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A week after Sen. Jon Tester released his Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act, some wilderness advocates question what it might really do.

Now designated as S. 507, the bill resurrects a portion of Tester’s 8-year-old Forest Jobs and Recreation Act affecting the southwest corner of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. That bill ran into opposition from some environmentalists and U.S. Forest Service officials who objected to the way it mandated commercial work in the forests.

The new bill has raised eyebrows for the compromises it’s made with mountain biking groups.

“We’ve gone backwards from FJRA,” said Jake Kreilick of the Wild West Institute. “That kind of activity (mountain biking) raises threats to grizzly bears and human tragedies. And it’s another step toward privatization and Balkanization of our national forests.”

Kreilick’s organization was part of the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force, which also includes the Montana Sierra Club, Wilderness Watch and Swan View Coalition. Members of those groups also opposed the earlier Tester bill.

The new legislation has added advocates as well. In addition to beefing up its list of snowmobile clubs, the bill won support from mountain bike groups who successfully lobbied for a new bike-riding area in the Monture Creek drainage north of Ovando.

“We see that as a very positive development,” said Jordan Reeves of the Wilderness Society, one of the original backers of FJRA. “There are some very divisive, top-down efforts out there by extreme fringe mountain bike groups that threaten conservation efforts. This is a real example of the right way to do things. Where we respect multiple values you can find common ground to move forward on.”

The proposed Spread Mountain Recreation Area for mountain biking takes about 3,800 acres out of a larger inventoried roadless area that FJRA had slated for full wilderness protection. It’s adjacent to a 2,200-acre proposed Otatsy Recreation Management Area that’s intended for snowmobile trail development (which was in the original FJRA).

“It’s amazing to see the mountain bike and wilderness communities come together and emphatically support the same proposal,” said Ben Horan, executive director of International Mountain Bike Association chapter Mountain Bike Missoula. “The collaborative process that resulted in this legislation has clearly demonstrated that the recreational trails and traditional conservation communities have more in common than we sometimes realize.”

Mike Bader wrote a review of Tester’s new bill for the Flathead-Lolo Bitterroot Citizen Task Force. In it, he argued the two recreation areas bring new human activity to a place heavily used by grizzly bears and wintering elk herds.

“If the Forest Service had proposed such dramatic changes, it would have had to do environmental impact statements and NEPA analyses,” Bader said, referring to the National Environmental Policy Act review of forest activity. “This is right next to the (state) Blackfoot Clearwater Wildlife Management Area, and Montana sportsmen have invested a lot of money into that elk herd. This just rewards illegal snowmobile and bicycle use. Instead of shutting that down, Tester is giving it to them.”

Those two recreation areas front a proposed 27,392-acre addition to the Scapegoat Wilderness. That’s next to a proposed 39,422-acre addition to the Bob Marshall Wilderness in the headwaters of Monture Creek. Farther north, the bill adds 7,784 acres to the Grizzly Basin and front of the Swan Range east of Seeley Lake, and 4,462 acres to the West Fork Clearwater addition on the east side of the Mission Mountain Wilderness.

Tester’s Blackfoot Clearwater proposal is occurring, coincidentally, at the same time that other Northwest members of Congress are reviving wilderness proposals in their states. The Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act are being pushed by Washington's Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Derek Kilmer, both Democrats. In Idaho, Republican Sen. Jim Risch is planning to reintroduce the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness Act. And the Southwestern Oregon Watershed and Salmon Protection Act is being authored by several members of the Oregon congressional delegation.

The Wild Olympics bill would give wilderness designation to 126,554 acres and Wild and Scenic River protection to 464 miles of 19 rivers on the Olympic Peninsula. The Scotchman Peaks bill would protect 13,900 acres of the Idaho portion of a remote mountain area on the Montana border, where another 47,800 acres have not yet made it into legislation. The Oregon bill doesn’t have any wilderness or Wild and Scenic designations, but would preserve several rivers and tributaries from mining activity in southwestern Oregon.

The bill also effectively extends the Southwest Crown of the Continent Collaborative’s timber management activities for another 10 years. The collaborative brings together Seeley Lake’s Pyramid Mountain Lumber Co. and numerous local organizations to help the Forest Service design logging and forest restoration projects. Congress has allocated forest management money targeted at collaborative networks, and Crown of the Continent Collaborative was one of the first to participate.

Sierra Club representative Claudia Narcisco said that creates an incentive for supporters of logging to keep getting paid for their participation. It also appears to trade wilderness increases for industrial access.

“The collaborative has become a business,” Narcisco said. “How do you balance the national interest when you’re elevating the concerns of local people over the people of the United States?”

Reeves of the Wilderness Society noted that Pyramid had benefited from federal stewardship contracting that came about as Tester was working on the original FJRA 10 years ago. The company has continued its support for wilderness designations in the new bill.

“In efforts like this, nobody gets 100 percent of what they want,” Reeves said. “There’s always critics of collaborations – folks on the margins that are not going to be satisfied with a collaborative proposal. We feel the proposal stands on its own.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.