“In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
Henry David Thoreau’s words are more relevant now than when he wrote them at the onset of America’s industrial revolution. Quite suddenly, a very real threat now exists from members of Montana’s congressional delegation and from the Trump administration, in that our state’s most precious, unprotected public assets—our roadless federal wildlands—will be sacrificed for resource extraction, motorized and mechanical recreation, and other private interests who stand to profit from their release.
Our roadless lands span several national forests and BLM lands and are the backbone of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem, the last intact forested ecosystem in the lower 48, thus making the last best place truly the last of what is best. The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex encompassing the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem is especially rugged, with a core of designated wilderness surrounded by several ecologically significant inventoried roadless areas (IRAs). One of the most biologically rich areas is the Monture-North Fork Blackfoot IRA –providing an unbroken wild linkage from the high country of the Scapegoat and Bob Marshall wildernesses all the way down to the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area.
Recently, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester introduced a new bill (S. 507: Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act of 2017) that would permanently alter this proposed wilderness area by creating motorized and mechanized recreation areas for snowmobiles and mountain bikers. In addition, the legislation calls for a 10-year schedule of forest restoration and management projects, in cooperation with local collaborative interests, to supply commercial forest products to Pyramid Mountain Lumber Company.
Although the bill does designate 79,000 acres of new wilderness on the Lolo National Forest, 48,000 acres of lower elevation roadless areas are left unprotected and subject to logging, roadbuilding and new motorized uses, including a 9,000-acre section on the scenic Swan Front. To the detriment of its wild character, it establishes activities and uses that are not appropriate given their past management. Pitched as a collaborative compromise, this bill has serious flaws that undermine the Lolo National Forest plan, alters long-standing management area designations in IRAs, and sets a dangerous precedent for local control of our national forests.
From our perspective, this bill muddies the waters around both federal forest policy and wilderness policy, and will create conflicts of interest and commercial incentives that erode ecological values and backcountry hunting and recreation opportunities. Further complicating matters, the bill establishes a snowmobile recreation area and a mountain biking area in a grizzly bear primary conservation area and elk winter range.
From an analysis of the proposed legislation, all three IRAs affected in the bill are currently protected in the Lolo NF forest plan, and the agency has recommended them for wilderness. The Monture-North Fork Blackfoot IRA in particular gets dissected with the northern half designated for wilderness while the Otatsy Lakes and Spread Creek areas are turned into play areas for snowmobiles and mountain bikers. It’s inconceivable that these uses would be allowed given their wildlife values and wilderness characteristics.
Wilderness advocates should be upset with both the process and the substance of this legislation. Our senior senator owes us an explanation: why are these IRAs being given away to commercial and special interests, whose practices are incompatible with keeping them in a wild, natural state? A mountain bike play park inside occupied grizzly habitat? A snowmobile corridor up to the border of the Scapegoat Wilderness through elk wintering range? Certainly, these areas deserve full wilderness protection. Barring that, it is imperative that they be managed for their wilderness characteristics and wildlife values. Montanans should settle for nothing less.