Railroads & Clearcuts

Lolo Pass

written by Dennis Baird, a Moscow, Idaho historian


As part of the huge Northern Pacific Railroad land grant, the railroad obtained title to alternating sections of the public domain in upper Lolo Creek in Montana, and at the headwaters of the Lochsa River in Idaho. The company surveyed this route in 1873, and actually did a small amount of grade construction on the Montana side of the border around 1900. In the end, no railroad was ever constructed across Lolo Pass. These checkerboard lands were later acquired by Plum Creek Timber Company, the corporate logging heir of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

Included in Plum Creek ownership are about fifteen miles of the ancient trail system used by Lewis and Clark to cross the Bitterroot Mountains in 1805 and 1806. Near Lolo Pass, and just inside Idaho, the company obtained title to two historic sites: Packer Meadows (about 600 acres) and nearby Glade Creek (about 300 acres) (click here for photo). These two sites are slightly off the historic Nee-Mee-Poo Trail (the trail to the Buffalo country) used by the Nez Perce people for several thousand years. They are, however, located directly on the route used by Salish (Flathead) peoples seeking to catch anadromous fish on the upper Lochsa River. Lewis and Clark's Indian guide made a wrong turn at Lolo Pass and accidently took the explorers down into the upper Lochsa Valley.

Plum Creek has extensively logged its lands near Lolo Pass (click here for photo), including several sites at high altitudes. The Company has steadily liquidated its old growth in the region, and most logging has been in the form of very large, even-aged clearcuts that closely follow the square-mile section boundaries. Historical and esthetic concerns have had little role to play in logging plans here, and the Forest Service has even erected a new sign to warn visitors that what they are seeing was not done by any public agency. One of the largest clearcuts is directly adjacent to the historic DeVoto Cedar Grove, located on US Highway 12 just east of the Clearwater National Forest's Powell Ranger Station.

The pace of stand conversion by Plum Creek has alarmed both biologists and historians. On the Montana side of the border, logging levels in upper Lolo Creek led former Supervisor Orville Daniels to withdraw public lands there from further timber harvesting. On the Idaho side, where crucial habitat for andromous fish is at risk, concern by citizens and Forest Service biologists has been equally great. With the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's visit approaching, many historians seeing the Pass region for the first time have expressed worries about historic preservation, or the absence of it.

Plum Creek has not been unwilling to give up some of its lands near Lolo Pass, but the firm has been unwilling to donate tracts, and has insisted on receiving full appraisal value. It has only occasionally been willing to slow the pace of its logging in the area.

In 1996, as part of a land exchange, 619 acres at Packer Meadows were obtained by the Forest Service. The public had to give up National Forest land valued at $1.3 million in order to obtain these historic meadows, which are located on a narrow road only a mile south of the visitor center at Lolo Pass. This site has been in human use as a camping spot for several thousand years, although very little archaeological work has been done there--a sad fact that is equally true of most of the Lolo Trail corridor across Idaho.

In 1997, Plum Creek logged almost half of its lands surrounding the Glade Creek site, which is located about a mile west of Packer Meadows. It also marked trees for cutting that were directly adjacent to the glades, which otherwise closely retained their appearance of 1805 and 1806. With over 80% of the entire Lewis and Clark route completely modified by humans, the unchanged nature of Glade Creek is a rare commodity indeed.

This logging, and the additional marking for future cuts, alarmed Idaho Governor Phil Batt, as well as leading historians of westward expansion. They begged Plum Creek to restrain its logging. Finally, in the autumn of 1998, Plum Creek agreed to sell 160 key acres to the State of Idaho for its fully appraised value of $255,000. A quasi-public agency, the Idaho Heritage Trust, was able to raise the necessary funds. Click here for Plum Creek's version of how Glade Creek was "saved."

Plum Creek, however, has been unwilling to discuss sales of other tracts where the remaining historical trail system is involved, and no major land exchange plans in the upper Lochsa appear to be underway.


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