Reality is what we find. Not what we fathom.
One August morning, I set out to find the truth about Lost Creek on the Custer Gallatin National Forest in Montana. I wanted to see for myself whether this stream flowing off the West Boulder Plateau had some characteristics the Forest Service might consider “outstandingly remarkable” – their benchmark for whether this stream could be protected under a law that keeps rivers clean and free-flowing. That law is the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
In all likelihood, one might study a map of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and never lay an eye on Lost Creek. Streams like the Boulder, West Boulder and Stillwater commonly grab the attention of the angler, hunter, or hiker. Lost Creek is less than a quarter the length of the West Boulder and a fraction of the size of the main Boulder River. But where “remarkable” is concerned, even the Forest Service understands: size does not matter.
Finding Lost Creek is a journey. About a decade ago, a wildfire burned through the West Boulder drainage. Years later, fireweed has flourished on hillsides, and a series of autumn and winter storms, characterized by forceful wind gusts, have laid charred lodgepole pines to rest on the forest floor in a chaotic cluster. The result: the trail to Lost Lakes – the easy way to inventory Lost Creek – is long gone. The journey now requires wandering off trail, removing shoes to cross the West Fork of the Boulder, feeling the mud between toes, getting dirty, embracing charcoal burned timber on the body and clothes, stepping over countless logs, and route finding several hundred vertical feet to the top of a lateral moraine.
Hidden gems are discovered along the way. A single trout faces up stream. Feeding in near stillness, just a slight tail wag holds her place in the current. Whitetail deer, many of them, bedded in tall fire weed stir with my passage and pounce off out of sight. The smell of elk, their musky aroma the only sign they have left behind, proving their reputation as the phantoms of the forest. Upon reaching Lost Lakes I find wetlands perfect for moose. The view to the south presents Lost Creek carving a long, deep incision into the West Boulder Plateau on a due north trajectory. The snow that collects through winter and holds into mid-summer offers a slow release of cold water and benefits animals and plants downstream, even as the climate changes.
It is important that we know these public lands that the Forest Service is trying to manage. The Forest Service is now tasked to review Lost Creek and more than 900 other streams on the Custer Gallatin National Forest, to see if they’re eligible for Wild and Scenic protections. As we help them with this review, we need to remind ourselves, and the agency, the true outstandingly remarkable value of these creeks and rivers is discovered on the ground and vetted by experience.
-- Charles Wolf Drimal, Waters Conservation Associate