Seely Swan Pathfinder: Tester reintroduces BCSA, recreationist call for change
Thursday, April 29 U.S. Senator Jon Tester reintroduced his landmark Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act (BCSA) in the Senate. With no change to the bill since it was reintroduced in 2019, many still support it while other recreationists are getting more vocal about the lack of collaboration that developed the current proposal.
History of the BCSA
The Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project started more than 15 years ago from a collaborative effort of ranchers, logger, timber companies, outfitters, local citizens, businesses and state/federal agencies in the Seeley Lake and Ovando area. The Project provided for forest restoration activities and timber harvest, the development of additional recreational trails and the designation of additional Wilderness.
In February 2017, Tester introduced the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act. It included three components: timber, recreation and conservation. The timber provisions were completed from 2010-2018 through the Southwest Crown Collaborative.
“With increased forest restoration activities through implementation of the Southwestern Crown of the Continent Collaborative, our communities have been able to create and maintain 138 jobs at Pyramid Mountain Lumber and many other businesses, injecting $33 million into the local economy,” said Pyramid Mountain Lumber resource manager and BCSA steering committee member Gordy Sanders. “Collaborative efforts like the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act serve as a model to bring together wilderness, recreation and healthy forest management for a common goal. It presents an opportunity for others to look at ways to work together, to get more good work done on the ground and provide for a wide variety of use on national forest system lands.”
Implementation of the BCSA would complete the recreation and Wilderness designations that were included in the original forest management agreement between the local collaborators.
It would add 79,060 acres of Wilderness to the Mission Mountains, Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness Areas permanently protecting tributaries to the Blackfoot River.
North of Ovando, the BCSA would create the Otasty Recreation Area that would open snowmobiling in 2,013 acres of land that has been closed to snowmobiling since 1986. It would establish the Spread Mountain Recreation Area opening up 3,835 acres for mountain biking and hiking.
Tester testified in support of the bill before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (Committee) in February 2018 but it never made it through Congress. He reintroduced the bill in June 2019 but it never made it out of the Committee.
In August 2020, the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project released an economic report entitled “Now Is the Time.” The report stated that 75% of Montanans support the BCSA based on a 2020 University of Montana Statewide Survey.
“This legislation obviously will strengthen our economy and will preserve our way of life for the next generation and beyond,” Tester said adding he has never carried a bill with 100% support so he considers more than 70% excellent. “This legislation shows what Montanans can do and what Montanans can put together particularly as it applies to the greater Blackfoot drainages.”
The BCSA was heard in Committee Sept. 16, 2020. While expressing support for the bill, the U.S. Forest Service identified concerns with the implementation of the proposal including the timeframes required to fulfill the recreational development of trails, enhancing mountain biking in an area recommended as Wilderness in the management plan and only two of the three Wilderness designations being consistent with the Lolo National Forest Land and Resource Management Plan. They said they looked forward to developing modifications to the bill.
“This is something I’m very, very proud of because it is not something Washington, D.C. is recommending, it is something that people in the area of Seeley have gotten together and gotten passed,” Tester said. “I can’t say it enough. Compromise is not easy but when you have people that have a common goal in mind and understand that there is a way to get there and work together, you end up with things like the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act.”
Tester said the BCSA was reintroduced with no changes to the June 2019 bill.
“We are going to be talking with the Forest Service and making sure we get them on board,” Tester said.
This time, Tester is confident he will “get this through to the finish line.” He believes his relationship with the chairman of the Committee and the chairman’s understanding of the bill will add the needed pressure and momentum to get it out of Committee. Then he can work on getting it passed through the Senate. He added he will be able to put more pressure on a Democratic leader.
“We need to get this through,” Tester said. “Because it is Montana centric, it is often difficult to put through state-specific bills. Most likely, as with many things, it will go through as an amendment.”
When asked if he still had the support from the motorized recreationists in Seeley Lake and the surrounding areas that he had in the beginning Tester said, “I haven’t heard any different so I’m assuming we still do.”
“To say that he hasn’t heard from them, is simply not true,” said Kerry White, executive director of Citizens for Balanced Use (CBU).
CBU is not the only statewide group expressing concerns regarding the current bill. While many of the groups in opposition claim that they have written letters, spoken with Tester’s staff and asked to make amendments to the bill to make it “more acceptable and not so painful” White said, “[Tester] is not willing to sit down.”
“Because of the makeup of the House and the Senate, [the BCSA] could very well get pushed through,” White said. “But what is even more concerning is the dishonesty and the deception from Senator Tester on the support and how this whole thing came about. It is simply not a collaborative effort.”
“As with any compromise, especially when it comes to land management, not every single person is going to be completely happy,” wrote Tester’s office in an email. “However this proposal is built on suggestions directly from the mountain biking and snowmobiling communities, and expands and protects recreational opportunities that local stakeholders have asked for.”
President of the Montana Snowmobile Association (MSA) Jason Howell said MSA has never supported the BCSA.
“Basically it is a land grab with no guarantee of additional recreational opportunities for not just snowmobiles but also summer ATVs and more trails for the Seeley Lake area,” Howell said.
Howell explained that while the Wilderness will be designated immediately if the BCSA is signed into law, it is up to local stakeholder’s group and the Seeley Lake Ranger District to put in new trails.
“We have said all along we would help support it if it was designated as a National Recreational Area and put on the Federal Registry so it was guaranteed,” Howell said. “We are in support of balanced use. If you want wilderness, we would support that but at the same token you need to open up some areas for additional recreational opportunities.”
Rolling Stone Ranch owner and BCSA steering committee member Jim Stone is quoted in a press release saying, “The BCSA is a big win for snowmobile access – opening up the prized bowls and north facing slopes in Otatsy.” Howell disagrees.
After taking aerial photography of the proposed Otatsy Recreation Area, he said it is a small area that it is an in and out and a terrain trap for avalanches. White added the west side of Monture Creek has 1,500 acres of prime snowmobile area that is included in the proposed Wilderness designation while the lower part of Lake Creek in the Otatsy Recreation Area is heavily timbered making it nearly unrideable.
“It doesn’t boast any benefits for additional opportunities,” Howell said. “Motorized groups have never been in support of it the way that is it written.”
Montana Mountain Bike Alliance’s (MMBA) mission is to preserve, protect and promote mountain bike access on Montana’s public lands through education, communication and unified action. It has been on BCSA’s list of supporters since the Spread Mountain Recreation Area was added in 2016.
“The Recreation Area is a good concept. However, we’ve discovered that so many constraints exist that it will be extremely difficult to create access routes,” said Greg Beardslee, MMBA secretary. “We don’t oppose the bill or the Recreation Area but our support, considering our analysis, is wavering.”
Beardslee said that he participated in meetings from 2008-2012 with the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project. In 2010, he was part of a reconnaissance mission to the area, where about 15 cyclists from Montana observed and photographed the trails and landscape. He is one of two people that he knows of that have ever ridden a mountain bike over Spread Mountain.
In the meetings, Beardslee said he was “always treated with suspicion and everyone’s concept of mountain biking was fraught with misconceptions.” Only Seeley Lake District Ranger Tim Love and committee member Jim Stone made any attempt to understand MMBA’s concerns.
Despite the dismissal, Beardslee was amazed when four years later Spread Mountain Recreation Area was added to the project.
“I’d truly like to thank whoever achieved this,” Beardslee said. “I was not privy to the dialog during that time as it was a closed process.”
In a press release about the reintroduction, Mountain Bike Missoula Interim Director Brian William spoke in favor of the BCSA, “Our mountain biking community thrives on not only having diverse local trails to ride, but also access to out-of-town destination rides. The BCSA maintains bike access to the rugged, backcountry trails around Spread Mountain.”
While Beardslee said the trail over Spread Mountain is good and sustainable along the top mile to mile-and-a-half, the bill constrains access to the Recreation Area through three primary blockages.
First, the proposed Wilderness boundary encompasses the Falls Creek Trail, the primary bicycle route to the lakes, prohibiting access.
Second, the proposed wilderness boundary blocks access to Lake Creek over the Otatsy Lake Trail by way of the North Fork Blackfoot Trailhead. Beardslee said this section is the only family-friendly bicycle trail in the bill and is the only access to Spread Mountain from the east.
This leaves the western portion that is exceedingly steep and washed out in a large section. This is currently the only way in for mountain bikers. Because the proposed Wilderness boundaries are offset 50 feet from trails, Beardslee said this does not allow enough distance to rebuild trails for sustainability.
Beardslee said new trails would have to be built to access the Recreation Area. The bill requires this be done through a collaborative process that must be inclusive and transparent.
“However, the committee that created the bill wasn’t inclusive or transparent, thus, a double standard exists,” Beardslee said.
He added the collaborative requirement doesn’t exist for creating access to the Otatsy Recreation Area, adding another double standard for the mountain bike community.
The third blockage is the bill’s permanent restriction of mechanized vehicles from the Otatsy Recreation Area. Beardslee said the BCSA as well as the Badger Two Medicine Act contain legislatively mandated bicycle prohibitions over significant amounts of public lands outside of Wilderness.
“These prohibitions are precedent setting, opening a door that can’t be closed,” Beardslee said. “As written, these restrictions legislate permanent prejudice, a comparative discrimination, that I believe abhorrent.”
Beardslee continued, “When creating a bill for public lands such as this one, I feel that all those concerned should have been present and able to voice concerns during its creation. Done as it was, by a small exclusive group, the bill is riddled with many constraining details, almost to the level of being punitive toward mountain bike recreation. I feel Senator Tester had a duty to create a bill that equitably served us before reintroduction.”
Tester’s office said he has led this bill from the collaborative, which is inherently based on compromise. There have been plenty of opportunities for constructive input from all Montanans in the past four years since BCSA has been introduced.
“Anyone with specific proposals has ample opportunity to weigh in and have their voices heard but some changes just aren’t in line with the rest of the collaborative, or face legislative hurdles that would render the bill dead on arrival in Congress,” Tester’s Office wrote in an email. “Senator Tester is specifically working to advance a bill based on collaboration with the folks who live and work on the landscape and who are interested in finding a solution.”
Beardslee believes it would be socially, environmentally and politically responsible to find a middle ground with this bill. Greater public knowledge about the details of the bill could shift the conversation.
Beardslee proposed convening a more inclusive collaborative tasked to examine and fix the recreational shortcomings. Another alternative is for Montana Senator Steve Daines to persuade Tester to make changes in exchange for his support.
“As for the promotional slogan touting that it’s now time to pass the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act, I feel it’s not time at all,” Beardslee said. “When the bill looks and feels equitable, then it will be time to pass it.”
White said while CBU will continue to actively oppose the BCSA as proposed now, they are going to try and work with Tester and Daines to get some compromise to preserve key trails and the area for snowmobiling.
“We need to work together to find some kind of common ground,” White said. “Creating Wilderness takes [away] all opportunity for multiple-use recreation, the fastest growing recreational outdoor industry in Montana having quadrupled in the last 20 years.”