Rick Bass, the Pacific Northwest Trail, and His Yaak Delusion

In his recent opinion piece in the Missoula Independent, Rick Bass intentionally makes a series of errors, widespread smears, and outright untruths about the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) as it winds (yes, winds Rick, more on that later). Bass’s oppositional rhetoric to the PNT even disinters the ghost of famed grizzly bear researcher Chuck Jonkel to give a shine of credibility to his self-indulgent diatribe.

First thing’s first, I am a lifelong wilderness advocate and grizzly bear proponent, with longer than Bass’s time in Montana since he moved from his native Texas. I relish the presence of the great bruin in large wild places, but I also believe that wilderness has to be experienced to be appreciated and valued by society. Bass seems to think that he belongs to the small, entitled Yaak Yacht Club that is blessed with self-granted access to the wild of upper Yaak, and he apparently loathes others enjoying and recreating his adopted backyard. The entire article smacks of wilderness elitism that seems to come from the recent arrivals to Montana as they seek to close the gate behind them on the way in.

The Pacific Northwest Trail was designated by Congress in 2009 as one of America’s 11 National Scenic Trails. It is a validation of conservation movement as it creation definitely aids in protecting the very grizzly habitat that Bass and I deeply care about.

Bass’s first salvo of propaganda comes from his characterizing the PNT as “a recreational hellhole, a rogue, unapproved 1,200-mile spur trail to the much-trampled Pacific Crest Trail.” Let’s address the “spur trail” allegation. The PNT almost entirely follows existing trails and roads that already provide mobility in the Yaak (see the maps at https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/pnt/maps-publications ). It is not being bulldozed in, it is simply a route utilizing existing US Forest Service infrastructure. Bass falsely states that The Pacific Northwest Trail Association (PNTA) “drew a ruler through the upper Yaak” to create the PNT route. If one were to spend more than a moment looking the actual maps of the route, you would see that the trail winds through Yaak using existing trails and roads. “The proposed trail goes through the heart of roadless country”? By following existing roads and trails (and yes the occasional off-trail excursion) does not invalidate the concept of roadless areas. Bass is quite deceptive in creating the illusion of new infrastructure that “tears ass through the middle of the Yaak’s prime griz habitat”. Bass double-downs on his straight-line trail falsehood again by writing, “the idea of a thru-hiking trail, an endurance-jock human highway, a “zone of disturbance” 1,000 feet wide, running in a straight line from Glacier National Park to the Pacific Coast.”

This brings us to Bass’s naked intolerance for others using his wilderness. He has somehow absolved himself of any impact in Yaak Valley, yet he collects firewood, drives the roads, hunts wild game that could feed many a bear, and lives in a home. His own ecological impact on the Yaak is much higher that of some hiker that spends a couple of days in the area. In this piece, he repeatedly characterizes to hikers as jocks, bloggers (yeah Rick, hikers can’t write), and polluters on an industrial scale. The truth is hikers are by-and-large extremely conservation-minded and vocal, effective advocates for wild places around the globe.

Now enter into the world of math magic by Bass where he simply pulls numbers out of thin air and molds them to bolster his own argument. Let’s consider his dubious reasoning;

“Let’s say a modest average of 4,000 thru-hikers per season pass through, spending a week or more, crossing the upper Yaak. That’s more than 30,000 user-nights, a potential 60,000 campfires.”

First, the “modest” 4,000 hiker number is completely plucked from a fevered imagination. The other popular thru-trail in the western United States is the Pacific Crest Trail. It follows the Pacific coastal mountains from California, through Oregon, and terminating in Washington, and it received 5,657 permitted thru-hikers last year. Of that number, only 707 actually completed the entire route. It is improbable that the isolated PNT would ever see numbers even remotely close to those levels.

Second, the PNT route has a total mileage of roughly 45 miles from Gypsy Meadows in the east to the Idaho border. Thru-hikers have to make time as they have a vast distance to travel before the season changes in order to complete the complete thru-hike. You actually think that they will average one week to travel 45 miles on existing trails and roads through the Yaak when they need to cover 1,200 miles in the short season?

And finally, his absolute bullshit 60,000 campsites based on the erroneous 30,000 user-nights. First, have you ever lit two campfires every night on any of your hiking trips? The answer for this kid is a resounding HELL NO! And almost every hiker that would ever dream to undertake an endeavor like the challenging PNT would not have any inclination to create a campfire every goddamn night. Rick, ever heard of a backpacking stove or packaged meals?

However, Bass is not without a heart for the plight of the hiker and our government agencies. He seems to be deeply concerned with the workload of the US Border Patrol. “I can’t imagine the U.S. Border Patrol is too happy about the route”, he speculates. Are you kidding me? He wants to exclude people from the Yaak because of its proximity to the United States/Canada border because border security…that is absolutely laughable and completely unfounded.

Bass’s final indignity is creating the oh-so-convenient myth of the lost, garbage-lobbing hikers. “But this current wandering dusty stream of lost penitents, leaving messy camps, is neither legal, acceptable nor necessary. He inflates the number of lost hikers to encompass all thru-hikers in his mind while completely ignoring that almost all hikers religiously apply Leave No Trace ethics to their campsites, which are almost always existing spots. Legal? It is illegal to hike, Mr. Bass? Where in the recesses of your mind did you come up with the idea that it is against the law to hike through your precious backyard? He even seems to think that the publishing of the route maps is somehow “encouraging and abetting illegal use”. This language that would make any jailhouse lawyer proud.

So, does Bass have any enlightened, Solomon-like wisdom to resolve the vaguely perceivable conflict between the PNT and grizzly bear habitat in the Yaak? His solution to simply recommend that the PNT go through someone else’s backyard. He constructs one straw-man argument after another to preserve his own personal aesthetic of the Yaak Valley, a vast wilderness available only to the select, privileged few (and imagine that he is among them).

And one more thing, if Rick Bass is so concerned about over-use the Yaak, why has he made a career of popularizing the area to his massive readership? Words contained in the Book of the Yaak and Winter have surely intrigued many of the hikers seeking to travel the Pacific Northwest Trail, and yet, he fails to recognize his own influence.

Written by Radd Icenoggle

I am a native Montanan, who has spent a lifetime as an outdoors and wildlife enthusiast. I earned a degree in biology with an emphasis on habitat relations. During my studies, I had the great fortune to research and compose a thesis that explored the effects of slope aspect on...
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