Tester announces new wilderness bill for Blackfoot-Clearwater

by Rob Chaney, Missoulian

SEELEY LAKE – Proposed legislation by Sen. Jon Tester would create new biking and snowmobiling play areas while expanding the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex by about 79,000 acres.

“Monday of next week we’ll be introducing the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act,” Tester told a crowd of about 125 people at Rich’s Montana Guest Ranch, which borders the 1.5-million-acre wilderness area.

The bill would designate 2,200 acres as the Otatsy Recreation Management Area for motorized winter activity and 3,800 adjacent acres as the Spread Mountain Recreation Area where mountain bikers want to develop a trail system. The two management areas grew out of compromises with the region’s horse outfitter community, snowmobilers and traditional wilderness advocates.

Those groups all backed federal wilderness protection of several other areas along the edge of the Bob Marshall and adjacent Mission Mountain wildernesses. The bill would add 39,422 acres to the North Fork Blackfoot-Monture Creek landscape north of Ovando, another 27,392 acres to the adjacent Scapegoat Wilderness, 7,784 acres to the Grizzly Basin and front of the Swan Range east of Seeley Lake, and 4,462 acres to the West Fork Clearwater addition on the east side of the Mission Mountain Wilderness.

“Twelve million guests came to visit Montana last year – that’s 12 guests for every Montanan,” said Lee Boman of the Montana Wilderness Association. “They didn’t come here to see our Walmarts. They came to Montana to experience the magic of Montana, and the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project helps ensure the magic of Montana will remain strong forever.”

The proposal was one of three wilderness/forest management projects Tester linked together in his 2009 Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. The other two affected logging and wilderness in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and the Kootenai National Forest. After several failed attempts to pass that bill, Tester did not reintroduce it in the previous congressional session.

The proposed act “died because of political bickering and no other reason,” Tester told the crowd. Later, he added breaking the bill apart made it easier to explain and build support.

“We’ll take this a bite at a time,” Tester said of bringing the other two components of Forest Jobs and Recreation Act to legislation. “We’ll see if we can get this done, and then talk to the northwest and southwest and see if we can move forward. Part of the problem was money – it was taking money from one district of the Forest Service. This doesn’t have that problem.”

The most controversial part of Forest Jobs and Recreation Act mandated that the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest complete several thousand acres of timber management every year for a decade. While the wording allowed everything from logging to fuels reduction, it still raised opposition from both Forest Service leadership and environmentalists who didn’t support the apparent linkage of commercial activity and wilderness acreage.

In contrast, the Blackfoot-Clearwater proposal combined its wilderness additions with a call for enactment of collaborative forest restoration projects. Those became reality through the Southwest Crown of the Continent Collaborative. That pilot project was responsible for bringing or keeping 138 jobs and $19 million in federal support, mostly based around Seeley Lake’s Pyramid Mountain Lumber Co.

“Everyone who collaborates does so with the expectation they will get something out of it,” said Pyramid Mountain Lumber chief operating officer Loren Rose. “We got logs on trucks. Our conservation partners got very little out of this Southwest Crown of the Continent work. But they supported it wholeheartedly.

“I think Montana is in a better place to show the rest of the country there is a better way,” Rose said of Pyramid’s commitment to the wilderness portions of the earlier deal. “It’s time to get this done.”

The new bill includes a requirement that the Secretary of Agriculture complete a landscape assessment of the area within three years and set up a 10-year schedule of collaborative restoration projects. It also memorializes some recent compromises that won support from mountain bikers.

“We all have a lot more in common than we have differences,” said Ben Horan of Mountain Bike Missoula, one of the groups that negotiated a way to share a popular area north of Ovando where horse packers, bikers and snowmobilers all have favorite places. “We realized all those trail interactions have to come from a position of mutual respect.”

That respectful position was a byword for many of the relationships built over the past two decades in the Blackfoot-Clearwater, according to Rich Ranch owner Jack Rich, himself a member of the Montana Wilderness Association, the Seeley Lake Driftriders Snowmobile Club and the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association.

Rich recalled how in the mid-1990s, the Lolo National Forest’s travel plan and forest plan came in conflict over whether snowmobiles could ride in the North Fork bowls of Morrell Mountain.

“The snowmobilers lost some key areas they had enjoyed – it was over,” Rich said. “But a funny partnership came to be. The Montana Wilderness Association teamed up to get those areas reopened. That developed trust with the Driftriders snowmobile club that carried us through to this vision. You’ve got to show empathy and integrity.”