To see the landmark Bob Marshall, Mission Mountain and Anaconda-Pintler wilderness areas at the same time, it helps to be flying over the little-known Garnet Mountains.
Most Montanans zoom by the Garnets on their way to more popular destinations like the Blackfoot River or the Rocky Mountain Front. Interstate 90 runs along their southern edge. From the windows of Bruce Gordon’s Ecoflight Beechcraft airplane, spotting the Garnets’ quality seems like looking for flecks of gold in a pan full of gravel.
That’s exactly what the first settlers of the Garnets did and still do today, resulting in ghost towns like Garnet, Coloma and Reynolds City. Then came the timber harvest, which cut most of the area’s old-growth trees for railroad ties and mine tunnel supports. Now the future of these mountains is up for debate in a draft Resource Management Plan put forward by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Missoula Field Office.
“You can still see the roads and the cuts where the timber came out in the heyday,” Kit Fischer of Hellgate Hunters and Anglers said as Gordon flew over the mountaintops between Potomac and Helmville on Tuesday. “A lot of it’s covered in doghair lodgepole now. But there are still lots of places with wilderness values and wildlife values. They’re tough places to get into. That’s why people haven’t heard of them. You’ve got to hump pretty hard to get in there.”
Mixed into the clearcuts and mining claims are two federal wilderness study areas (WSAs) overseen by the BLM. The Wales Creek WSA and Hoodoo Mountain WSA don’t have postcard vistas. In fact, the only way to notice them from the air is they’re the most undifferentiated landscape visible — rolling stretches of forest spotted with small meadows.
“What we’re presented with right now is the most substantial and distinct opportunity to provide input in how these areas get managed in the next few decades,” said Erin Clark of the Montana Wilderness Association, which arranged the overflight. “The decisions made will be in place for a long time to come.”
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The Missoula plan affects 163,000 surface acres, mostly in Missoula, Powell and Granite counties. Field Office Director Joe Ashor said he’s received a lot of interest from local hunting, hiking and environmental groups.
“The Garnets are a historic mining district, and we will continue to manage that,” Ashor said. “But we also have a lot of folks very interested in preserving backcountry hunting and fishing opportunities that are there now.”
Ashor said the BLM reviewed the Wales Creek and Hoodoo WSAs in the 1970s when they were first proposed for federal wilderness protection, and concluded they were not warranted. The Montana Wilderness Association has its own measuring system, and argues the areas do qualify. But as Congress has not acted to either designate or release them, the WSAs remain in limbo.
Clark said her members are concerned the WSAs could be changed to BLM’s special recreation areas, which might allow more road-building, logging or other commercial use in currently unroaded forest. Ashor said that is part of the agency’s recommendation, but added the field office has also proposed closing motorized access to those areas under the preferred alternative, while allowing more in other places.
The draft Resource Management Plan for the Missoula area was released for public review on May 16. Interested parties can comment on it until Aug. 15, after which BLM staff will finish its internal review. Ashor said it’s possible that some elements not currently in the preferred alternative might get upgraded depending on public response.
“We feel the plan we’ve got now manages for the multiple uses we’re charged with managing,” Ashor said. “But it’s still protecting those key opportunities people want protected. The preferred alternative closes a lot of roads in the Garnets during hunting season so that people can walk in. We’re not proposing to change any of that.”
Fischer said those walk-in opportunities were important to hunters seeking the area’s large mule deer and elk herds. The mountains rise up from farmlands and pastures surrounding Helmville and Ovando, where wildlife move up and down with the seasons. Some sections are crisscrossed with roads leading to active mines or remote vacation homes. The forests show scars of beetle-killed stands, old and new forest fires, erosion from failed skid trails as well as deep isolation.
“We flew over hundreds of roads on the way in here,” Fischer said. “It’s a big chunk of habitat that holds a lot of critters.”