Residents of the Blackfoot and Swan valleys want to designate more local wilderness that they say would be part of a bigger plan to preserve their lands and rural way of life.
On Wednesday night, more than 100 people packed into the Missoula Public Library conference room to learn about a renewed push by the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project to add 83,000 acres of wilderness to the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Mission Mountain wildernesses.
Two drainages - Monture Creek and North Fork of the Blackfoot – would make up the majority of the new wilderness joined to both the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas. Another almost 7,800 acres of Grizzly Basin in the Swan Range would be added to the Bob Marshall and 4,600 acres in the West Fork of the Clearwater River would be added to the Mission Mountain Wilderness. Much of the area has been recommended for wilderness for decades.
The Blackfoot-Clearwater proposal isn’t new. For a decade, adding wilderness has been the third component of a stewardship triad that combines conservation, recreation and timber harvest.
Between 2010 and 2014, the Southwestern Crown Collaborative has encouraged timber cutting that kept 160 people employed in the area and brought in $52 million annually to the regional economy, according to the Southwestern Crown Collaborative. Wood-based businesses that are managing to hold on in the Swan Valley would be aided by future timber-harvest projects enabled by the steward project’s proposals.
But while recreation and timber activities are growing, the wilderness has been on hold.
That worries residents like Connie Long, chair of the Backcountry Horsemen of Montana and co-owner of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Outfitters.
“We use the trailheads at Monture Creek and the North Fork of the Blackfoot to take hundreds of people into the wilderness. But those trailheads aren’t protected. I’d like to see them protected for future generations,” Long said.
So for the past year, stewardship-project members have focused on rewriting a Congressional bill, first formalized in 2008, to make the wilderness proposal more successful.
One of the biggest moves was to carve the Blackfoot-Clearwater away from the rest of the wilderness and forest projects proposed in Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Restoration Act.
Originally introduced in 2009, Tester’s bill added the proposed Blackfoot Clearwater wilderness to collaborative efforts in two other regions: the Kootenai Challenge and the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership.
Although Tester’s bill finally passed out of Senate committee at the end of 2013, it stalled and died at the end of 2014. Tester has yet to reintroduce the FJRA in this Congress.
Wanting to see their bill passed before a new administration takes over, the Blackfoot-Clearwater group is forging ahead with its own bill. Some hope it will be added as a rider to some must-pass funding bills.
“This was part of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, but it’s not an either-or,” said Montana Wilderness Association spokesman Zach Porter. “We just may need different legislative vehicles to get it across the finish line.”
To add just a few more voices this year, the stewardship group reached out to snowmobilers, one of a handful of groups that often oppose wilderness because it bans mechanized uses. But the Seeley Lake Driftriders and Ovando snowmobile clubs signed on after the project group proposed the creation of a 1,859-acre Otatsy Recreation Management Area outside the wilderness near Ovando, which would be open to winter motorized use.
Another group that dislikes wilderness is the mountain bikers. As a nod to them, some of the wilderness boundaries were moved back to keep trails like the Center Ridge Trail open to mountain bikes.
“We were pretty intentional in working with mountain bikers,” Porter said. “Before, the wilderness boundary would have blocked the trail but now they can make a nice loop.
Finally, taking a page from the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, the Blackfoot Clearwater bill proposes a study of the Seeley Lake Ranger District to identify which trails are appropriate for hikers and horsemen and which might work better for bikes or ATVs.
“This has been an intense year of trying to strengthen the bill by doing things like including snowmobilers,” said Seeley Lake business owner and Montana Wilderness Association member Addrien Marx. “We’ve already addressed the timber industry. This addresses the snowmobilers and the mountain bikers. Everyone came to the table and everyone won a bit.”
Marx said the Blackfoot-Clearwater group has been working hard to convince Rep. Ryan Zinke and Sen. Steve Daines to join with Tester in support of the bill.
The bill rework has endorsed by the commissions of the three affected counties: Missoula, Powell and Lewis and Clark. Most recently, it received support from the University of Montana student government.
Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss, a Swan Valley native, said Missoula County has supported the stewardship effort from the beginning.
“The wilderness we’re talking about is as steep as a cow’s face so you can’t do much else with it,” Curtiss said. “I know there were skeptics in the beginning who thought once some people got the wilderness, nothing else would follow. But the logging trucks are already rolling, so we need to get the wilderness and Forest Service funding across the finish line.”