Missoulian: Tester Rallies for BCSA

by Joshua Murdock

For the first time since it was originally introduced into the U.S. Senate in 2017, the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act has cleared committee hearings and could be ready for action on the Senate floor.

But that’s no guarantee that Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, will succeed with his fourth attempt to designate about 79,000 acres of western Montana as new wilderness while opening other areas to logging and recreation. Tester, the state’s senior senator, previously introduced the BCSA in 2017, 2019 and 2021. The bill died in committee in each of those last congresses. He introduced the bill a fourth time in the 188th Congress on June 22 this year.

On Sept. 21, the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources did something with Senate Bill 2149 it hadn’t done with the three prior bills: It passed the bill and sent it to consideration in the full Senate. That’s the furthest the BCSA has made it in the chamber.

“(W)e’re closer than we’ve ever been before,” Tester said in an interview in Missoula Friday. “The opportunity to get this passed is better than it’s ever been before. I make no promises but I can tell you that if we work hard, we’ve got a better chance of getting it passed than if we don’t. And that’s really the bottom line.”

With Congress grappling over the national budget and the House paralyzed by a controlling Republican party split between warring factions of far-right and more moderate lawmakers, a bill affecting sparsely populated forests in Montana doesn’t draw the same attention as aid to Ukraine or the debt ceiling. Tester said the BCSA probably won’t come to the Senate floor as a standalone bill. Instead, he said, “It’s probably going to be put on another bill, but that really doesn’t matter. The key is just getting it across the finish line.”

Just prior to the interview, Tester spoke to a group of about 60 BCSA stakeholders and supporters gathered in the downstairs lobby of The Trail Head outdoors gear store in Missoula. The gathering was the culmination of two decades of collaboration in the Clearwater and upper Blackfoot river valleys east and northeast of Missoula. As early as 2001, Seeley Lake and Ovando-area guides and business owners began working with wilderness advocates, snowmobile groups, conservationists and mountain bikers to work collaboratively on managing and preserving the landscape on the southwestern edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.

That effort grew into the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project. And in 2017, it led to Tester’s first shot at the BCSA. On Friday, the group gathered to celebrate the fourth attempt’s progress out of committee.

If passed, the bill would create the 2,013-acre Otatsy Recreation Management Area north of Ovando, which would be managed primarily for snowmobile recreation. Immediately west of Otatsy, it would create the 3,835-acre Spread Mountain Recreation Area, primarily managed for mountain biking and other non-motorized trail development.

For non-motorized and non-mechanized use and preservation, the BCSA would add 39,422 acres around Monture Creek east of Seeley to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. It would add another 7,784 acres around Grizzly Basin on the west slope of the Swan Mountains north of Seeley to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area.

The bill would add 4,462 acres around the west fork of the Clearwater River, on the east side of the Mission Mountains northwest of Seeley Lake, to the Mission Mountains Wilderness Area. And it would add 27,392 acres northwest of Ovando into the Scapegoat Wilderness Area. The Scapegoat is adjacent to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area and is part of the broader Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. The two larger additions to the Bob are contiguous.

In other areas, the bill would order the U.S. Forest Service to assess landscape conditions and expedite forest work including logging and thinning. The bill aims to have the agency complete work within 10 years and with expedited, less rigorous environmental assessment.

Public polling shows the BCSA drawing support from as much as 83% of Montanans. And the group assembled Friday represented a broad array of interests, from wilderness outfitters and loggers to mountain bikers, gear-shop owners and wilderness advocates.

“The outdoor business in Montana is $7.1 billion a year,” said Todd Frank, owner of The Trail Head. “It’s our most important asset to our state, it really is.”

Frank, Tester and others who spoke Friday lauded compromise and collaboration as the keys to developing the widely supported bill. Everyone gave up something to get something else, they said, allowing the collective to support a common proposal.

“We live in a time when compromise oftentimes is a dirty word,” Tester told the group, “when in fact compromise is how you get things done.”

Not everyone is OK with that. Some staunch wilderness advocates argue against a compromise that opens some areas to development for logging or recreation in exchange for protecting others as wilderness. More acreage should be made wilderness than the BCSA proposes, they argue — including lands the bill proposes to manage for motorized and mountain bike recreation.

Mike Garrity, executive director of the Helena-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies, knocked the bill in 2021 for “minimal new wilderness designation, mandated logging provisions, special interest carve-outs in currently roadless national forests.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Citizens for Balanced Use, a Bozeman-based nonprofit supporting motorized-use access on public land, has criticized the bill as an effort to further remove snowmobile access in the area, first through agency management and then by wilderness designations such as those in the BCSA.

In Friday’s interview, Tester defended compromise.

“If you can get a bill that you agree with 70% of it, jump on board,” he said. “My wife and I don’t agree 70% of the time; we’ve been married 46 years. I think you can’t let perfection be the enemy of the good.”