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Conservationists condemn wilderness designations

The Montana Wilderness Association is deeply disappointed in proposed management plan revisions released this week by the Lolo, Bitterroot and Flathead national forests, its conservation director said Wednesday.

"It appears planners did not even look at the wilderness potential in many areas," said John Gatchell, who hastily shipped an e-mail alert to conservationists statewide.

"Our valleys are filling up with new rural subdivisions, roads, strip development and box stores," he said. "You'd think federal planners would recognize the immense future value of protecting the last big wild landscapes in western Montana free of roads and traffic.

"Nope."

The "proposed action" released Monday recommended the designation of thousands of acres of new wilderness in each of the three forests, but deleted some areas now recommended for protection and failed to mention other areas on the Wilderness Association's wish list.

On the Bitterroot National Forest, planners recommended 82,958 acres of additional wilderness - 27,501 acres in the Blue Joint and 55,457 acres in the Selway-Bitterroot. That would be a 76,700-acre increase from the current Bitterroot forest plan.

In the Flathead forest, the acreage of recommended wilderness would drop, from 98,080 acres in the current plan to 92,503 acres. Most of the decrease would come in the Swan Crest.

Also lower is the acreage of additional wilderness recommended for the Lolo forest - 223,600 acres in the existing plan, 218,342 acres in the proposed rewrite. Most of that change would come in the Quigg-Sliderock area.

Gatchell said the changes came as "a total surprise."

"As part of the forest plan revision process, they have a duty to look at wilderness areas," he said, "but what we would hope for and expect is a clear commitment to conservation."

"This is all that's left of original, raw Montana," Gatchell said. "You would think they would consider every acre before they squandered it away."

"Nobody," he said, "has worked harder to preserve their wild country than the people of Montana and have less to show for it. Generic forest planning isn't going to work for us. It isn't going to preserve Montana values or Montana landscapes."

The Wilderness Association was particularly concerned about the Flathead's proposal to drop the wilderness recommendation in the north Swan Range near Jewel Basin, he said.

So, too, were they alarmed by the Lolo forest's proposed acreage reduction in Rock Creek (Quigg-Sliderock), "even though Quigg is entirely road- and motor-free today," Gatchell said.

"And why not recommend Stony Mountain, which was recommended for wilderness by the governor, both senators, western Montana millworkers and conservationists?" he asked.

"Only 5 percent of the Lolo is wilderness," Gatchell said. "So what happens to the roadless backcountry is critically important."

The leader of the three-forest team overseeing the forest plan revision could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

But Ed Weber, the team's recreation specialist, cautioned that the proposal released Monday is just that - "a proposed action."

"There's plenty of time for comment," he said. "We are not ignoring the Wilderness Association. It's just a proposed action at this point, not the forest plan."

In fact, planners knew many elements of their proposal would generate comments - or controversy, Weber said. "That's part of the process, and this is just the start."

In an interview, Gatchell said the MWA is disappointed by "the start and the direction" of the management plan overhaul.

"A forest plan is a contract between the people who own the national forest and the people who manage it," he said. "As is true in any contract, you want it to be clear and you want commitments.

"What we need in our forest plans are commitments to the conservation of wild public lands."

Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at sdevlin@missoulian.com

If you're interested

Proposed revisions to the Lolo, Bitterroot and Flathead forest plans are available on the Internet at www.fs.fed.us/r1/wmpz. Questions may also be directed to team leader Lee Kramer at (406) 329-3848. To be added to the forest plan revision mailing list, contact Amy Lehtola at (406) 363-7191. To comment, write the Western Montana Planning Zone Revision Team, Lolo National Forest, Fort Missoula, Building 24, Missoula, MT 59804.

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