Nature of the Forest
The Clearwater National Forest is truly one of America's great national forests. It's a forest with immense variations in altitude, extending from the rugged peaks of the Bitterroot Mountains in the east, to the rolling hills of the Palouse prairie in the west.
Here the river system has dictated the topography. This is steep terrain, with highly erosive soils, part of the Idaho batholith, with a rainfall pattern that mirrors some coastal forests.
The official boundary of the forest takes in 1.8 million acres of land in north central Idaho. Remarkably, most of this forest still remains unroaded. About 1.2 million acres is still rugged, primitive backcountry. That makes this forest 'ground zero' for the conflict over roadless areas in the West.
When you view the Clearwater forerst over the span of a hundred years, you can see the enormous changes that have taken place in this seemingly stable ecosystem.
At the time of Lewis & Clark, much of this region was covered with white pine, a massive tree with a life span of 500 years. But the devastating fire of 1910, logging, and primarily the deadly effects of the exotic blister rust disease virtually eliminated Idaho's state tree. Doug fir and grand fir now dominate the landscape.
Another change: timber harvest. In the 1960's and '70's, this forest provided 150 million board feet of timber per year. By the year 2000, that number had dropped to less than ten million.
One more change: the introduction of noxious weeds. In just the last twenty years, knapweed and other invasive plants have taken over parts of the Clearwater. Experts suggest this may be the toughest management problem of them all.
Another change: the number of elk in the forest. It was once the nation's largest herd, attracting hunters from around the world. But today the elk population has declined to the point that hunters are angry and frustrated.
The decline of the elk herd is directly related to this change: the numbers of acres burned. The Great Idaho Fire of 1910 is the one we remember from the history books. Three million acres scorched in two days, eighty mile an hour winds, throwing fire brands ten miles ahead of the flame front, at least 85 people dead, the devastation ending only when the rains came. There were other fires in the Clearwater in 1919 and 1934.
In fact, experts tell us that, in the first half of the 20th century, most of the Clearwater burned. Contrast that to the last fifty years, when less than four percent of the Clearwater has burned.
So, viewed from the perspective of 100 years, the Clearwater National Forest has indeed changed.