Back home in Charlottesville, Virginia, in December of 1806, Meriwether Lewis listened to a brief welcoming speech at a banquet in his honor. The orator spoke of the promises of "regions yet groaning under unviolated forests." Lewis responded similarly: "With you I trust, that the discoveries we have made will not long remain unimproved." What has happened in the forests the expedition "discovered" as they crossed the Bitterroot Divide and proceeded north down the Bitterroot Valley early in early September of 1805?
The 60-by-15-mile Bitterroot Valley, extending from a few miles north of Ross Hole all the way to Missoula, Montana, is almost entirely in private hands. The "improvement" of the valley began in the middle of the nineteenth century, centering mostly on farming, ranching, and apple-growing, and continued into the 20th century with logging of the magnificent ponderosa pine forests at the edges of the valley floor. Settlement occurred in spurts until the 1950s, then held steady for two decades. After1970, suburban development began to mushroom.
Indeed, many residents feel that their mountain-ringed valley cannot tolerate much more "improvement" and continue to provide the quality of life that is sought and cherished. The need to develop comprehensive plans for future growth seemed obvious to some, while others staunchly resisted interference with their individual rights.
Another contentious issue has been whether U.S. highway 93 should be expanded to four lanes to speed traffic flow, or confined to a "super two" design that would discourage roadside development and limit drivers to a slower pace. The conversion to four-lane pavement alternating with super-two stretches began in the lower Bitterroot Valley in the fall of 1999. The allure of speed and the attendant illusion of diminished distances, which was just beginning to gain momentum around Lewis & Clark's time with the invention of the steamboat and the steam locomotive, has seduced us again.
Content reviewed by: Stephen F. Arno, Intermountain Fire Sciences Laboratory; Mary Horstman, Forest Historian, Bitterroot National Forest; Stan Underwood, Sula Ranger District, Bitterroot National Forest.