Lands: The bridge to everywhere

Just ahead is the gentle crest of Red Rock Pass, a dusty, tire-shredding bump separating Idaho and Montana. In the rear-view mirror are symbols of the modern-getaway world — guest cabins, trophy homes, float tubes on Henry’s Lake — left quite literally in a cloud of four-wheel-drive dust.

I never tire of this moment, in this spot, for I know what’s just over the hill: A vast expanse of yesteryear, with sprawling ranches and fence lines stretched to an endless horizon framed on two sides by purple mountains majesty.

“Welcome to the Centennial Valley,” a voice in my head always says. “Please set your clock back 150 years.”

All that’s missing is a few Conestoga wagons, wild bison and Shoshone Indians walking alongside dogs pulling travois packed with buffalo hides.

Few accessible places even in Greater Yellowstone feel so remote, which partially explains why the Centennial Valley and the neighboring mountains are so important to the ecosystem.

Take a look at any map of wolf packs in the Northern Rockies and you’ll see a trough running roughly through this region, sometimes — but inaccurately, really — called the “High Divide”. This discernible gap is between the wild island that is Greater Yellowstone and the equally wild nether reaches of central Idaho and the Glacier National Park region.

Grizzly bears? There’s no trough; migration and dispersal ends abruptly at the western end of the Centennial Valley and its namesake mountains, essentially at Interstate 15.

Connecting Greater Yellowstone’s iconic wildlife with animals in those aforementioned regions means giving them a chance in the Centennial, Snowcrest, Gravelly, East Pioneer and other still-wild mountain ranges.

Enter Montana Sen. Jon Tester and his Forest Jobs & Recreation Act.

Introduced in 2009, the senator’s bill would create more than 670,000 acres of new Montana wilderness, including more than 150,000 in Greater Yellowstone. It would the state’s first wilderness since Lee Metcalf pushed through his vision 30 years ago.

Sen. Tester’s made-in-Montana bill does more than create new wilderness, though. It designates 330,000 acres of recreation lands, which ensures that future generations will experience Montana’s picturesque backcountry and incomparable outdoor-recreation heritage. And it puts folks back to work in the forest on restoration and wildfire-mitigation projects so important to communities increasingly fearful about tinder-dry woods.

Equally important, it shrinks the trough between Greater Yellowstone and the wild country in central Idaho and northwest Montana — enhancing an essential link at a time when a warming climate is reducing habitat in the region for such creatures as the wolverine, lynx and cutthroat trout.

As the only significant east-west mountain range and valley in the Northern Rockies, the Centennial is a natural land bridge to and from Greater Yellowstone. It’s also extraordinary for other reasons: The stunning bird life at the Red Rocks National Wildlife Refuge, trout fishing and for the uppermost headwaters of the Missouri River on the flanks of Mount Jefferson.

Drive through the Centennial and you’re likely to see pronghorn, deer, elk, Shiras moose, trumpeter swans, eagles, hawks and perhaps even a grizzly bear or wolf. You’ll also see a hardy lot of ranchers who value a landscape time forgot.

It’s worth every bit of dust and jounce.

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