Bitter Debate Over Forest Travel Plan

By Beacon Staff

After a hearing in Darby over the U.S. Forest Service’s motorized travel plan in the Bitterroot National Forest resulted in the investigation of a threat against a conservationist, Flathead National Forest officials hope that discussions of the same topic here will be less heated. But inevitably, when talk turns to possible restrictions on recreation – motorized or otherwise – things can get emotional.

“Access management is the largest issue we deal with on this forest and that’s how we generate the most controversy,” said Michele Draggoo, planning team leader for the Hungry Horse, Glacier View and Spotted Bear ranger districts. “It’s a tough decision.”

On Jan. 24 the Hungry Horse Ranger station will host an open house to get input on a plan for wheeled, motorized travel in the Glacier View and Hungry Horse ranger districts. Based on the public comment received, Forest Service officials will assess possible changes to motorized access in certain areas, and will refine those designations in further planning sessions. Discussion will not address winter motorized travel, since those changes have already been tackled.

The open house comes as several national forests throughout western Montana hold meetings or open houses to update travel plans. The issue rehashes a classic conflict between off-road vehicle enthusiasts who feel their access to public land is increasingly restricted, and advocates of wilderness and quiet recreation.

A Jan. 9 meeting in Darby turned ugly when, during comments by a woman speaking in favor of conservation, a man in the crowd reportedly called for someone to “put a bullet in her head.” Forest Service officials canceled a meeting scheduled for the following night in Stevensville after realizing they were unprepared for the crowds. Subsequent meetings, after shifting to an open house format spread out over longer periods of time, went off without incident.

Draggoo dealt with travel planning changes in the Spotted Bear District a year ago. She said those meetings were civil, and hopes that will be the case for upcoming hearings. As for the people on either side of access issues, no one interviewed anticipates colossal changes – at least in these districts. Conservationists say the Glacier View and Hungry Horse ranger districts are almost entirely core grizzly habitat, so the Forest Service couldn’t open up much more to motorized travel if it wanted to. As for motorized vehicle users, while some plan to attend the open house, there is an air of resignation.

“Where we’re at right now is we don’t see how we can lose any more access to our public lands,” said Fred Hodgeboom, president of Montanans for Multiple Use. “Our heritage of access to public land is being taken away from us under the guise of wildlife security.”

Hodgeboom estimated some 800 miles of road have been closed to motorized access over the last 15 years, and was not hopeful that the trend of further road closures would be reversed any time soon. He couldn’t say how many motorized vehicle users would turn up for the open house, but doubted it would be near the numbers the Bitterroot had. (Beacon columnist Dave Skinner is vice president of Montanans for Multiple Use.)

Keith Hammer, chair of the Swan View Coalition, wondered whether the Forest Service would make changes based on what roads it has said it would decommission, or what it has actually done. He leveled criticism at the Forest Service for failing to fully decommission as many roads as it said it would in several salvage logging operations.

The Swan View Coalition is currently in litigation on three projects over this issue, with one case on salvage logging in the North Fork after the 2001 Moose Fire before the Ninth Federal Circuit Court, and the Robert-Wedge and West Side Reservoir post-fire projects in district court.

“These issues we want to readdress during travel process hearings,” Hammer said. “And it seems pretty clear the Forest Service isn’t going to want to.”

But Hammer is confident any meetings over motorized travel can be more straightforward and less contentious than previous meetings in the Bitterroot.

“We can’t have people behaving like they did in Darby, on either side,” he said. “I would like to think the Flathead’s got a better handle on that.”

More meetings are on the way. The Kootenai National Forest has begun evaluating its travel management plans as well, currently taking comments for the Three Rivers Ranger District, with plans to have scoping documents out soon for the Cabinet, Libby, Rexford and Fortine ranger districts. The Forest Service anticipates having initial maps of motor vehicle use drafted by the summer of 2009.