CONDON – With a can of bear spray strapped to a Montana Grizzlies belt, Lee Boman got ready to publicize a place known for isolation.
“I don’t think anybody looks up at the Swan Range and doesn’t think they’re looking at the Bob Marshall Wilderness,” the Seeley Lake resident said as he pulled rain gear out of his backpack at the Lion Creek trailhead. “But there are a lot of places like this that have higher wildlife values than the Bob does.”
The noise level could rise considerably in January, when the Flathead National Forest releases its draft proposed actions for a new forest plan.
That plan, due in 2016, will guide land use on 2.4 million acres of the Flathead Forest, including 57,037 wild acres along the Swan Mountains east of Condon.
The glacial valleys of Lion Creek on the west and Bunker Creek to the east of the Swan crest comprise the biggest block of general forest in a region surrounded by famous wild country.
In addition to the Bob Marshall Wilderness just to the east, there’s the Jewel Basin Hiking Area to the north and the Mission Mountains Wilderness across Highway 83 to the west.
From Inspiration Point above Bunker Creek, you can see the Hungry Horse Reservoir and the Wild and Scenic River corridor of the South Fork of the Flathead River, with Glacier National Park's peaks in the distance.
Fresh grizzly paw prints showed clearly in the muddy trail along Lion Creek, which has the crystal-cold water and gravelly bottom that federally threatened bull trout need to spawn in.
The surrounding peaks collect enough snow to entice mountain goats and wolverines. A cascade about three miles up the valley displays the same rock-cut basins that make Glacier’s Avalanche Gorge so photogenic. Below that cascade grows the last remaining cedar forest grove in the Swan Range.
One can also see the cuts of old logging roads on the southern side of the canyon. Bunker Creek has a road visible from a high-flying airplane left over from logging activity in the 1970s.
Hunting outfitters enjoy the use of wheeled carts to get their clients’ elk out of the woods, and mountain bikers can ride freely. Farther north, a popular snowmobile trail runs the ridgetops from alongside the Jewel Basin all the way to Columbia Falls.
Boman moved to the Seeley-Swan Valley after a 40-year career in corporate marketing with J.C. Penney Co., including a stint as chair of the Tri-Cities, Washington, Chamber of Commerce. He said from a business perspective, Montana should leave the Swan Front alone.
“The Missions and Bob Marshall are attractants of value here,” he said. “They’re why home values stay so high. To miss a chance to nail down the Wild Swan as a protected place would be a business mistake.”
But another curious feature of the forest east of Condon is the relative political silence. The Summit Divide sits a few miles to the south, separating the Swan and Clearwater river drainages in what Highway 83 motorists assume is one single mountain valley.
That line also marks the boundary of the Flathead and Lolo national forests. In the Lolo, the Blackfoot Challenge coalition of ranchers, environmentalists, loggers and snowmobilers produced a compromise agreement that got swept into Montana Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act to designate new federal wilderness and recreation areas.
To the east, a similar coalition produced a plan that former Sen. Max Baucus turned into the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which also nominates new wilderness and recreation acreage on the eastern edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
Farther north, the Whitefish Partnership coalition has delivered a plan outlining local wishes for land protection in the Whitefish Range along the boundary of Glacier Park.
Lots of people and groups are interested in the mountains east of Condon, but they haven’t reached the same level of collaboration seen in surrounding special places. Boman is the Montana Wilderness Association’s state council president-elect, and MWA has been rallying its membership to redefine Bunker Creek’s place on the map.
Dave Covill, president of the Flathead Snowmobile Association, is also interested. The 300-member group has filed its own suggestions with the Flathead National Forest regarding use along the Swan Range.
“We know some folks are pushing to make as much of the backcountry into proposed wilderness as possible,” Covill said. “Our position is that the stuff currently ride-able and allowed to be ridden, we should maintain that.”
Keith Hammer helped found the Swan View Coalition 30 years ago in response to Flathead Forest proposals to log and motorize parts of the Swan Range. While Hammer said he appreciates MWA’s call for more wilderness, he argues they aren’t asking for enough.
“We have scientists recommending for more wilderness acreage than the name-brand wilderness groups like Montana Wilderness Association or The Wilderness Society are calling for,” Hammer said. “That’s where we part company on things like the Tester bill, which just designates rocks and ice in exchange for more intensive logging elsewhere. That kind of wilderness is not going to save the day for wildlife. To accomplish that, you need lower-elevation areas protected, and more trees left in the forest.”
Hammer instead supports the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, a national-scale wilderness bill that would designate 9.5 million acres of proposed wilderness and inventoried roadless area in the continental United States. While the bill has been consistently reintroduced in Congress since 1993, it has never reached a floor vote.
Tester has introduced his FJRA legislation in two congressional sessions, and got it though a bipartisan committee vote last December. Baucus resigned his seat before the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act could reach a floor vote, although interim Sen. John Walsh has continued to carry it.
No Montana wilderness bill has passed Congress since 1988, when President Ronald Reagan vetoed a statewide bill on election eve. That legislation included protection for Bunker Creek.
Meanwhile, the amount of roadless country in western Montana has been steadily shrinking. In 1940, the forests had 6.1 million acres of unprotected roadless public land. By 1975, that had been reduced to 4.3 million acres. In 1999, the total was 1.9 million acres of unprotected roadless land.
In the same period, federally protected roadless land grew from 840,300 acres in1940 to 1.4 million acres in 1999.
Only Congress can add land to the National Wilderness Preservation System. Local national forest plans can designate land as “proposed wilderness,” and manage it accordingly. But a forest supervisor has at least six other land designations available as well.
“There are a lot of different management areas besides the recommended wilderness designation that continue to provide protection,” said Joe Krueger, the Flathead Forest’s forest plan revision team leader. “And things change. In 1986, we recommended a wilderness designation for the Jewel Basin. But during the 2006 planning process, we concluded it was getting so much use, it might not meet wilderness standards. Now we’re reevaluating those positions as we speak.”
The other options range from a “focused recreation area” like Whitefish Mountain Ski Area, to several levels of “backcountry” that allow different amounts of motorized use. There are also resource-natural areas, experimental forests, hiking areas and proposed wilderness areas (including Lion Creek). Bunker Creek falls in the “general forest” category.
When the draft proposed action report is released in January, the Flathead Forest formally starts its National Environmental Policy Act review of the new forest plan.
That should begin with open-house presentations on the draft decisions, followed by public scoping and commenting. Krueger plans to spend most of 2015 evaluating the responses, developing alternatives from the suggestions, and analyzing how they might play out.
A final draft and objection period will probably arrive in early 2016. The Flathead Forest’s management plan, with its recommendations for how to manage places like Lion and Bunker creeks, should be in place by the end of that year.