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limbing up and over the divide between the Salmon and Bitterroot rivers on September 2-4, 1805, the journalists remarked on the"handsom tall strait" ponderosa pine trees (also called Western yellow pine), some large enough for dugout canoes, and "balsom fir"--possibly Engelmann spruce--estimated at 150 feet in height. They made their way through dense stands of subalpine fir, Douglas-fir, whitebark pine, and lodge pole pine. And what now of those "discoveries," those "unviolated forests"?
They are now nearly all in the public domain, encompassed in an administrative unit of the U.S. Forest Service called the Bitterroot National Forest. Almost entirely surrounding the valley, it averages about 35 miles in width, and reaches roughly from the Bitterroot Divide on the south to Lolo, Montana (the site of the expedition's Travelers' Rest camp) on the north, a distance of about 80 miles. It contains more than 1.5 million acres within its boundaries.
Fifty-two percent of the Bitterroot National Forest is contained in the Bitterroot-Selway Wilderness, the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, and the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, where "earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man."
An additional eighteen percent of the Forest's acreage includes semi-primitive recreational land, wildlife preservation areas, and small ecosystems known as Resource Natural Areas. Six percent — principally the high rocky ridges of the Bitterroot Mountains — are classified as "unsuitable timberland." A mere twenty-four percent of the entire Forest is "suitable timberland."
Until after World War II, logging was comparatively limited, and was confined largely to the lower fringes of the valley, where the best of the yellow pine forest was cut down by the 1920s. Since 1955, however, only 35% of the entire "suitable timberland" has been subjected to logging.
During the 1960s the annual harvest reached a peak of nearly 70% of the annual estimated growth of trees in the Forest. By the 1990s it had dropped to about 10% of the annual growth. Today, even discounting an annual timber death-rate of 20%, it is clear that the forest is still growing — and dying — much faster than it is being harvested.1
--Joseph Mussulman, 1998; rev. June 2014
1. In 1975 there were four lumber mills in the Bitterroot Valley. In September of 1998 Darby Lumber Inc., the last surviving mill, and one of the largest employers in the valley, laid off half its work force indefinitely, citing higher costs and lower income. Since 1993, industry analysts explain, the Forest Service had sold 70% less timber from its national forests, resulting in the competitive bidding-up of sawlog prices. At the same time, a recession throughout Asia greatly reduced the size of the market, which forced the price of milled lumber below the break-even point.