Conversations about public lands are often contentious. After all, sharing is a social skill that must be taught, and asking 323 million people with wildly diverse intentions and interests to share a common space can get ugly. Montana’s Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act, a proposal that took over 12 years—and lots of collaboration—to create, is an example of public land stewardship gone right.
In short, the act would preserve 80,000 acres of Montana wildlands as wilderness, expand local mountain biking and snowmobile opportunities, develop trails in the Lolo National Forest, and provide legal and financial backing for forest and watershed restoration projects, in cooperation with local interests including timber companies. Specifically, that added wilderness would be spread across the Mission Mountain, Bob Marshall, and Scapegoat wilderness areas. The act would protect crucial habitat for bull trout, west slope cutthroat, grizzly bears, and mountain goats.
The bill was introduced in March by Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana), and has widespread support. A 2016 survey showed 74 percent of Montanans are behind it, and the bill has received approval from a long list of groups including the International Mountain Bicycling Association, the Missoula Central Labor Council, multiple local outfitters, conservation groups, and local Pyramid Mountain Lumber.
Despite Tester submitting a formal request to advance the legislation in September to the head of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and ranking member Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, a hearing has yet to be scheduled.
Tester’s support for the act is invaluable, but he’s not the driving force behind it. Credit goes largely to the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project, a local coalition of “loggers, ranchers, outfitters, conservationists, snowmobilers, business owners, and outdoor recreationists,” according to their website.
It began with an agreement in 2005 between wilderness advocates and local snowmobilers: They would fight together for a proposal that would add more wilderness and establish a winter recreation area for snowmobilers, a truce after years of contention.
Typically, these groups are at a natural odds; one advocates for ‘pristine’ wild places with minimal human impact (however flawed the idea of wilderness as separate from mankind may be), and the other advocates for trail systems that allow loud, fossil-fuel burning machines to tear through those spaces in the name of recreation. The divide between those who advocate for mechanized vehicles in wild places and those who advocate against it has led to heated debates across the American West, including an ATV community in Utah threatening bodily harm against wilderness advocacy groups.
So the impact of this initial agreement can’t be overstated. It was a sign that the BCSP was out to make these lands better, more accessible, and more sustainable for all concerned parties. Timber industry representatives, outfitters, and wildlife advocates took notice, and the movement grew.
In 2008, the group reached consensus on forest management goals, including the wilderness addition, and in 2009 the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Act was created. It provided funding for restoration of area trails, waterways, and forests, bringing $33 million into the local economy and creating over 100 jobs. It was the groups’ first major success.
In 2015 and 2016, as the group continued to develop the proposal through community meetings, collaboration, and careful planning, they earned the endorsements of all three affected counties and many other community groups—including local mountain biking group MTB Missoula, who they won over by ensuring new backcountry cycling opportunities.
Of course, compromise didn’t happen without a fight. In conversation with the Missoulian, Smoke Elser, “the dean of Montana’s horse packing heritage,” expressed dismay at the agreement to include 3,800 acres of land open to mountain bike trail development:
“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…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.”
Most of the land under dispute was designated as “recommended wilderness” by the Lolo National Forest plan three decades ago—which means it was supposed to “maintain wilderness character” until Congress decided whether or not to designate it, officially, as wilderness. In the years since, snowmobilers and mountain bikers came to have a stake in the land, building trails and establishing a community and culture. Including their interests in the bill doesn’t invite them in, it establishes their right to be there. By leaving them out of the stewardship plan, the community-driven effort would be kicking them out.
Considering the difficulty Tester has faced just getting this widely popular bill a hearing, those who want to see this land protected can’t stand to lose out on the support of any interested party. The more voices behind it, calling representatives and pressuring lawmakers to give the bill a hearing, the better chance the bill has of passing. 80,000 protected acres is far better than a continued lack of federal protection.
Of course, the bill has detractors—those who believe that any compromise with snowmobilers and mountain bikers is unworkable, like the environmental non-profit the Wild West Institute. Their restoration coordinator, Jake Kreilick, wrote an op-ed in the Missoulian, calling out the bill’s cooperation with local timber interests, bikers, and snowmobilers as being in opposition to the meaning and purpose of wilderness, and that 80,000 acres protected is not enough.
But overwhelmingly, the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act sets an admirable standard for collaborative efforts to protect federal land, respecting the interests and values of the diverse groups who engage with the land for economic, recreational, scientific, and spiritual purposes.
Photo by the Bureau of Land Management.