MOUNT JEFFERSON -- Near the crest of the Centennial Mountains on the Continental Divide a small spring bubbles from a black rock.
There are no trails to this spring.
There are no signs that guide the way.
Known as Brower's Spring, it flows steadily from its humble beginnings through lodgepole pine and aspen forest to a place called Hell Roaring Canyon. There it joins other rivulets to form Hell Roaring Creek, which flows north into Alaska Basin and the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.
"That spring is the farthest fountain of the Missouri River," said Mel Montgomery of Lima as we look out over the Centennial Valley. "You can follow Hell Roaring all the way down into Red Rock Lakes and out to New Orleans. That's 4,200 and some miles -- the longest continuous waterway in the United States -- and it starts right here."
Brower's Spring, Mount Jefferson and the Centennial Mountain Range have surge to the forefront of the debate over wilderness designation under Sen. Jon Tester's "Forest Jobs and Recreation Act." The bill would designate approximately 600,000 acres of Montana backcountry as wilderness, including about 4,500 acres on the Montana side of Mount Jefferson. It would be the first new wilderness in Montana in 25 years.
While the bill proposes wilderness designation -- which would eliminate motorized use -- only on the Montana side of the Centennial Mountains, it has drawn stringent opposition across the border in Idaho. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, has voiced his concerns to Tester about the negative impacts the bill might have on Island Park's economy.
Last Thursday, Fremont County (Idaho) Commissioner Ronald Hurt testified before a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee hearing regarding the Tester bill.
"Removing Mount Jefferson from the public lands which are available to ride will put the local snowmobile rental dealers out of business," Hurt testified. "This in turn will have a domino effect on the local restaurants, motels, rental cabins and the tax base of Fremont County."
But Montgomery, who leads summertime pack trips in the Centennials, said those concerns are unfounded.
"It is just greed," he said. "They've got a four-course plate full of food and a huge dessert and their gut is ready to burst and their buttons are popping off and they are still hungry."
Tim Bennett of Ennis owns and operates Hellroaring Ski Adventures. His business offers backcountry ski trips into Mount Jefferson and the Centennial Range. He bought the business from Reed Sanders, who in turn purchased it from the company's founder, Pat McKenna, of Lakeville.
As the hearing on Tester's bill was under way in Washington D.C., Bennett, Montgomery, McKenna, Dan Alder, Ron Spence and I rode out Red Rock Pass Road west of Henry's Lake and into the Centennial Valley to explore the Montana side of the range.
The pass is closed to automobiles in the winter, so we strapped our skis and snowshoes on snowmobiles for the eight-mile ride. The road cuts north around Mount Jefferson and nearby Mount Nemesis before the land breaks out above Alaska Basin -- a broad swath of rolling ranchland that stretches north from the Centennials. Bennett operates his business on a BLM and Forest Service specialuse permit. He said most of his clients come to the Centennials to find solitude and untracked snow in the mountains.
Snowmobile use on the Montana side of the Centennials -- mainly coming from the Idaho side of the border -- has increased dramatically in recent years. His business has suffered because of it.
"Snowmobiles are the number one complaint I get from my clients. There are 50 sleds a day on the weekend and on a real busy one 200," Bennett said. "The community of Island Park has heavily marketed Mount Jefferson as a snowmobile destination."
McKenna said that Mount Jefferson and the Centennial Range represent a small portion of the land that snowmobilers can access from Island Park.
"It is unreasonable on their part not to allow other users a little corner to do what they like to do when they have so much over there -- 500 miles of groomed snowmobile trails at taxpayer expense, every acre of the Targhee National Forest open to them," McKenna said. "It is unreasonable for them to be fighting for this the way they are.
"Back in 1973 when I first visited this country, shared use worked. Back then technology wouldn't allow snowmobiles to reach these areas. Now, the way things have changed with technology, shared use does not work."
As we pulled off Red Rock Pass Road and turned toward the mountains a light snow began to fall across the valley. The buzz of the motors cut out and we strapped on our skis and snowshoes.
We worked our way uphill through scattered timber before reaching a ridgeline with views back across the valley. The snow had broken and blue skies rose over Alaska Basin. It is devoid of subdivisions and development, and paved roads for that matter.
The only sound for miles was the glide of skis through the fresh powder.
This section of the Centennials is recognized as an essential corridor for wildlife moving in and out of Yellowstone National Park.
"Mount Jefferson and the Centennials as a whole are a well-documented wildlife migration area," Barb Cestero, the Montana director of Bozeman-based Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said Monday. "The mountains tend east to west rather than north to south. That makes them an important wildlife corridor from Montana to Central Idaho."
Alder, of Horse Butte, who once guided trips for Hellroaring Ski Adventures, said he has seen wolverine, grizzly bear and wolves in the Centennials over the years.
He favors a wilderness designation for the Mount Jefferson area.
"There are a lot of animals that live here," Alder said as we stopped for lunch at the base of Mount Nemesis. "Without these drainages, without a place they can call home, we lose that and I think we are a poorer culture and a poorer nation for it.
"This is what's real, this is what everything comes from," he said. "Without places like this, you just don't have much to fight for. If you are not going to fight for clean air and clean water and place to stretch your legs and harvest your fish and game, what are you going to fight for?"
After lunch we worked our way around Mount Nemesis and cruised down the slopes above Alaska Basin and the Centennial Valley.
Below flow the waters of Hell Roaring Creek.
All the way to New Orleans.