Place Matters – Amy Gulick Reports from the Clearwater Basin Expedition

The heart of Idaho’s Clearwater Basin beats with free-flowing wild rivers. Feeding the rivers are the rugged snow-capped mountains of the northern Bitterroot Range, with peaks rising to 8,000 feet. If explorers Lewis and Clark retraced their 1805 route through this region today, they would still see some of the wild country and descendants of the Nez Perce Indians they encountered during the first American expedition to cross the western United States.

As part of the Clearwater Basin expedition, I am exploring the connections that people have to this beautiful place. Spending time with a diversity of folks — horse packers, saddle makers, wood products workers, whitewater kayakers, hunters, fishermen, and B&B owners – it is clear to me that the rivers flow through their veins, the mountains make them strong, and the forests provide food for the soul as well as the dinner table.

At 9,645 square miles, about the size of the state of Vermont, the Clearwater Basin in north central Idaho contains some of the wildest public lands remaining in the contiguous United States. With three designated Wild and Scenic Rivers in the Clearwater and Nez Perce National Forests, this is a place that shapes people more than people shape the place. The Selway River and portions of the Lochsa and Middle Fork of the Clearwater flow wherever they want. Snow frequently buries the only highway through the mountains. Wolves, cougars, and bears roam the forest as the top predators.

And while people here hold varying points of view on what activities should or shouldn’t be allowed on these lands entrusted to all Americans, all of them told me how important the rivers, mountains, and forests are to their way of life. It’s heartening to know that there is still a place where the wild landscape is the dominant presence for those who choose to live along its waterways, among its cliffs, and within its woods. This is a place where we still have an opportunity to preserve the wild for future generations. This is a place where people can still live a special way of life not easily found anywhere else. This is a place that matters.