Blackfoot Valley looking north toward the high peaks of the Bob Marshall.

The Southwestern Crown of the Continent forms the southern boundary of the wild Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and consists of the lower elevation forests and communities of the Blackfoot, Clearwater, and Swan River valleys. Across its 1.5 million acres, you’ll find a tapestry of working ranches, private timberlands, craggy mountain peaks, abundant wildlife, and pristine lakes and streams.

A unique place in America: Because of its largely rural roots, the extent of its wilderness lands, and decades of ongoing conservation activities, the Southwestern Crown is still a wildlife hub and remains rather unchanged from what it looked like several hundred years ago. It’s one of the only places left in America that still provides important habitat for grizzly bear, elk, deer, lynx, gray wolf, wolverine, and a wide variety of bird species and native fish.

Long simmering problems: Although the Southwestern Crown looks like a postcard to visitors, locals will tell you it has its host of troubles that threaten to unravel the area’s overall health.

For example, a century-long absence of natural fire led to evacuations of Seeley Lake in August 2007, when the entire town was threatened by the Jocko Lakes Fire. Meanwhile, a declining timber market continues to adversely impact the rural economy. In 2008, the Stimson Lumber Mill in Bonner ceased operations, laying off over 100 employees, and in December 2009, Smurfit-Stone announced the closure of its pulp mill in Missoula.

Less visible, but no less dangerous, processes are also threatening to unravel the area’s famed wildlife habitat and healthy forests. The continued spread of noxious and invasive plants is weeding out native plants and degrading wildlife habitat, while a legacy of old logging roads and mining activities have been choking out native fish and water quality for a century. The impacts of a changing climate are the most difficult to tease out, and scientists question whether the area’s forests and wildlife will be resilient enough to withstand additional changes.

The combined impact of these threats, if left unaddressed, will lead to widespread harm for forest, local wildlife and communities. The future of this place, the Southwestern Crown, depends on how we respond.