I am not a scientist by any means, and any time someone starts referring to the Latin name of a plant or animal, my eyes glaze over. But a few weeks ago, I was invited by the Montana Wilderness Association to help plant bear grass at Mill Lake in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Five years ago, some major construction on the dam left much of the area around it disturbed and in need of restoration. I had never done a trip like this, but the idea of hanging out high in the Bitterroots is always an enticing proposition, and I quickly agreed.
The morning of the trip, Peter Lesica, local plant guru and our unofficial leader, picked-up me and Caroline, a member of the Native Plant Society, on the way out of Missoula. We arrived at the trailhead to meet Claire, who works for the Selway-Bitterroot Frank Church Foundation, and Bill Gosling, who has been a Wilderness ranger on the Bitterroot National Forest for the past 25 years. Bill brought his horse and two mules, and after a half hour, we had all our gear, as well as the 120 bear grass and spirea plugs we would be planting, loaded up and ready to go.
The 11-mile hike up to the lake was relatively uneventful, but it gave us a chance to talk about the state of the environmental movement and generational differences within the movement. Peter was most concerned with how to get younger people involved with environmental issues. Over the years, he had noticed that people attending monthly Montana Wilderness Association and Native Plant Society chapter meetings were getting older and older. We also brainstormed ideas for how to get more people, young and old, interested in doing trips like this one. I’m not going to say we had any epiphanies or came to any groundbreaking conclusions, but it was a lively, open and productive discussion among a diverse group of people that might only be possible in such a setting.
By the time we arrived at the lake, there wasn’t time in the day to get work done, but the next morning we got to planting right away. Earlier in the summer, I transplanted some basil into my garden, but I quickly found that this restoration process was far more complicated. In addition to the soil we took from the ground, we included a mix of locally harvested materials. We gathered decaying wood that would serve as organic material that would allow the plants to retain groundwater more efficiently. We also collected soil from around other bear grass plants that contained inoculum, which are the fine fungal roots that bear grass depend on to gather nutrients from the soil. Once we mixed these together with soil from the planting site, we put the plants in the ground, making sure to keep the root crown exposed to avoid crown rot. The process was complex, but we quickly fell into a routine. By four o’clock we had planted 93 plants and had filled the previously barren area so that it looked lively once again.
After this long day of work, over two more meals and the hike, our group had time to hang out, talk and get to know one another as is only possible while backpacking. It was a great experience, and minus narrowly avoiding a charging horse and helplessly watching a rockslide race towards me, I would recommend it to anyone.
As we drove back to Missoula, I concluded that trips like this are essential. We spend the majority of our time focusing on creating wilderness and after that, protecting it from on any sort of major infringements. Most of the stewardship work that gets done focuses on trails. All of these things are paramount to protecting wilderness, but it’s also necessary for us to take care of these special areas on a smaller scale.
Not only was the weekend a fun opportunity to get out in a beautiful place, but it was an extremely valuable learning experience. I had an opportunity to feel closer to and interact with the environment around me. I observed characteristics of plants I never noticed before, and I started to understand better the relationships between different parts of the ecosystem.
This is one of the things that’s so great about wilderness: In addition to opportunities for solitude and a place to escape the daily stresses of life, it provides us an avenue for exploring and learning about the natural world that might not otherwise be possible, which in turn makes us better stewards of the land.