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Blackfoot fishing

A visitor fishes the Blackfoot River near Johnsrud Park in this file photo. 

About 25 years ago, when my wife and I finally started paying attention to which agency managed the public lands we recreated on, we rated the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) with low marks, referring to the overgrazed, two-track trashed, free-for-all country as “BLEM” lands. But over the years that agency has taken on a more active role in managing those parcels with an eye to the future and conservation. Although I don’t agree with all their decisions, I do believe they are on a much better path.

Most of us in western Montana know we are blessed with an abundance of public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service. These lands serve as the headwaters of our famous trout fisheries and act as a compass point when we head out to hunt, fish and recreate. Something that many people don’t realize, however, is that we are also home to 162,000 acres of public lands managed by the BLM that belong to all of us and provide superb recreation opportunities and important fish and wildlife habitat.

If you have floated the Blackfoot Corridor from River Bend to Johnsrud Park — 10 river miles managed by the BLM — then you have already experienced how important these lands are to our community. Moreover, the health of some of our best trout fisheries, including the Blackfoot River, upper Clark Fork and Rock Creek, are dependent upon sound stewardship by the BLM.

Right now, the BLM’s Missoula Field Office is revising its resource management plan, which will guide how these public lands — yours and mine — are managed for the next 20-30 years. Land management planning isn’t sexy, but decisions made today will affect future recreation opportunities and management of fish and wildlife habitat. It is critical that sportsmen and -women and other stakeholders are involved in this important process.

Unlike the politics of the day, local BLM managers have been doing their part to make sure that the public is involved early and often. Most recently, they released draft preliminary alternatives that lay out a full spectrum of management options. Within this range, the BLM has taken steps to protect, conserve and restore backcountry hunting and fishing areas that provide high-quality habitat, while still allowing for options like vegetation management and thinning where appropriate.

Under “Alternative C,” about 45,000 acres would be managed for their intact and undeveloped values and quality habitats. These areas include Chamberlain Mountain in the Blackfoot, a place where my hunting companions ran into a griz sow and cubs last fall, as well as Ram Mountain up Rock Creek, the spot my brother arrowed his first 6-point bull many years ago.

What I like about this proposal is that at a time when public land management has become increasingly polarized, the Missoula BLM office is listening to all stakeholders and incorporating this feedback into a balanced approach for managing our public lands. In doing so, they are on track to protect and restore fish and wildlife habitat and manage for outdoor recreation while providing for more management flexibility.

We need to get beyond fights over public land management and get to the hard work of developing collaborative solutions for managing our public lands. I’m going to push for more restrictive uses while many of you will argue for less of the same. Hopefully we’ll come out the other side with something we can all live with. That’s the way it should work. The BLM office should be commended for trying new ways to involve the public in resource management planning, as well as new tools for managing public lands.

John Herzer and his wife, Terri Raugland, are the owners of Blackfoot River Outfitters in Missoula and Flint Creek Outdoors in Philipsburg.

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