TROY – The tenth anniversary of the formal creation of the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT) is just months away and we’re expecting to see more attention on this still-developing 1,200-mile hike between Glacier National Park and the Olympic Coast.
Some of that attention is on the intensifying debate over re-routing the trail to protect grizzlies in Northwest Montana while helping hikers at the same time.
The PNT isn’t a new idea as it was first proposed during the long-distance backpacking boom of the 1970s.
Stretching from the Continental Divide peaks of Glacier National Park the route crosses multiple ranges — including the Cascades and Olympics — before terminating at Cape Alava in Olympic National Park.
The route is stitched together from existing trails and Forest Service roads and requires frequent bushwhacking.
But the PNT’s route west of Lake Koocanusa is in dispute. Members of the Yaak Forestry Council want to see it re-routed to the south, following the Fisher River instead of hugging the border through grizzly country in the Yaak to prevent conflicts.
“The Yaak is very low elevation. Very limited in alpine habitat that grizzlies use late in the summer, when hikers are using them,” said Yaak Forestry Council chair Rick Bass.
“Maybe 3% of the valley is that upper alpine, above tree line. And it’s just not a good idea to be putting hikers in those last — I think three-to-four breeding age females with young up there now. That’s all we’ve got. You get down to that number you just can’t afford to lose one,” Bass added.
Bass and his supporters say it’s an issue of safety for bear and backpacker alike.
“Right. And no hiker intends or thinks that he or she is going to disrupt a grizzly, or that he or she is going to have a negative influence on a grizzly or vice versa,” Bass said. “You don’t go thinking that. But again, we’re so close to the edge with the Yaak grizzlies, so few, it’s just not worth the risk.”
However, not everyone feels that way. The Pacific Northwest Trail Association is defending the original route with the US Forest Service saying it could cost millions to move.
Even biologists question the true impact on grizzlies, with a few dozen hikers tackling the route annually. But some locals feel access to services for long-distance hikers tips the scales in favor of the southern alternative.
The backers of the alternative trail route say it would give hikers the option of getting off the trail to re-supply in places like Libby and here in Troy, helping the local economy.
“Well, the fact that people are able to get off the trail and come and be able to get supplied. I think that’s good for any town and it’s good for the people on the trails,” said Greg Goodman who owns Booze N Bait.
“What we see happening normally with tourism traffic going through Troy is they go through Troy. Very quickly. And head on to Glacier Park,” added Troy City Councilwoman Shawna Kelsey.
“And it would be nice for people to be able to come through in a slower way and interact more with locals and see in a little more detail the beauty we have right around here.” she continued.
Goodman’s sporting good stores has plenty of bear spray, firearms and the equipment that frequently fails on long hikes. Once again the issue of safety comes up.
“Where the trail was going through, it’s not many hop off spots to where they can go and get supplies,” Goodman said. “And that could be dangerous if somebody has an injury and they need to come in and get somebody quickly.”
Advocates of the southern alternative believe the re-route would also give hikers many more options, including access into the scenic Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, providing the diversity through hikers look for.
“Absolutely. Yeah, you imagine these guys are going 13-hundred miles. They’re going to be starting in Glacier. They’re going to end at the Pacific Coast,” said hike Anthony South who is also a member of the Yaak Foresty Council.
“The Kootenai Valley is something they will remember and will most likely bring them back. It’s that different taste than what everything else has to offer,” South pointed out.
Change won’t be easy and beyond the local debate, Congress must be ultimately convinced.
“It has to be an act of Congress, unfortunately. It’s not a Forest Service decision. It’s not anybody’s amendment or decision.” Bass explained. “It was an act of Congress that gave us this problem and it’s going to take an act of Congress to correct it. Fortunately, we can correct it.”
Bass says his group is keeping in touch with Montana’s Congressional delegation about the option of changing the PNT’s route.