "Good trip."

At breakfast, Olsen described her dream vacation: bicycling in Italy, eating and drinking well every night. Wolke's eyes glazed over. "I'm sorry," he said, "but all I hear is, 'No wilderness.' " Then we were on the trail. It was our last morning, and we had a long hike out, at least ten miles. Wolke set a strong pace, but the nearer we drew to civilization the more tired he appeared, and at a rest break he confessed to feeling the 200-odd trips he's led over the past 20 years: chronic tendinitis in the hips, some knee and back damage, some broken bones. The aches and pains are a little harder to get over, the paperwork unbearable. "Maybe it's time to cut back," he said.

I took him at his word until we picked up the unmistakable sign of a pileated woodpecker—fist-size chunks of wood blasted off a Doug fir snag by what has to be the Sawzall of birds—and he was fired up again: "Sixty percent of the life in these forests depends on dead trees! But the Forest Service has sold the public on the need to 'salvage' them because, you know, they're infested with insects, or they're a fire hazard. What crap. Their only goal is to grow healthy trees to full maturity so they can sell them. That's treating a forest like a crop. What about the cycle of life? Pardon me, but I don't think I'm standing in a cornfield!"

Six miles from the trailhead we joined the main trail, a wide, smooth, well-maintained runway, and met four young backpackers on their way in. They asked where we'd been. Wolke told them the name of the lake and added, "Lots of deadfall. Snow everywhere. Had to bushwhack. No trail to speak of." Then he eased away from them -- they looked bewildered, to say the least -- walked over to me, and stuck his face six inches in front of mine. "I hate this sort of exchange," he whispered. "Discover it for yourself and it will mean so much more to you. And then we'll talk about it back in town, over a beer."

Still, he had a look of wild merriment in his eye, heightened by what is, perhaps, a soupcon of inspired madness, and he went on to describe his itinerary over the next two months: a family vacation canoeing the Boundary Waters; guide trips into Yellowstone, the Absarokas, the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument; a rafting exploration of an unrun river in Africa. "Lots of big tracks!" he called over his shoulder as he hurried down the trail. By all appearances he was enjoying himself immensely.

JOE KANE is the author of Running the Amazon (Vintage Books, 1990) and Savages (Vintage Books, 1996).

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

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