Mark Solomon

Mark Solomon is a community activist, and a blacksmith and welder by trade. He lives on Moscow Mountain.

Mark Solomon

When you survey the Palouse from your perch on Moscow Mountain, what do you see?
I see a generally stable, vibrant community. I see it undergoing some stress. Some of it is natural, cyclable stress, as in there’s a lot more logging here than there was in the early 70s and 80s, but that’s pretty much because everything was waiting for the trees to get big again.

Probably the biggest landscaping change that you see from up here is what happened with the Conservation Reserve program. The wheat fields used to come right up to the edge of the mountain. Now they are back into grasslands and tree farms; and the result of availability of space for wildlife has been amazing. That pretty much coincides with when the moose re-colonized this area. We’ve seen the deer herds and the game population just explode. It’s been great to see.

At the same time I see a lot more yard lights at night. There’s a lot more building activity as the price of wheat goes down and the pressure for land development goes up, and that will probably continue. Hopefully, it will happen in a restrained fashion that is centered around the city, so we can provide services easily. But there’s been a lot of activity in the rural parts of the county as well.

If you were forced to list one challenge facing the Palouse, would it be above ground or below ground?
In the Moscow side of the basin, it is certainly below ground, and it’s the water issue. When you look out from the mountain, you are very much on the top of a granite prow. You are out here on the north western most extension of the granite of central Idaho, the batholith; and it makes a little bay that the flood basalts from the Columbia River basalts flooded into; and it’s separated off from everything to the east of us here.

We’re on the very, very edge of the water bearing basalts, and as such it’s like a reservoir. The first thing you see go dry are the upper edges, and that’s where Moscow is. So we’re facing a challenge there. We’re certainly able to meet that challenge. The city of Seattle thirty years ago was using twice the amount of water they are now per capita, and in fact twice the amount that they are using total for the city, with double the population at this time. So it’s definitely possible through conservation and other methods to continue to see growth occur in Moscow; but it’s going to take aggressive leadership and some better understanding of what is happening with the aquifer.

The shade of green will change, the landscape will change, the sky scape will change. I can stare at this forever, and I’ll see something different every time.

Do you ever get tired of the view from Moscow Mountain?
No. Every day you look out at this, it’s absolutely different. The shade of green will change, the landscape will change, the sky scape will change. I can stare at this forever, and I’ll see something different every time. And over the thirty years that I’ve been looking at it, just watching the trees change has been wonderful. I could spend my whole life and will, looking out at this.

What animals do you see on Moscow Mountain?
There are a lot of moose up here, surprisingly, for a mountain, but there are quite a few up here. We’ve got mule deer up on the very summit; there’s a band. The rest of the mountain is pretty much white tail. Elk during the rut come up and use the secure ground to take their time. There’s the occasional wolf that wanders through. Certainly cougar and bobcat and coyote. Not too may of the fur bearers but there is still ermine and the occasional fisher come through.

How do you describe Moscow Mountain?
Moscow Mountain is the north western most extension of the central Idaho batholith, the granite that forms most of Idaho, and it’s surrounded by a sea of basalt that flooded in from the great Columbia River basalt flows over a period of about 15 million years. And then layering on top of that basalt is the wind-blown soils or loess that were the creation of the Lake Missoula floods and the winds of the Columbia gorge that picked up the soils that got flooded off, eroded off of central Washington and got blown back here as they dried out up the Columbia river. It’s an extremely unique landscape, and in fact is the world’s smallest recognized distinct ecosystem. It’s a very, very interesting place to live.

And below is this exceedingly rich soil.
It’s rich, loamy soil; and then it’s ash. It’s a little wet right now, but this light grey stuff in the rocks here is the ash from Mt. St. Helens. We got a good three quarters of an inch up here, and that compressed down in the soil horizon to about a sixteenth of an inch, twenty years later. What’s interesting about that is, if you dig down about two feet, you’ll hit an ash cap that is about a foot thick, and that’s Crater Lake, Mt. Mazama. So if we use that same compression of three quarter inch to a sixteenth of an inch and look at a foot deep, we’re talking eight foot, ten foot of ash. Definitely a landscape and life form changing event that is part of the world.

cedar grove

But it’s interesting. Before that deposition of ash, this mountain probably had very, very few trees on it, because when you go below the ash cap, there is almost no soil between the ash and the rock. There was just simply nothing up here. It was just an escarpment of craggy rocks like you’ll find on the top of the Selways or the Seven Devils or any place else that’s a high mountain peak. It took that instantaneous layering of a porous material for plant life to really take hold.

Moscow Mountain also has a cedar grove. Could you explain what it was that you and the county commissioners managed to pull off here?
We’re sitting on the edge of state land that is actually school trust land managed by the landlord for the benefit of the School Endowment Fund and eventually the public school budget. It used to be part of original section sixteen, 640 acres that were given to the state by the federal government for the purposes of funding schools when Idaho became a state. As such, it has to be managed according to the Idaho constitution, for the maximum long term economic return to the school trust fund. That means it has to get money somehow.

The normal way in timber country to get money for state lands is to cut trees, and in many instances it does make sense. This land was largely cut in 1958, but at that time the state forester, Roger Gurnsey, recognized that the cedar grove that was up here was so unique that he put a big pencil mark around the grove itself and just wrote on it "park."

So back as early as 1958 the state was recognizing that there are some unique values here. It’s so unique that in 1974 the cedar grove was proposed for the National Park Service as a national natural landmark, as the best existing example of western red cedar/larch habitat. And that was a proposal from Dr. Rex Daubenmeyer who invented the entire habitat typing classification system. So he knows what he’s talking about.

It’s definitely possible through conservation and other methods to continue to see growth occur in Moscow. But it’s going to take aggressive leadership and some better understanding of what is happening with the aquifer.

It’s a very unique place because of the presence of this granite, and the geologic fact that the granite is split by a vertical fault that filled in with quartz, and that we have up to 60 inches of rainfall here. We have springs that come out clear at the top of these ridges, and they run year round. That allows cedar trees to be growing at 4,800 foot elevation, which is very unusual in almost any part of the Clearwater country and north Idaho. Cedars are usually considered a lower elevation tree.

So here we have cedar trees at a high elevation, and then it’s cedar trees mixed with tamaracks, larch, as the other predominant tree species. Almost all the other cedar groves in the state are western red cedar/hemlock mix. And it’s just a totally different feel to the grove because it has a different understory and everything.

So somehow it escaped the logger through Roger Gurnsey’s efforts back there in the late 50s, and then it kind of went into a holding pattern. And then in the early 80s I started seeing some flagging show up. And as we know, any time you see flagging show up in the woods, it’s either somebody doing a research project, which it wasn’t, or it’s somebody planning to build a road or do a timber sale. I contacted the Department of Lands and they said, well, yeah we are planning a timber sale. And I asked if they would consider putting a brake on things for a year while we considered what other alternatives there might be, and they graciously agreed.

And in that time the community started bringing their concerns about the protection of this piece of ground to people around the state, and it went into a more permanent holding pattern for a while.. Back in 1986 I believe, the Department of Parks and Recreation was soliciting from the general public of Idaho nominations for a Centennial State Park, and the local community here said, oh, this would be a great park. Cedar groves on top of a mountain, why not?

So we put together a proposal and took it to the Land Board and the Legislature and the Parks Board; and of course it didn’t happen. It went down to the Yankee Fork instead; but it served as a very good way to publicize the unique nature of this piece of ground to a larger public.

And it has kind of continued in that vein off and on. I acquired the grazing lease in the early 80s. There was no grazing lease issued for this, and the Department didn’t like it, and they were just happy to take my $200.00 and give me the pleasure of running the cows out of the cedar grove.

But when the early 90s came around and it was time to renew that lease, there was a whole different set of political implications of renewing a grazing lease for no cows and the Land Board didn’t want to do that, so I went down to Boise and made a personal pitch to them, that it’s not about not running cows on the ground; it’s about protecting these trees from the free range trampling, and they agreed to extend the lease for a year while we worked out a special use lease for ten years with the Nature Conservancy, who would take over management of the ground and then use the ten year period of that lease to achieve an equitable exchange value, and to then exchange for this ground and remove it from the mandate to essentially produce money for the school kids.

It didn’t quite happen that way. There was a series of circumstances, both internal to the Department of Lands and the Nature Conservancy, and it communally fell off the plate, a little bit away from anyone up here.

So, we were contacted by the Conservancy and were told they were going to let the lease lapse, and if we wanted to bring the plight of the cedar trees and this unique piece of ground to the state again, it was probably a good time. And it is an appropriate time because Governor Kempthorne was married at the very spot that I am sitting at right now. In a special trip he and Patricia made from Boise after they had graduated from the University of Idaho, they came clear back up here to be married at this beautiful place.

So I think we have a good ally in a high place who can assist us with making the final connection in finding a solution that is both good for the wholeness of the School Trust and the enduring health of the trees up here. The Latah County commissioners have become very engaged and interested in it. The local timber industry is very much in favor of preserving this. In fact, to my knowledge, there is no one who is not in favor of achieving a protected status. There are people who question how it’s going to be managed, but those are issues we will work out as a community, particularly now that the commissioners are engaged and we have a good place for a discussion to occur.

Congratulations to everyone involved! There does seem to be a real love for this place among students and town folks.
It’s only been 30 years! This is a great place to watch a sunset or a sunrise or a full moon. So there’s a lot of activity up here.

What are your best wishes for the Palouse?
To do our best to minimize our human impact, our human foot print. To make sure that the special attractions of this place are not overwhelmed by our human presence. That’s not saying we shouldn’t live here, shouldn’t cut the ground for timber, we shouldn’t plow it for wheat, but that we’re aware that it’s a fragile place, that the little fragments of Palouse prairie that we have left are just tiny fragments, that we should actually try to grow those.

That we should be aware that there aren’t very many cedar larch groves left in the world, and that they are unique and should be respected. That our water resources can support us but only if we think about them. I think that’s the way we have to look at our world around us here and how we interact with it. We have to think about how to make our impact the least negative.

It does seem that the Palouse has some things going for it that the larger urban centers in Idaho may have lost.
Right. We have been in balance, and it’s largely because we’re not by a major transportation corridor. We don’t have a ski resort in the back yard unless you like putting on skins and climbing up Moscow Mountain. We don’t have a big lake like Coeur d’Alene. We don’t have major rivers running through.

So the normal drivers of development in the west aren’t really here. Instead, we have a subtle beauty that is not spectacular, but is one that satisfies the soul every day.

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