A road could go there

  Forest Service officials in central Montana are finding themselves in a tight spot over a proposed land exchange.

The agency has been trying for five years to acquire about 4,000 privately owned acres surrounded by the Lewis and Clark National Forest. Acquiring these islands of private land "will enable us to manage in a more contiguous fashion," says the agency's Terry Knupp. "That helps in terms of wildfires, prescribed burns and public access."

The owners, however, want roughly 4,000 acres of national forest land that abuts their ranch in trade. If the deal falls through, Bair Ranch Foundation says it will demand a road across the public land to access its private parcels.

"Under the forest plan, we have no plans to road that area," Knupp says. "But the law says we have to provide reasonable access and if the swap doesn't go through, they'll probably come to us with a road proposal."

Some conservationists aren't happy about the trade. Betsy Gaines, with the Bozeman-based American Wildlands, points out that the public will be giving up lushly forested slopes that are fed by seeps and springs in exchange for dry, sparsely timbered land. And with Bair and others having already logged adjacent sections, Gaines says elk and other wildlife will have nowhere to go.

"In a perfect world, consolidation is a good thing," Gaines says. "But not at the expense of wildlife."

An environmental assessment is due out by the end of January. For more information, write Lewis and Clark National Forest, P.O. Box 869, Great Falls, MT 59403 (406/791-7720). - Andrea Barnett

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