Forest plans and legislation – Blackfoot-Clearwater wilderness proposal

Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project map, Feb. 2018.

Wilderness designation has always been controversial in Montana.  No new wilderness areas have been established by Congress since I believe 1977, and unlike most states there has never been statewide wilderness legislation.  The Blackfoot-Clearwater proposal to designate 90,000 acres on the Lolo National Forest was locally developed and has been pending in Congress for several years.  Its development included addressing issues related to motorized and mechanized recreation that we have been discussing here, and designates areas for both.  This article provides some background, and includes a link to the written statement from the Forest Service regarding the proposed legislation.

The statement relates to forest planning in a couple of ways.  First, the Forest Service uses the Lolo National Forest forest plan as the foundation for its position on the legislation.

We also have concerns about implementing section 202, which establishes the Spread Mountain Recreation Area for the apparent purpose of enhancing mountain biking opportunities. The Lolo’s current land and resource management plan identifies this area as recommended wilderness. This area is characterized generally by steep topography, sensitive soils, and contains sensitive fish and wildlife habitat. Trail 166 is the main access into this area. This trail is not maintained, not passable by riders on horseback, and becomes difficult to locate after the first mile. While we acknowledge the interest in expanding opportunities for mountain biking on the Lolo, we are concerned that the site designated for the Spread Mountain Recreation Area is not well-suited for this use, and that this designation could create conflicts with wildlife and other recreation uses.

Two of the three wilderness designations in Title III are consistent with the recommendations made in the existing Lolo National Forest land and resource management plan. The third designation (West Fork Clearwater) was not recommended in the management plan to be Wilderness, it was allocated to be managed to optimize recovery of the Grizzly Bear.

One might argue that the 1986 forest plan is outdated, and recent local efforts should be given greater consideration.  However, those efforts have not been through any formal public process, so I commend the Forest Service for using its forest plan.  I’m not sure whether NFMA’s consistency requirement applies to taking positions on legislation, but it is probably the right place to start.  The proposal is also interesting in its legislative designation of two “recreation areas,” taking these decisions out of the forest planning process.

The Lolo is scheduled to begin its forest plan revision process in 2023, and the Forest Service is also concerned about the interaction between the revision process and this legislation.  It sounds like mostly a budgetary concern:

Our primary concerns pertain to Title II. Section 203 which would require the Forest Service to prepare a National Environmental Policy Act analysis for any collaboratively developed proposal to improve motorized and non-motorized recreational trail opportunities within the Ranger District within three years of receipt of the proposal… If passed in its current form, this bill could require recreation use allocation planning for site-specific portions of the Seeley Lake Ranger District ahead of the broader plan revision process, which would forestall the Lolo’s ability to broadly inform land use allocations across the forest through the plan revision process… If enacted, the explicit timeframes currently contained in the bill could result in prioritizing the analysis of a collaboratively developed proposal to expand the trail system over other emergent work.

But they might also be suggesting that the site-specific recreation planning would benefit from waiting until the forest plan is revised.  (Or maybe they just don’t like deadlines.)

7 thoughts on “Forest plans and legislation – Blackfoot-Clearwater wilderness proposal”

  1. Great post, Jon. Thanks for writing it up and focusing on the Blackfoot Clearwater proposal, which many of us have spoken out against and expressed concerns about for years now.

    Just pointing out that Montana did get about 67,000 of new Wilderness designated in 2014 as part of the NDAA bill. However, as I detailed in a blog post at that time, those Wilderness acres came at a great cost, including the release of various Wilderness Study Areas with no public notice and no pubic process and also the release of 112 million tons of coal.

  2. I’m pretty familiar with the portion of the bill where the two recreation areas are proposed. I’ve seen recent photos and was appalled at the devastating changes the 2017 Rice Ridge fire brought to the landscape since I was last there. I think the reasoning for the recreation areas and boundaries as proposed is that many locals wanted to see some shifts in management from what the Lolo has on it’s current plan. The shifts aren’t much from my viewpoint but they would allow some recreation to continue where it currently takes place. This bill would close a lot of bicycle accessible trails and snowmobile areas that are in use right now, but the Forest Plan would close more as Recommended Wilderness management would change, becoming more restrictive.

    I’m not a fan of this bill for a number of reasons. It’s self-serving, the collaboration was very insular, pretty much managed by Montana Wilderness Association and some Ovando area outfitters.. It perverts the intent of the Wilderness Act at one location by creating a boundary that prevents bicyclists from accessing non-wilderness lands beyond. It’s extremely discriminatory towards mountain bicycling. Among a listing of issues in the bill, it creates a recreation area that only has theoretical access. A new trail into it may take more than 10 years to design, approve, and build. It neglects to solve obvious problems regarding snowmobile access (I’m not a snowmobiler). While it panders to a few local ranchers who ride snowmobiles it disregards the larger, unhappy group of riders in Seeley Lake less than 20 miles distant. It doesn’t do anything to improve summer motorized access, and in light of the monumental destruction of the forest by successive fires it utterly fails from a forest and recreation restoration viewpoint.

    My viewpoint is quite different than Matthew’s, but I’m a mountain biker. I think the bill can and should be improved. But it will likely be passed with all of these systemic problems if there is a Montana Democratic sweep in November. Senator Tester’s staff hasn’t shown any interest in fine tuning the bill, they believe it’s good to go.

    • Greg, some folks have had trouble in the past with groups agreeing to deals involving things like new trails (or roads to access methane drainage wells) with a different group litigating and ultimately perhaps shutting down the “quo” of the “quid pro quo”.. so that’s another consideration when doing deals.

  3. Not to channel Mark Rey, but some of these issues are so fraught that you need people with political clout to reach an agreement. Otherwise it’s Forest Supe /RF and litigation -with decisions far away from any public involvement.
    I’m all for elected officials reaching an agreement and the FS implementing it. IMHO the straightest line between two points never involves plan revision.

    • I actually agree that forest planning by federal legislation isn’t a bad idea sometimes, when the decision is basically political any way. In theory, it also promotes a national look at a decision about how to manage a national forest.

      • I agree with this concept. But much of this bill is a train wreck for recreation. It’s simply being falsely portrayed.

        Bad plans can come from many sources besides the Forest Service.

  4. In this case, a recreation area is proposed that doesn’t have access. There aren’t any provisions in the bill to help secure access via a new trail, except for a collaboration requirement in the bill across the entire Seeley Lake Ranger District. Virtually anyone could raise objections and stall or sue against attempts to build a new access trail.

    Meanwhile two fine trails exist that lead to the area, one would be absorbed by new Wilderness and the other (in the proposed Otatsy Snowmobile Recreation Area) would be closed to bicycles by language in the bill. In other words, a Congressionally mandated closure of a trail outside of Wilderness.This isn’t being done environmental reasons, but to maintain exclusivity for horse outfitters.

    I do think a new trail into the proposed recreation area is necessary and desirable. But the way this bill restricts current access (all of the trails are currently open) and then doesn’t help overcome the obstacles created is quite unfair. By the way I’ve estimated a new trail would be around 7 miles long and have to ascend Spread Mountain, about 3,800 feet of vertical. It will be exceedingly expensive, difficult to scout, and may not be an easy journey once built. Only very fit cyclists would be able to utilize the area. The current trails, while not easy, don’t require as much physical commitment.


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