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More than a century ago, hurricane-force winds drove lightning-sparked and human-caused fires across almost 3 million acres of Idaho and Montana. The fierce and fast-moving 1910 fire is considered the largest wildfire in American history. It took lives, damaged towns, displaced residents, and stripped the land of harvestable timber—all in less than three days.
As the great fire swept across the land from west to east, it jumped entire valleys and scorched ridgetop after ridgetop, leaving behind ridges of charred whitebark pine and valleys with remnant cedar stands.
Fast forward 100 years, and the area known as the Great Burn is, according to National Geographic, “a gem of wild beauty.” That distinction is due in part to the ongoing recovery of the native ecosystem, which benefited from little human interference as it renewed itself.
Wildlife—including Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer, mountain goats, moose, gray wolves, cougars, and black bears—thrives in the area thanks to large tracts of intact habitat. The area's pristine streams and rivers are special too, providing much-needed refuge for threatened native bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout. Within these remote lands the headwaters of the Clearwater River form, winding 75 miles west to the Snake River.
Species in addition to trout benefit from nearby iconic protected lands, such as the Bob Marshall and Selway-Bitterroot wilderness areas, which provide ample habitat for animals to roam to the north and south. On clear days, visitors to the Great Burn can glimpse these distant areas from perches on rocky outcrops.
Dale Harris, executive director of the Great Burn Study Group, an organization dedicated to achieving wilderness designation for this area, calls these breathtaking views the “horizontal wildness” of the Great Burn. Noting that elevations range from 3,000 to 8,000 feet, Harris says staying up high, where the great fire left vast, open tundra, gives you a better sense of the expansiveness of the area where ridgelines, green basins, and numerous lakes dot the landscape below.
Just as wild animals are the benefactors of the healthy ecosystem of the Great Burn area, adventure-seeking folks come here to hunt, fish, hike, and cross-country ski. Outdoor recreation boosts the local economy, and, in addition to its stewardship work, Harris' group plays a role in that, monitoring wildlife, vegetation, recreation, and user impacts.
As the Great Burn area enters its second century of recovery, the study board's president, John Hart, who hikes, backpacks, fishes, and backcountry skis in the region, says the name of the place is a constant reminder of its fiery past:
“Those fires changed a lot of things in this area, and the name Great Burn helps us remember that historic event and how it's shaped the history of the area since.”
The proposed Great Burn wilderness encompasses 275,000 acres in Montana and Idaho, and the forest service's plans for the Lolo and Clearwater national forests recommend this area for wilderness designation.
In Idaho, folks are working together to address public land issues on the Clearwater National Forest, including future wilderness designation for areas such as the Great Burn, as well as local economic issues. Harris co-chairs this effort, the Clearwater Basin Collaborative, which Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID) convened in May 2008. More than 20 local and national stakeholders meet monthly with the goal of fashioning federal legislation to guide public land management in the Clearwater Basin.