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In the public lands east of Rock Creek, there are ravines, ridge lines and high mountain cirques that provide shelter and food to magnificent populations of elk, deer and sheep. Although these areas aren’t as well known as many others in western Montana, they’re critical to our clean water, wildlife habitat and backcountry recreation, and they deserve to be kept wild, not opened up to logging and mining.

The problem is that the Bureau of Land Management is hoping to do just that. Back in June, the BLM’s Missoula Field Office released its draft resource management plan, which laid out the bureau’s preferred plan for managing the western Montana wildlands under its jurisdiction, including those surrounding Rock Creek. The draft plan prioritizes maximizing acres available for timber production, removes protection from “areas of critical environmental concern,” and opens up roadless areas to logging and road building.

I have been fortunate enough to experience the quality of this region in both a professional and personal capacity, and I’m dismayed by the lack of balance between conservation and development in the draft plan. As a U.S. Forest Service employee at the old Bonita Ranger Station, I worked on trail crews in the 1960s, and later had several commercial hunting camps in the area in the 1970s and '80s. I’ve owned land near Rock Creek for over 50 years, and I’ve hunted elk, deer and sheep with my family in the area for decades.

Spend any real time in the backcountry around Rock Creek, as I have, and it becomes clear that this area is a continuous and invaluable habitat for wildlife. It has been hard for me, then, to watch how differently the two federal public agencies responsible for this land — the Forest Service and the BLM — manage it and set the tone for its future.

A little bit of the management history of the area is instructive. In the mid-1970s, after hundreds of hours of meetings with the Rock Creek Committee, the Forest Service agreed that water quality was the single most important resource to protect in the Rock Creek drainage. The agency agreed that before any activity creating a resource disturbance was allowed, water quality sampling would be conducted for one year above and below the location, followed by sampling throughout the activity. If any significant degradation was detected, the activity would be shut down.

The BLM was not a party to this agreement, and has never indicated interest in taking similar steps. It’s time the agency took a lesson from the Forest Service and applied and enforced equal water-quality standards to those lands at the south end of the proposed Quigg West Wilderness extending south of Ram Mountain. If the BLM values water and wildlife, it should also limit mechanical transportation within the areas in question to preserve their pristine character and ensure that they remain a haven for wildlife, hunters, and other recreationists.

The one silver lining is that everyday citizens can play a role in the process and encourage the BLM to protect our wildlands instead of catering to resource extraction. Through Aug. 15 the BLM is accepting public comments about the draft Resource Management Plan which, as currently written, would cement a management style for the Rock Creek area for the next 20 to 30 years that minimizes habitat and water protections. This plan would open up this area to new development, motorized use, logging, and other practices that could easily damage water quality and leave our big game populations in peril.

I’m going to ask the BLM to ensure that the final plan increases or maintains conservation protections for wild pockets in the Rock Creek corridor, for wildlife and future generations alike.

Rock Creek’s values extend far beyond the blue ribbon waters of the creek itself. There are more than 80,000 wild acres of contiguous Forest Service and BLM public lands east of this drainage — not to mention the 28,000-plus acre Welcome Creek Wilderness on the west side — flanking and protecting these waters. It’s up to the BLM to conserve these areas through good management for decades to come.

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Mike Chandler is a retired Forest Service employee and member of Montana Back Country Horsemen. He lives in Missoula and owns property in the Rock Creek drainage.

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