“Reflections” On Driving the Yaak Highway: A Vivaldi-Like “4 Seasons”

“Reflections” A column by Tony Smith



“Spring has arrived with joy, welcomed by the birds with happy songs, and the brooks, amidst gentle breezes, murmur sweetly as they flow.” Lyrics ascribed to Antonio Vivaldi, 18th century Baroque composer of the world-famous string instrumental “Four Seasons.”

“But don’t you just hate the drive?,” is the normal response to my 95-mile round trip to Turning Winds where I teach year-round; in fact, one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job is “the drive!” Each and every month driving in the Yaak has its own challenges and pleasures, but June, second only to October as my favorite, is particularly rewarding. Driving Northeast up the Yaak highway, Cyclone, Red Top, Hell Roaring, Meadow, Spread, Whitetail, and Pete Creek in that order, have become less turbulent and flow with perfect clarity into the main Yaak River, itself a visual feast of clear, deep pools, and sparkling ripples in the early morning sunlight, while the Yaak Falls has a mysterious deep shade of gray, contrasting with the surrounding sunlit mountains. The endless fields of fragrant purple Lupine, wild roses, and aromatic white blossoms of Ceanothus Snowbrush, also known as Mountain Balm, alluding to sticky, scented leaves, are especially prolific this June given the moisture, providing a veritable banquet of lushness and color. And the Larch, in needle clusters of 14-30, as soft to the touch as a baby’s cheek- swaying to and fro in the breeze- are turning from lime green to a pale green color before turning gloriously gold in the fall.                                                                                                                                                                              THE WETLANDS

It was years before I recognized the value of wetlands, most pronounced in the Yaak from Whitetail Campground to Pete Creek. Prior to Whitetail campground was a destroyed wetland, surrounded by mounds of dirt that would have, in a flood event, eventually silted the river below. How and why the destruction of that irreplaceable wetland occurred was beyond my understanding (one recently restored, however!). Directly above Whitetail Campground are “model” wetlands, ones sustaining a huge number of microbes, plants, animals and insects, while improving water quality and reducing erosion and flooding. The Yaak wetlands are comparable to rain forests and coral reefs, providing critical habitat for birds, fish, reptiles and mammals, as well as preventing mud and silt from clogging lakes and rivers downstream. It is estimated that freshwater ecosystems cover only 1% of the earth’s surface, but hold more than 40% of the world’s species, including 12% of all animal species. In the early morning hours, deer are occasionally standing in knee-deep water,  grazing in wetlands near the Yaak Highway, while a solitary moose stands in the still-shaded “moose- hole” below Whitetail.

It is my utmost faith and conviction that due to the sustained efforts of youthful conservationists like Anthony South, Ashley South, Ben Palmer, Pete Leusch, and Shawna Kelsey, the purity of the Yaak wetlands will remain intact long after I depart this earth.

Admittedly, spring driving the Yaak Highway is not without its DEER hazards, especially at dawn and dusk (in the fall, the hazards are of a more insidious nature: out-of-state hunters, primarily from Washington). Anyone born and raised in Western Montana is surely aware that deer are “depth-perception” challenged. However, the opportunity to see the progeny of every species of wildlife existing in the Yaak  at the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806), is more than worth the risk. New-born fawns on still-wobbly legs, mountain lions kittens, still with spots, attempting to pull a deer carcass between the posts of a highway guard-rail (get away from the road, little ones), encountering a fearless bobcat on the South Fork Road, elk grazing cautiously on hillsides near the highway, numerous grizzly bear sightings at Long Meadow, moose feeding placidly along the river bottoms, and wolves crossing the fields behind Turning Winds. The key to visual awareness and appreciation of the Yaak Valley flora and fauna is a simple one: slow down and focus. It is nature’s banquet right in front of you, and the length of June days allows one’s senses to experience all of it!

“And what is so rare as a day in June? Then, if ever, come perfect days.” James Russell Lowell, American poet and literary critic.

Dear Editor,


Property values are up, that’s not news. Will property taxes follow? All of us need to have a conversation with your mayors, school boards and county commissioners, soon!  Property tax bills have not been decided yet.

Just because values are up does not require property taxes to rise also.  Has the need for services increased? For sure. And so has the number of new developed properties that pay a large amount greater property taxes than previous.  Higher property taxes and larger relative government are a burden on all citizens including those that aren’t property owners.  Think affordable housing.  The newest assessed value I just received on a rental property I have increased from 233,900 to 543,100 with the only improvement being new basic vinyl siding over 3 years ago.  Like you, I wonder what our property tax bill will be.

Sadly, our local governments’ expenditures have exceeded population and inflation growth over an extended number of years.  We can and must become more efficient.  True leaders say no (not always of course).  They say no to themselves and to others.  Let’s all step up and be leaders.  All taxes eventually get passed on to end users. As Americans, we need to get past the mentality that, “everyone else is doing it” and “I’ve got to get my share” (often through loud arguments, manipulative language or the emotional approaches).

Property taxes have been out of control for years.  Who’s going to fix this?  I’ve been told this is a local issue.  Flathead Valley residents:  We have enough revenue.  We don’t need a sales tax for example. Local administrators:  you have a decision to make: please hold down your expenses and give your residents (all residents) a break and not raise property taxes.


Submitted by, Terry Falk, R-Kalispell, is the Representative for HD 8 and a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Dear Editor,


To al the property tax payers in Lincoln County. I have heard from many people about the property tax reappraisals that recently came in the mail after we got this slick little red, white and blue postcard “from Governor Gianforte”. The postcard told us we could apply for a property tax rebate of UP TO $675. I would bet with the reappraisal that your taxes went up way more than the rebate amount.

MINE DID!!!  Prior to this last legislative session, the department of revenue made clear to both Governor Gianforte and the legislature that property appraisals went up 47% and unless they took action, property taxes would increase by a substantial amount. Instead of taking action to avoid this huge tax increase and provide relief, they spent much of the state surplus on the “tax rebate” that is a ONE time, and you have to apply for.

Be sure to note that the appraisal and increase notice came from the state and not the county. Local governments by state law, can only raise taxes by a small amount each year unless voters approve the increase. All that surplus that is raised by our tax increase goes to the state to be spent however they want.

It’s not to late to avoid that increase, but it will take work from the Republican Legislature and Governor Gianforte.  Former Governor Brian Sweitzer has called on them to admit that they made a mistake in raising your taxes.  They need to call a one-day special session that will pass a bill that they have worked on with the Department of Revenue to stop the increase.

Make no mistake, the tax increase is permanent, and the rebate is ONE TIME ONLY.  There are programs that could use the state surplus to help people.  The surplus generated by the property tax increase will not be used for that…it’s pork for whatever reason they want.

Be sure to apply for the rebate and ask Governor Gianforte and the legislature to do the right thing.  The blame for this increase is on their shoulders.  They can if they have the political will.  When I served in the legislature, we had special sessions to fix problems and avoid catastrophic happenings. It is possible if they walk their talk. MAKE THEM DO IT.


Sincerely, Paula Darko-Hensler

Former State Representative