Smoke Elser agreed to share his favorite place in the world with his least-favorite pastime, and it nearly broke his heart.
“I will support what we’ve done,” Elser said. “I’m the only one who voted against it. But everyone else agreed. And I want Grizzly Basin. I want that Monture drainage. So I had to compromise. But I’m not going to compromise anymore.”
What the dean of Montana’s horse-packing heritage did was concede to a deal that unified an unprecedented coalition of supporters around an expansion of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. In return for endorsing full federal protection of 80,000 acres, the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) and two Montana mountain biking groups laid claim to about 3,800 acres for future cycling trails. That’s next to a proposed 2,200-acre recreation management area designated for snowmobile use.
The agreement revived a smoldering feud within the conservation community that’s slept since the last time this proposed wilderness underwent congressional scrutiny. In 2009, newly elected Democratic Sen. Jon Tester included the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project with two other collaborative wilderness proposals in his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.
Five years later, Tester shelved the bill after several failed attempts to get it to a vote. In February, he returned to the podium with S. 507, containing only a modified version of the Blackfoot-Clearwater proposal.
In Smoke Elser’s cobblestone office, a tangle of elk antlers in the corner holds an even more jumbled collection of hats, bugle tubes, bear spray cans and fishing pole cases. The prickly array mirrors the uneasy pack string of collaborators pulling for the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act. The latest list of supporters contains 80 signers, ranging from Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and the Blue Ribbon Coalition to Paws Up Resort and Zoo Town Surfers. Pyramid Mountain Lumber and the Seeley-Swan ATV Club share space with The Wilderness Society and the Associated Students of the University of Montana.
Standing against are coalitions like 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. Elser feels hemmed in, much the same way his century-old ranch in the upper Rattlesnake Valley has been surrounded by suburban houses.
“I’m opposed to having mountain bikes in wilderness,” he said. “I don’t think they belong there. But I know our biggest challenge is Congress is looking at allowing mountain bikes in all wilderness. Some members of the steering committee felt we could not get any more wilderness on the south end of the Bob without including the snowmobilers and mountain bikes.
“IMBA came to me,” he went on. “I have their book right up there, with all kinds of red lines through it. The steering committee – I talk to them eyeball to eyeball. Mountain bikers and snowmobilers are going after a different sort of recreational benefit than what I’m going after or hikers are going after. We’re seeking the hush of the land. Solitude. Every turn of the trail is a new experience to enjoy at our own pace.
“Mountain bikers are out to challenge the resource. It’s about how fast you can go and how many miles you can put on. Snowmobilers are after the highest mark on the hillside, the highest speed across the meadow.
“I won’t step over the line again. But we’ve got to get that piece through. To get 80,000 acres of additional wilderness, we’re going to have to compromise some.”
Elser made his feelings known at a “Council of Elders” meeting a week before Earth Day. The unofficial roundtable of wilderness advocates meets two or three times a year to give feedback to the Montana Wilderness Association, one of the chief backers of Tester’s new bill. Fellow council member Bill Cunningham echoed many of Elser’s concerns.
Four drainages to the west of Elser’s Rattlesnake Valley ranch, Cunningham was planting Ponderosa pine saplings on a Mill Creek hillside that’s been in his family for two generations. A resident of Choteau on the Rocky Mountain Front, Cunningham lives in a wall tent when he visits the Missoula area.
“I have grave concerns about the impact of mountain bikes on a major portal to the wilderness,” Cunningham said. “I’m concerned about the precedent that mountain bikes take priority on some of our wildlands before we can recover some of our remaining wilderness areas.”
Three years ago, Cunningham sold the guide service he'd had for 40 years on the edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. He also helped draft and pass several Montana wilderness bills after the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964 (which Elser also helped pass).
“Recreation is the least important value of wilderness,” Cunningham said. “I say that as someone who made his living off recreation for a long time. We’re giving in to the notion that these places are recreation areas – they’re not. Maybe we need to do a better job of articulating what the values of wilderness really are.”
Those values live in the carefully crafted words in the Wilderness Act. It prohibits “mechanized” transportation, which the U.S. Forest Service has interpreted to include all wheeled equipment – motorized, pedaled or pushed. It authorizes “primitive means,” including horse and foot travel.
“The Act says we are visitors who do not remain, in a place where natural processes are allowed to prevail,” Cunningham said. “It’s really profound. Those special values are all but lost on a vast majority of the landscape.”
In a Missoula office halfway between Elser and Cunningham, Zack Porter has the job of justifying those value trade-offs. Not half the age of either man, the Montana Wilderness Association field director argues he’s struggling with the same decisions his mentors have faced for the past 50 years.
“We’re not putting bikes on the landscape – they’re already there,” Porter said. “The Forest Service, for all they’ve done well protecting these recommended additions, has not managed those areas in light of shifts in recreational use over the decades. If the Forest Service had taken proactive steps according to the 1986 Lolo National Forest Plan, we wouldn’t be having this argument. And we’ll only run into more of these problems if the Forest Service doesn’t lead.”
Most of the proposed Blackfoot-Clearwater acres were labeled “recommended wilderness” by the Lolo National Forest 30 years ago. Those lands are supposed to be managed to maintain wilderness character, until Congress determines if they belong in the federal wilderness system or not.
In that time, snowmobiles became more powerful and mountain bikes more capable. User groups started lobbying Congress for their own access to special places, including the Spread Mountain and Otatsy Basin portions of the Blackfoot-Clearwater project.
Porter points to the recent progress of Montana House Joint Resolution 9, a statement of the Legislature calling for the release of seven wilderness study areas that have been pending for more than 30 years. He also brings up what happened in 2009, when the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest plan eliminated thousands of acres of recommended wilderness around Montana’s Big Hole Valley because of growing snowmobile use.
“That was perfectly legal,” Porter said. “That’s why we can’t wait – why we can’t hang on to the status quo of study areas and recommended wilderness. The Forest Service can undo its recommendation when it revises the forest plan. And it hasn’t shown any desire to rise to the occasion and manage these conflict areas.”
Conservationists have reacted in two ways. Some have sued the Forest Service over its travel plans and enforcement. Others have collaborated on legislation to change the land designation. The tactics define what Porter calls the elephant at the conservation campfire.
“Some people believe in the collaboration process, where everyone gives a little to get a lot,” Porter said. “Some prefer a lawsuit where the judge says, 'This is how it will be.' That may hold ground, but it isn’t building a movement. That isolates you in a corner.
“IMBA local members have endorsed the Wilderness Act of 1964 standards for 80,000 acres of the wildest country left in the lower 48, in exchange for 3,800 acres of bike access,” Porter continued. “That’s powerful. It shows mountain bikers there is space on the map for all these things.”
Porter agreed with Elser and Cunningham and the majority of MWA’s more than 5,000 members that bikes don’t belong in federal wilderness. But until that wilderness gets designated, there’s room to negotiate. That’s how the bike trail penetrated 14 miles into Missoula’s backyard Rattlesnake Wilderness (created by Congress in 1980), and how the Cabin Creek Special Management Area wound up preserving a snowmobile race route between Bozeman and Yellowstone National Park in the middle of the 1983 Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area.
“There’s what’s allowed inside the boundary, and there’s where you draw the boundary,” Porter said. “If we can build a bigger tent by redrawing the boundary, that might be a successful way forward.”
In other words, if memorializing a place already well-known to snowmobilers and adding another drainage for bike recreation attracts the support of a senator willing to introduce legislation, who’s got a better offer?
“I would love to see every inch of roadless area protected,” Porter said. “But that won’t move the (congressional) delegation into action. If we wait for some magic alignment of stars for every last acre of roadless to be protected, we’ll have nothing, and I’m unwilling to see pragmatic ideas passed on while we wait for some magic scenario to come about. Our agreement is stronger for having the involvement and endorsement of these groups and constituencies.”
Doug Ferrell of Trout Creek was another member at the Council of Elders meeting last week. A past president of the Montana Wilderness Association who’s spent 25 years fighting for protection of his local Scotchman Peaks area, Ferrell said the process takes endurance.
“I know Smoke has more right to complain about bikes than anybody,” Ferrell said. “And I hear Bill’s concerns. We go through that every time we put a bill together.”
But the need to deliver a heavyweight coalition to Congress demands such heartache, Ferrell said. And a growing support nationwide for wilderness is giving him hope.
“I was a big skeptic of the collaborative process,” Ferrell said. “But my eyes have really opened about the things we can agree on. You get in the room and the industry guys said, ‘We’re not interested in that land – we’ll support your wilderness.’ There’s a small minority satisfied to fold their hands and say, 'We’re going to stick up for our principles and never compromise.'
"The chances of those guys prevailing and getting anything done is zero. In the old days, there wasn’t the requirement to be as inclusive as it is today. It’s really being driven by the expectations of Congress. That’s the reality we’re working in.”