Presence in Absence: The Lengths We Go to Leave No Trace

Deep in the wilderness that bridges Idaho and Montana, a cargo net bloated with irrigation pipes, barbed wire, and cement blocks is slowly pulled along a metal cable that spans the frothy waters of Moose Creek. A collection of Forest Service employees and interns from the Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation, a Missoula-based nonprofit, pull the net, chatting casually. On one bank, a dust-covered wilderness ranger loads a makeshift transport bucket by the banks of the crick. Young-faced interns arrive loaded with PVC pipes from an upper field. A man quietly talks to a team of horses hitched to a wagon.

Not many people have heard of Seminole Ranch, let alone visited it. It is one of the last private inholdings located in the third largest wilderness area of the lower 48, the Selway-Bitterroot. Only now, however, is Seminole Ranch being restored to the condition of the wild lands that surround it.

Those close to the project are discovering just how painstaking and tedious the work of restoration can be. The group toiling at the river is just one of many that have grappled over the years with the complex paradox of how to manage nature so that it appears, if not untouched, then not altered by people too much. In Idaho and Montana, there seem to be as many opinions about how to manage wilderness as there are federally designated wilderness acres. Despite their differing positions, all involved trust that though most Americans will never visit wilderness areas in their lifetimes, sustainable management of our nation’s backcountry paradises is worth the heavy lifting. Still, two primary questions trouble those charged with that work: Can a site that has been continuously inhabited for almost a century be actively returned to wilderness? And, if so, what is wilderness even supposed to look like?

Old irrigation pipes are laboriously hauled from the Seminole Ranch site by a cable block and tackle system.



An Exception in the Wilderness Act

From the air the Seminole site—its fields, its 900 foot airstrip, its outbuildings—looks like a tiny scar on an endless landscape of steep canyons, towering old-growth cedars, and surging blue waterways. The whole area is remote in a way that most people believe went out of style over a century ago. The only ways to get here are by plane, by multi-day raft tour, or by a half-day saddle ride through woods filled with some of Idaho’s most intimidating wildlife, including rattlers, bears, wolves, and the occasional mountain lion.

Anyone unfamiliar with the 1964 Wilderness Act might be confused by the thought of aircraft or ranches being allowed in wilderness at all. Howard Zahniser of the American Wilderness Society and the Act’s primary author defined wilderness as both an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” and as a place with “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”

What most people don’t realize is that for the Wilderness Act to pass, Zahniser had to make provisions to certain groups that had been living, working, or visiting wilderness areas long before the land was federally designated. These special provisions included “the use of aircraft” where it “has already become established” and “such rights as may be necessary to assure adequate access”  for those relatively few hardscrabble families trying their luck at homesteading.

The Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, along with every other wilderness area in the country, is part of a previously human-altered landscape. The challenge and controversy for wilderness managers and admirers alike has been to wed this fact to the strong discursive power of a fictitious, romantic wilderness: we want our imaginary primeval lands to look the way they do in our imaginations, with unaltered landscapes and communities of all-native species.

For purists private inholdings like Seminole Ranch, as well as official airfields like the one that exists at the nearby Moose Creek Ranger Station, directly challenge the idea of wilderness that archdruids like Howard Zahniser, Bob Marshall, Aldo Leopold, and David Brower fought so hard to establish. In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold writes, “Wilderness areas are first of all a series of sanctuaries for the primitive arts of wilderness travel, especially canoeing and packing.” For some hardened wilderness advocates, sites like Moose Creek and Seminole Ranch, with their small plane traffic, represent a problematic exception to the wilderness rule, a glaring asterisk in an otherwise charming narrative.



To Return This Small Area of Land to a More Primitive State

Wilderness Ranger Anna Bengtson manages the Moose Creek Ranger Station, which sits on a bluff above the confluence of the Selway River and Moose Creek, barely half a mile from Seminole Ranch. For most visitors to this part of the Wilderness, Anna is the face of the Forest Service. She is one of only six wilderness rangers who patrol the entire 1.3 million-acre Selway country. For the last three years Ranger Bengtson has overseen the on-the-ground restoration of Seminole Ranch. “In so many places outside of designated wilderness, humans are developing and destroying our remaining natural areas,” she says. “Here, in the Selway-Bitterroot, we have a rare opportunity to do the opposite: to return this small area of land to a more primitive state.”

Bengtson, a 32-year old native of West Glacier, Montana, possesses the knowledge and skills of someone who has passed much of her life in the backcountry. She is extremely competent with primitive tools like axes and crosscut saws, she is able to hike and camp alone for miles at a time across variable terrain and in inclement weather, she is comfortable working with stock such as horses or mules (the Cadillacs of the backcountry), and she is always cognizant of where the ripest huckleberry patches are. Shadowed by her black lab Lucy, she inspects trails and outfitter camps, makes contact with visitors, and coordinates backcountry personnel.

Despite an increase in workload for the rangers in the Nez-Perce Clearwater National Forest over the last few years, Ranger Bengston has seen her budget for wilderness stewardship decline. In this wilderness more work has to be done by fewer people. This can partly explain why the Seminole Ranch restoration project is still a work in progress.

According to Suzanne Cable, the Wilderness Program Manager for the entire Moose Creek District and Ranger Bengtson’s boss, “The Forest Service is in the second of four phases in the restoration process. Five years have passed since the Forest Service actively began restoring the property to wilderness. The final process of removing all invasive species from the ranch’s airstrip and promoting native vegetation to reclaim the site still seems a distant hope. For the Seminole saga, it has already been a long road.”

The first phase involved inventorying everything that was left by the owners at the time of purchase. “An old Willy’s Jeep was flown out by the previous owners, everything else was left behind,” said Cable. The “everything else” amounted to approximately 100,000 pounds of personal property, located a ½ mile from the nearest airstrip and 25 miles from the nearest road. Tractors, paint cans, dimensional lumber, and every other bit of ranching detritus you would expect to have accumulated after 104 years of successive human habitation had been left to rot at Seminole Ranch.

After the inventory, the Forest Service attempted to auction off anything of value, with the caveat that the winning bidders would have to remove their property from the Wilderness themselves. All but one set of winning bidders defaulted.

The only people not to were granted permission to fly a helicopter to the site and extract their recently acquired full-sized slate top pool table, tractors, and water wheel. After securing some unexpected funding, the Forest Service was able to pay for a helicopter to fly in and remove the remaining tractor and 10,000 pounds of salvage lumber, which was given to the Forest Service Historic Preservation Crew in Missoula. The auction process was just one wilderness restoration lesson in the many to come. Because the land surrounding the ranch is governed by a mandate that prohibits mechanical transport unless under extreme circumstances, the work to remove anything sizable is both dizzyingly primitive and logistically horrific.

During the second phase of the clean up, all ranching refuse with the exception of historical items and the buildings themselves must be dragged or carried down to the bank of Moose Creek, where they are arranged into large bundles. These bundles are then lifted onto a block and tackle system by Ranger Bengtson and her team, slung across the divide via a cable tram, loaded onto a horse or mule drawn wagon, for which special authorization was obtained to operate in wilderness, and hauled to the backcountry airstrip at the Moose Creek Ranger Station. Eventually a Forest Service plane will fly in from Missoula and transport it back to town, where it is unceremoniously dumped in the local landfill.

Critics of the process argue that at a time when the Forest Service has little money and personnel to allocate for projects like Seminole, the primitive approach employed on the Wilderness Act’s behalf has cost the American taxpayer too much. Using a more mechanized process of removal, they argue, would save time and precious resources. Joe Rimensberger, a backcountry pilot who served as a caretaker of the Seminole Ranch for the Conservation Fund while the Forest Service prepared to purchase the property noted, “The Forest Service could have kept it [the runway at Seminole] open to save money, but it was a good thing that they closed it in the long run because it was an accident waiting to happen.”

Besides the safety concerns, the geographic proximity of the Moose Creek and Seminole Ranch airstrips to each other appeared to make the latter an unnecessary affront to wilderness character. Cable, the Forest Service project lead on the restoration effort, defends the primitive work strategy as being the most cost-effective and least destructive, which she backs up by pointing to a thorough minimum requirements analysis. By using traditional tools, the restoration team is able to both save money and perform the work in the least intrusive manner.

The original cabin and chicken coop on the Seminole Ranch property.


A Presence in Absence

One of the most obvious and polarizing aspects of wilderness restoration involves the third phase: what to do about the historic structures on the Seminole site. Public opinions range from preservation to burning all thirteen buildings to the ground. Cable, Bengtson and other Forest Service personnel are reluctant to speculate on what may be done until the Forest Service archeologist finishes a report for the state of Idaho’s Historic Preservation Office. In the balance is whether the buildings are worthy candidates for the National Historical Register. However, since it is hard to imagine anything more suggestive and iconic of “man remaining” permanently in wilderness than a log cabin, saw mill, and old growth timber-hewn barn, the debate over Seminole Ranch’s structural integrity is extremely divisive.

Dr. Debbie Lee, an English professor at Washington State University and Project Leader at the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness History Project, supports the removal of the buildings. She feels that with the structures gone “There is a presence that is also in absence.” As an oral historian working on recording the tales of people that lived and worked in the Selway country, she suggests that the historical legacy of places like Seminole Ranch would remain intact even without obvious visual cues like buildings. Dr. Lee’s comments on the controversial matter are particularly poignant because her grandfather homesteaded upstream at a place known as Three Forks, a flat V-shaped valley five miles north of Seminole Ranch, up the Moose Creek drainage. George Case, her grandfather, would later be an early Moose Creek District Ranger.

Dick and Terri Wenger, caretakers at Running Creek Ranch, one of the three remaining inholdings upriver from Seminole Ranch, say, “The loss of the buildings would be a shame.” They speak about the historical and cultural value wrapped up in them. Joe Rimensberger told me he’d been particularly touched by “an old rancher with us that didn’t want to see [the buildings] go.”

Seminole Ranch is not the first restoration project that the Forest Service has conducted. Three Forks was opened to concentrated homesteading during the early 1900’s. According to Lee, “The valley was traditionally used by the Nez Perce before [the homesteaders] came because of its unique geography.” A minimum of at least 12 homesteads and later several dude ranches were established by a shifting collection of hardened personalities, even by the day’s standards. It was a challenging lifestyle, and only a couple of the homesteaders managed to “prove up,” or qualify for a homesteading patent in the isolated environment.

As the concept of wilderness was being solidified in the public’s mind by legislation like the Wilderness Act, the Forest Service was in the process of buying back the private inholdings around Three Forks and returning them to wilderness, with mixed results. If anything, wilderness restoration is an evolving art form. At the time of the Three Forks rehabilitation, a common practice for both wilderness visitors and the federal government was to bury garbage. In wilderness settings, miles from roads, this approach is certainly more efficient and cost-effective than removal. However, despite the sincere efforts of early wilderness personnel, the field of wilderness restoration had room for improvement.

When exploring Three Forks today, it does not take long to find evidence of the area’s legacy of use and abuse: a rusty, moss-covered car protruding from the bank of East Moose Creek, the occasional errant smokestack from a buried piece of farming machinery, even the lonely graves of some of the area’s earlier inhabitants. When we apply the lessons learned at the Three Forks restoration to the current project at Seminole Ranch, we can be certain of one thing: if restoring the site as close to wilderness as possible is the goal, then exquisite attention to detail must be the new minimum requirement.

A Forest Service packer and two wilderness interns haul a load of ranch garbage across Moose Creek.


Zahniser’s paradox

Whether the Seminole project succeeds or fails depends on a lot of variables. The first is deciding on a definition of success that accounts for a range of interpretations of what wilderness actually is. Judging the results of restoration in black and white overlooks the reality of the very gray task at hand. The classic wilderness management paradox, best described by Zahniser, is that “We are managing wilderness to be left unmanaged.” When asked as to whether she found Seminole restorable, Suzanne Cable said, “Persistence and creativity can get it close.’”

Over time, the resilience of the natural systems will no doubt soften the physical impact of Seminole’s past users and residents. The oral histories will preserve the 132 acres, at least philosophically, as a ranch. Above all though, the pilots, recreators, outfitters, Forest Service personnel, and other wilderness visitors to come will continue to add their stories and experiences to the site, leaving the subtle and mostly non-material mark of their presence.


Shane Hetzler

Shane Hetzler graduated in May with a Master of Forestry degree from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He currently works on an initiative for the school that aims to engage private landowners surrounding the Yale-Myers Forest of northeastern Connecticut interested in enhancing forest conservation and management. When he is not reading and writing about the West, he can be found skiing the glades and fly-fishing the streams of New England with his dog Bathie. He looks forward to the day that he can one day return to his native Oregon to work on rural community conservation challenges facing his friends and neighbors back home.

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