Missoula Current: Tester’s Blackfoot-Clearwater act gets brief hearing in Senate committee

by Laura Lundquist

The Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act has finally gotten a committee hearing, although not much testimony was heard other than a few reasons to oppose it.

On Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Jon Tester’s Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act was one of 15 bills considered by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. But between the large raft of bills slated for the two-hour hearing and senators expressing concern over wildfires in the West, it was difficult for some bills to get much time.

Tester reintroduced the bill more than a year ago, after initially sponsoring it in the previous Congress. The act would add about 78,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and create two recreation management areas for snowmobiling and mountain biking.

The bill is the last piece of a collaborative concept started in 2005 that brought together recreationalists, timber companies and wilderness advocates. Their work has already produced timber and restoration projects, while wilderness designation has had to wait for Congress.

From 2010 to 2019, the associated Southwest Crown of the Continent Collaborative has logged about 60 million board-feet, supporting 150 timber jobs, and 3,431 miles of trails, both nonmotorized and motorized, have been improved in the Blackfoot and Clearwater river basins, said Montana Wilderness Association spokeswoman Erin Clark.

Once the Senate committee announced it would hear the bill, a diverse array of Montanans urged the committee, the Senate and the Congress to pass it this year.

Normally, stockmen are uneasy with bikes on trails because bikes can come up fast on packstrings, scaring horses. But long-time wilderness packer and outfitter Smoke Elser joined with Missoula bicyclist Ben Horan to tout the diverse opportunities enabled by the act.

“The truth is that we’re all drawn to the backcountry for the same reasons: to enjoy Montana’s wild places, to connect with the natural world, and to restore our spiritual health,” the men wrote in a Sept. 14 op-ed. “We all value this landscape and deserve a place on it. It’s that understanding that has allowed us to come together as part of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project.”

Similarly, in a Sept. 13 op-ed, ranchers Jim Stone and Jack Rich, forester Tim Love and Pyramid Mountain Lumber manager Gordy Sanders said they were proud of the 15-year process that started with crafting an amendment to the Lolo National Forest plan to allow snowmobiling in the North Fork and Morrell Mountain bowls, in exchange for recommended wilderness in the West Fork Clearwater.

“We’ve got a real chance to see this Montana-made bill become law, and we need our entire delegation to pull as one for the 75% of Montanans who support it. It’s time for them to find the path to get Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act across the finish line,” the four men wrote.

Gov. Steve Bullock also called on Montana’s Congressional delegation to be united in pushing for the bill’s passage.

“Montanans have a long and proud history of working together to solve challenges we face on public lands and to do so in ways that support the needs of local economies, while maintaining our hunting, fishing, wildlife and outdoor heritage,” wrote Bullock. “It is time for all of Montana’s congressional delegation to work with their leadership to give this bill a vote.”

During Wednesday’s hearing, U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Chris French said he shared Tester’s commitment to collaboration but that the agency has “certain concerns about implementation of certain provisions.” French didn’t elaborate on which provisions raised questions but later indicated they had to do with recreational access.

Because much of the hearing was dominated by talk of forest fires, Chairman Lee said he was concerned that prohibiting logging or thinning in the two recreation areas would result in “catastrophic wildfire.”

French said he didn’t like tools such as prescribed burns or logging being taken out of the Forest Service toolbox.

“Our position for years on all designated areas is to allow the full set of tools for accomplishing the goals of what that designated area was meant to be,” French said.

Chairman Lee also said the Montana Snowmobile Association had contacted the committee to complain that parts of the proposed recreation management areas have elevated avalanche potential.

French told Lee that all backcountry mountain slopes that allow for more extreme snowmobiling have an increased avalanche potential depending on snow loads.

When the Blackfoot Clearwater collaborative helped keep the North Fork and Morrell bowls open for snowmobiling, they worked with the Seeley Lake Driftriders. Now, a different group was stepping in.

Clark said the Montana Snowmobile Association hadn’t expressed its dissatisfaction to the collaborative. She added that the complaint was curious because the extreme terrain was added to the bill at the request of those who wanted that kind of snowmobiling.

The bill’s progress depends on support from Sen. Steve Daines, who sits on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Tester does not sit on the committee.

But on Wednesday, Daines submitted letters of support and opposition he’s received and praised the collaborative effort but not the bill.

Continuing to emphasize the issue of forest fires, the only questions Daines had for French was how the proposal would increase timber production or wildfire risk. French said the collaborative had already increased timber production. He added that the Forest Service uses low impact techniques to fight fire in wilderness but can shift to higher suppression if a fire threatens communities. So risk wouldn’t change.

That happened in the 2017 Rice Ridge Fire, which burned near Seeley Lake and in the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wildernesses.

The Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers has thrown its support behind the act and asked its members last week to encourage Daines to support the bill. But once the hearing was over, Montana Chapter Coordinator Kevin Farron said Daines had missed a great opportunity to step up.

“Senator Daines commended the collaborative efforts that have crafted Senator Tester’s Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act, and he acknowledged the importance of public land protections and access, especially in the time of Covid – but he disappointingly stopped short of offering his support of the bill in today’s hearing,” Farron said in an email.

“We look forward to the opportunity to work with the entire SENR Committee to forward this legislation.”