Planning for the Pacific Northwest Trail’s future

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On July 8, 2017, a Pacific Northwest Trail hiker named “Sockeye” wrote the following verse in a Forest Service journal located high on a pass in the Yaak: “Through biting bugs and searing heat, we’ve traveled far on weary feet, wandered through the Yaak, with good friends and a pack. Forward now to Bonners for a treat.”

About 50 through-hikers such as Sockeye hike the 1,200-mile trail every year. Beginning in Glacier National Park, the Pacific Northwest Trail winds through Montana, Idaho and Washington before reaching its western terminus at the Pacific Ocean near Cape Alava, Washington.

In the Yaak, the route passes through the Three Rivers Ranger District. Forest Service officials there, having seen an increase in the trail’s use, intend to form a long-term management plan for the trail, perhaps for 20 to 25 years, beginning this fall. It’s a move that has some worried about the impact of hikers on the area’s grizzly bear population.

The recreation crew of Three Rivers Ranger District installed the journal in which Sockeye wrote his poem, along with a registration box, at Canuck Pass in July 2014 to assess trail traffic. Officials say the two items give the first clear data on the trail’s use.

“It’s fun to meet these hikers on the trail,” said Dave Thorstenson, recreation manager of the Three Rivers Ranger District, in an Aug. 25 phone interview. “We work hard to maintain these trails, so it’s kind of nice to know people are using them. Most of the PNT trail in our district is out of the way and not otherwise well used.”

Fifty hikers registered in 2015, and 29 in 2016. In early July 2017, while out doing trail work, Thorstenson met and photographed the season’s 32nd and 33rd through-hikers. He said it’s still too early to know the final tally for this year.

“They are pretty much done (hiking through Lincoln County) by August,” Thorstenson said. “They have a limited window to avoid snow and ice on the peaks.”

Although the Pacific Northwest Trail has been around since the late 1970s — when it was created in part to relieve pressure on the already heavily trafficked Pacific Crest and Appalachian trails — it didn’t grow in popularity until it was congressionally designated as a National Scenic Trail in 2009.

“I believe the trail has been laid out for a long time,” said Thorstenson. “But (it) was not well used in some parts, including in our district.”

The organic formulation of the trail, forged by hikers over the years on existing paths and roadways, is not admired by everyone. Author, activist and Yaak resident Rick Bass, concerned about the number of hikers increasing and interfering with established grizzly bear habitat, argues that there is no trail because it has never been formally approved.

Bass, a board member of local nonprofit the Yaak Valley Forest Council, proposes an alternative route that would use existing trails and roads and follow the east side of Lake Koocanusa. In an opinion piece in the June 26, 2017 issue of High Country News, he states that the alternative route would be “better, safer and more visually appealing,” and would avoid the habitat of threatened Cabinet-Yaak grizzly bears.

Bass said hikers visiting bear country “in peak berry season” increase the likelihood of an encounter.

“A bear who becomes habituated to human contact is a dead bear,” Bass said in an Aug. 25 phone interview. “We just can’t afford to lose a bear at this stage.”

There’s also the concern for hiker safety. In Glacier National Park, where the Pacific NorthWest Trail begins, all backcountry hikers are required to take a short class in bear safety before they begin hiking in grizzly territory. They learn about storing food, preventing and handling a bear confrontation and how to use bear spray, but Jessie Grossman, the Yaak Valley Forest Council’s conservation director, said education is not enough to protect bears in the Yaak.

“I’ve seen things on social media that indicate hikers think once they leave Glacier, they don’t need to worry about bear encounters,” she said. “So partly it’s a lack of education, but the problem is there are so few bears in the Yaak. If you increase the number of hikers every year, there’s more chance of a human-bear interaction, and the fact is if we lose one bear, one breeding age female at this point, we set the recovery process back decades.”

Bass estimates about 20 grizzly bears live in the region. Kim Annis, a Libby-based bear specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said Aug. 28 that a 2012 study by her agency put the grizzly bear population in the entire Yaak, including parts in Idaho, at about 25 bears.

“Biologist Wayne Casworm is doing that research,” she said. “His calculations show the population increasing by 1.5 percent annually.”

Another concern Bass has is safety and accessibility should a hiker get into trouble. He noted the trail in the Yaak is remote, while the alternative trail is more easily accessible by search and rescue parties.

Grossman wants all voices to be heard with regards to how the trail evolves.

“I want to be clear that many communities that the trail runs through are concerned about various aspects of the impact of the trail,” Grossman said. “This is not unique to the Yaak.”

As an example, Grossman said the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, through which the PNT also passes, is considered an important wildlife corridor and core grizzly habitat and connects to the Cabinet-Yaak area. She said she has sat in on public meetings in the area and seen “a very collaborative atmosphere between all the parties involved.”

“That’s what we’re aiming for here,” she said. “We want a solution that works for hikers, works for the conservation community, works for the Forest Service and works for any other parties who have a say.”

The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho is one such party.

“The Tribe is aware of the Pacific Northwest Trial route and is hopeful that areas of cultural significance and those areas that could affect wildlife recovery can be considered and avoided,” Tribal Council member Ron Abraham said in a prepared statement on August 28.

There are also economic issues for the communities along or near the trail. In the town of Yaak, the Yaak Tavern and Mercantile serves as a postal pick-up point for through-hikers to receive and replenish their supplies. Employee Chris Kunkle, reached via phone Aug. 28, said she has seen 50 to 60 through-hikers this year, “sometimes meeting in groups of 10 or 12.”

“They do spend some money,” said Kunkle. “They eat food, buy pop.”

Bass and Grossman predict the trail will become a high-use trail in the 20- to 25-year time period the Forest Service is scoping. The agency defines high use as an average of 20 or more parties passing through per week between April and September of any year.

“If the trail becomes high use in core grizzly habitat, we will be forced to either have a tightly regulated permitting system to limit hikers, which would include local trail users, or we will have to create grizzly core elsewhere, which means closing roads that are currently used for recreation and industry,” Grossman said. “I don’t think anyone wants that.”

Thorstenson said that the Forest Service hopes to have a draft comprehensive plan by November of 2018, and a draft decision notice and finding of no significant impact by September of 2018.

For more information, call Troy Ranger Station at 406-295-4693 and The Yaak Valley Forest Council at 406-295-9736.

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