By Amy Hessl
How do you know when you are in wilderness? When you have walked beyond where most people walk, when you have left the road, left the (human) trail, passed the cut stumps and horse dung, climbed up over rocks and through burned birch forest and finally when the easiest route to walk is not a path tread by people but rather the path tread by wolves, moose and deer. The dark forests of Bugant contain thousands of square kilometers of such places.
The Khentii Mountains are steep and largely inaccessible to all but the most stolid hunters. Dirt tracks only passable during dry conditions traverse the mountains and occasional jeeps pass through, but the original forest is largely intact – old growth Scots pine forest with infrequent fires (for Mongolia). The Khentii Mountains near Bugant are the center of conifer diversity in Mongolia. Bugant is the only place in Mongolia where you can see seven native tree species living together (two pines, larch, spruce, fir, birch and aspen) . Towering pines stand at odd angles leering down on currant bushes full of fruit. Animal scat is everywhere – moose, wolf, bear, deer. Cut stumps occur only in the first 100 m from the road, then dissipate as the slopes steepen. There is literally no sign of man beyond those stumps. But we threaten.
Gold mines – piled high with the remains of hydraulic mining (the same technique used in the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains during their gold rushes) – creep in to Bugant along the rivers and streams. With them comes money – money for railroads and improved roads that bring the end of the wild. Amazingly, Bugant is unprotected – it exists in its wild state only because of its inaccessibility. It truly is a last great place and worthy of the highest protection. The gold mines play out in a few years, but the slug of sediment will creep downstream for centuries and the mercury used to refine the gold will poison the well-water for just as long. Once perturbed, the wildnerness will be gone forever. Let’s find a way to protect Bugant!