Montana wilderness bill reflects compromise and care

The Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act grew out of successful collaboration in a complicated landscape.

 

At Rich’s Montana Guest Ranch near Seeley Lake, a crowd of about 125 greeted Sen. Jon Tester’s (D-Mont.) recent announcement of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act with excitement, relief and pride. Many of those present at the Feb. 22 gathering had worked for more than a decade on the plans underpinning the legislation, forging a complicated set of compromises across a wide range of interest groups. The audience represented a “great cross section of the community,” says Montana Wilderness Association Conservation Director John Todd: outfitters in cowboy hats, sportsmen in camouflage, and wilderness enthusiasts in puffy jackets. 

Tester’s bill would expand Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, which consists of 1.5 million acres encompassing three wilderness areas, by 79,000 acres while also accommodating recreational and economic uses such as sustainable logging on adjacent lands. It designates two recreation management areas: a 2,200-acre winter area open to to snowmobiling, and a 3,800-acre summer area open to mountain biking. The lands in question fall within Lolo National Forest.

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Sen. John Tester announces the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act at Rich's Montana Guest Ranch on Feb. 22.
David Stalling

Timber, recreation and conservation groups first came together to address land management in the Blackfoot Clearwater Valley in 2005. Four years later, Tester folded plans for the valley into his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which led to progress on the project’s forest restoration goals. To address the recreation and conservation aspects, the project’s steering committee reconvened a few years ago and revised the plan into its current form.

There have been scuffles along the way, including tensions between horsemen and mountain bikers regarding trails that could not safely accommodate both. The land involved is mostly mountainous with a lot of blind corners and steep hills, notes Connie Long, co-owner of Bob Marshall Wilderness Outfitters, who first became involved in the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project when she served as president of Back Country Horsemen of Missoula. “A horse doesn’t like being met head-on at 30 miles an hour,” says Long. But after about a year of negotiating, the groups were able to compromise, with the mountain bikers letting go of certain trails traditionally used by horsemen and the designation of the new Spread Mountain Recreation Management Area for mountain biking.

Todd says he hopes if this project and the collaboration it fostered “is not a model, it’s at least an inspiration.” It’s a “shining example of the right way to do things,” says Jordan Reeves, the Wilderness Society’s Crown of the Continent conservation specialist. Local residents “put aside their differences,” says Reeves, and “united around their love for their community and the landscape.”

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The crowd at the announcement of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act.
David Stalling

That goes for businesses, too. “We’ve always maintained that you’ve got to do what’s best for the land,” says Loren Rose, chief operating officer of Pyramid Mountain Lumber, who noted that because Pyramid doesn’t own any land, it must work hand-in-hand with landowners—federal, state and private. This has led the company to be “more engaged and maybe have empathy and be willing to compromise,” Rose explains.

 For Tester, introducing this legislation now means holding up his end of a long-standing bargain. The timber portions of the proposal are already in progress, thanks to the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which led to the implementation of forest restoration projects and created jobs and federal support for the local timber industry, and the wilderness proposal “delivers on a promise made years ago to the stakeholders,” says Tester. “I’ve worked with these partners for years, and they felt now was the time.”

If what’s happening on the ground in Montana is any indication, perhaps the bill will garner bipartisan support in spite of the anti-public-lands attitude that has recently prevailed in Washington. Much will depend on Tester’s ability to get the rest of the Montana delegation on board: Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), with whom Tester recently cosponsored a bill to preserve south-central Montana’s East Rosebud Creek, and whoever is elected in May to replace Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.), who was recently confirmed as secretary of the Interior. “I think once folks see that this is a common sense solution for Montanans from Montanans,” says Tester, “we will be able to get it across the finish line.”

Rebecca Worby is an editorial intern at High Country News