Bud Moore’s Land Ethic

“Given the knowledge we had, we did the best we could.”
-Bud Moore

A unique generation is in the process of dying. People born in the lower 48 around a century ago could have, in a few cases, grown up firmly in the 19th century; without electricity or running water, without a reasonable chance of attending school beyond elementary, and with the ability to spend formative years in true wilderness. Outside Alaska, no one born in US territory after the onset of the Great Depression had the chance. The CCC and their road building saw to that. Bud Moore was one such person. Born in the Bitterroot Valley, Montana, in 1917, he spent the 1930s as one of the youngest trappers and fire fighters in what is now the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. After a stint in the Marines during World War II, he returned to permanent work with the Forest Service, and presided first hand over the introduction of commercial logging, DDT spraying to control bark beetles, and the building and eventual paving of what is today highway 12.

To be of a time to witness such a place as both biologically intact (though Grizzlies were already going extinct in the Bitterroots during the 30s, dams which stopped the salmon and steelhead did them in for good), and post logging boom is a unique historical event. To have been the administrator of many of these changes is an extraordinary position. Fortunately for posterity, Bud Moore was not only a trapper and forest service administrator, he was also a good writer. His The Lochsa Story: Land Ethics in the Bitterroot Mountains is a highly recommended read.

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In 2010 Luc Mehl, Forrest McCarthy (shown above) and I hiked down Moose Creek from Elk Summit, and packrafted the Selway down to Selway Falls the next day.  We were awed by the miles of old-growth cedar in the middle reaches of Moose Creek, obviously one the few such large groves to have escaped logging in the 20th century.  Thanks to The Lochsa Story, I now know that a combination of remoteness (the rugged Selway gorge below, the steep drop from the Elk Summit meadows above) which prevented road building, and Moore’s own caution as district ranger kept these trees from the axe.

Moore’s book is valuable first, and above all else, as an even-handed and matter-of-fact chronological account of just how much this area changed between 1940 and 1970.  Take a look back at Functional Remoteness and the map I highlighted.  The large, red centered blob in east-central Idaho is the Selway-Frank Church complex.  It is separated from the still large, narrow yellow patch to the north by highway 12, and nothing else.  Before that road was completed, and then widened and paved, this was without question the largest wilderness in the lower 48.  Want to know what every stage of this development looked and felt like, from trappers on snowshoes to age of commercial truck traffic?  Bud Moore was there, and he’ll tell you in an impressively straightforward fashion.  Moore does not whitewash the environmental consequences of the 1950s.  He discusses the fishkills and poisoned berries which resulted all but immediately from DDT spraying with an almost clinical eye for detail.  He deduces, for example, that the absence of mink in a colleagues winter traps must be due to crayfish in the Selway having been largely eradicated by the pesticide.  He doesn’t indulge in much retrospective analysis either.  As he mentioned in an interview with radio host Brian Kahn (quoted at top), “Given the knowledge we had, we did the best we could.”

Moore is similarly unsentimental, and unsparing, in his analysis of what he and his fellows did wrong:  In sick fish and in sandbars untraveled by mink lay for me the beginning of ecological wisdom in managing the land.  Everything in the ecosystem was, indeed, hooked to everything else.  This was no casual attachment of creatures to water and earth, but a delivery system capable of transporting poisons from land through its water and food chains to injure or kill all forms of life- insects, carnivores, herbivores, omnivores, and perhaps people as well.  (p.354)

The only thing Moore misses is speculation about the historical and cultural factor which led to such disasters, and speculation on the extent to which future issues might arise from these factors and their continued legacy on the ground.  This is both a strength and a weakness.  It lends the book a certain solipsistic air, while at the same time being quite practical.  The world as it exists today is after all the world in which we must live.  One gets the sense that Moore, a Rooseveltian man of action his whole life, solved problems by looking forward only.

Moore died late in 2010.  His book, published in 1996, leaves behind a forceful legacy.  While it has particular appeal to me, because I’ve been to many of the places which centrally figure, I think just about any regular reader here would enjoy the book.

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4 thoughts on “Bud Moore’s Land Ethic

  1. Thanks for the recommendation. There is something about reading about the Last Best Place(s) that makes you want to look at your own home more closely, to find its remnant grandeur. Looking forward only.

  2. Nice review and thoughts on Bud’s book. It’s now on my list.
    Regarding Functional Remoteness there’s a Dirtbag Diaries podcast, “Project Remote” featuring Ryan & Rebecca Means who are trying to find the most remote spot in each state. They are also taking other factors such as light and noise pollution into account.
    Cheers,
    M

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