Where We Work
The Great Burn Recommended Wilderness
GBSG's primary mission area is the 275,000-acre Great Burn Recommended Wilderness, located in the Lolo and Nez Perce/Clearwater National Forests on the Montana/Idaho border. This inventoried roadless area has been recommended for wilderness designation for over 40 years. It contains 33 high mountain lakes and over 40 free-flowing streams, and spans three distinct ecosystems. According to the Forest Service's 2018 wilderness evaluation study, over 40% of the area consists of ecological types that are currently underrepresented in the national wilderness preservation system.
Great Burn Study Group also works to protect a much larger landscape encompassing 1.8 million acres of national forest land that surrounds the Great Burn in the northern Rocky Mountains. This huge swath of wildlands consists of 42 inventoried roadless areas between Lolo and Lookout passes in the northern Bitterroot Range along the Montana / Idaho stateline.
The Great Burn and surrounding roadless areas contain high-quality habitat for many wildlife species that need tracts of continuous wildlands (technically called "large intact blocks") to survive. Rocky Mountain elk, mountain goat, whitetail and mule deer, gray wolf, cougar, and black bear are notable large species. Lynx, fishers, wolverines, marten, and native fish whose habitat is almost gone elsewhere also flourish here. Dozens of other important animal and plant species are found throughout the Great Burn.
Open hillsides left by a history of fire offer extraordinary habitat for elk. The legendary Clearwater herd, widely known for its abundance of trophy bulls, relies on the Great Burn area for summer range.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has found that the Great Burn and surrounding roadless lands are prime grizzly bear recovery habitat. In 2007 a hunter mistakenly shot a far-ranging grizzly, probably from the Selkirk Mountains near Canada, on the Idaho side of the Great Burn. The Great Burn and surrounding wildlands offer excellent habitat for grizzly bears should their range extend beyond the Cabinet-Yaak and Greater Yellowstone ecosystems.
Nine designated or recommended Wild and Scenic Rivers also originate in the Great Burn and drain into the Snake and Clark Fork Rivers en route to the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean. These pristine waters are critical habitat for threatened native bull trout and contain some of the last remaining populations of genetically pure westslope cutthroat trout.
GBSG’s mission area lies at the hub of a complex of undeveloped ecological landscapes in the northern Rocky Mountains, providing key linkage between the Salmon/Selway ecosystem to the west and south, and the Glacier National Park-Bob Marshall ecosystem to the north. Much of the land within those systems is currently protected by wilderness, national park, or national wildlife refuge designation. GBSG’s mission area is one of the last remaining large landscapes in the continental U.S. that remains unprotected.
For hundreds of years before the arrival of European explorers, the Great Burn and surrounding area was home to Native American tribes including the Nez Perce, Salish, Kootenai, and Coeur d’Alene. Native peoples used the higher elevations seasonally for hunting and gathering, while travel routes and permanent settlements were located in more sheltered locations like valley bottoms.
The Nez Perce (Nee-Mee-Poo) Trail follows the Lochsa River and crosses Lolo Pass near the southern boundary of the Great Burn Recommended Wilderness. This route was established by repeated use as the Nez Perce tribe traveled east to hunt for bison. Tribal members also traveled this way in 1877, when fleeing the US Army and its attempts to move them onto a reservation near Lapwai.
The present-day Nez Perce Reservation neighbors the GBSG mission area in Idaho’s Clearwater Basin.
In 1805-06, Lewis & Clark and their Corps of Discovery passed along the area following the traditional Nez Perce route above Lolo Creek and the Lochsa River. They crossed Lolo Pass both westbound and eastbound on their journey of exploration between St. Louis, MO and Ft. Clatsop on the Pacific coast.
The Great Burn takes its name from the historic wildfires of 1910. Those fires, which consumed almost three million acres in less than three days, left barren hillsides devoid of commercial timber value.
That historic event, though tragic at the time, had the indirect benefit of allowing the area to recover for a century without penetration by human developments.
Please see Resources for more information on the human and natural history of GBSG's mission area.