Environmentalists Move to Stop Footrace Along Swan Crest

By Beacon Staff

A local environmental group is opposing a planned 100-mile footrace along the crest of the Swan Mountain range scheduled for the end of July, saying the event could harm grizzly bears. Last week, Keith Hammer, chairman of the Swan View Coalition, urged the U.S. Forest Service to relocate the run somewhere less fragile and filed a notice of intent to sue the Forest Service under the Endangered Species Act should the race proceed as planned.

“In the present location and the date that is planned for, we intend to litigate if we have to, but we would rather see it moved,” Hammer said. “That’s a last resort.”

“When the Forest Service fails to do its job, sometimes the public has to pick up the ball,” he added.

Organizers of the Swan Crest 100-Mile Run, meanwhile, are incredulous that a footrace with 50 participants on Forest Service land, estimated to last about 36 hours total, is considered an unacceptable use by the Swan View Coalition. The course begins in Swan Lake and heads north, mostly along Alpine Trail No. 7 following the crest of the Swan Range, finishing in Columbia Falls.

“If this doesn’t happen, then pretty soon you need to get a permit to go have a picnic on Strawberry Lake,” Andrew Matulionis, one of the race organizers, said. “Where does it end?”

Disagreements between environmentalists and other user groups or agencies over protecting public land are nothing new in the Flathead or elsewhere in Montana. And typically those conflicts involve motorized use, logging or new road construction. The controversy over the Swan Crest Run, however, appears to pit two groups against each other that usually see-eye-to-eye on broad conservation issues, indeed people that are often one and the same: environmentalists and outdoor sports enthusiasts.

“It’s just kind of a disappointment that people that would otherwise support Wilderness advocacy and conservation, those are the kind of people that are participating in this run,” Brad Lamson, another race organizer, said. “That’s kind of why the Swan View Coalition and some of the other groups are making a big mistake.”

“It just seems so far on the fringe,” Lamson added. “It just alienates a lot of people.”

For Hammer, the issue is less about the race itself as it in making sure the Forest Service follows proper permitting procedures. Race organizers submitted their application to the Forest Service May 13 and a written, two-week public comment period was to begin this week. From there, Flathead Forest officials must determine whether preparing an environmental assessment is necessary, or the race has an impact so minimal a categorical exclusion can be granted.

Previous Swan Crest races, which have had fewer runners on shorter courses, were granted categorical exclusions.

“In the past, we’ve said the event would have no effect and they were granted the special use permit based on a categorical exclusion that allows for short-term special uses of the national forest,” Brandan Schulze, a spokesman for the Flathead National Forest, said. “This isn’t going to be the exact same as the events that came previously.”

But Hammer says this year’s Swan Crest race, given its route through proposed Wilderness areas, roadless areas and core grizzly habitat, necessitates an environmental assessment – which would probably not be completed in time for the race dates on July 29-31. In his letter to Flathead Forest officials, Hammer also asserts the race would violate the forest’s plan for no more than 20 parties per week to pass through the grizzly habitat, since runners would be spaced out and could not be considered a single party.

“While folks certainly have the right to run on Forest Service trails if they wish, group events that encourage such ill-advised activity in the habitat of forest carnivores like grizzly bears and mountain lions are another matter,” Hammer wrote in the letter. “The Swan Crest 100 Run sends the wrong message to the public about safe and ethical behavior in the backcountry.”

Furthermore, Hammer asserted that should the Forest Service decide an environmental assessment isn’t necessary, it would be similar to the type of lax regulatory oversight that led to the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“That kind of thinking and that kind of review policy shortcut is exactly why the Gulf has an oil slick all over it,” Hammer said. “That’s a different scale, admittedly.”

Hammer suggests the race be relocated to a less sensitive area, like the Foys-to-Blacktail trail complex west of Kalispell. But Lamson said the spectacular setting is a key attraction of the event, which is drawing endurance runners from all over the country.

“We’re sharing our national forest; we’re showing how great the Swan is,” Lamson said, adding that holding the race on the Foys-to-Blacktail trails would require runners to complete laps covering the same terrain over and over.

The roughly 50 participants in the Swan Crest run are paying $225 each in exchange for aid along the course, bear spray, dinner and a T-shirt. Fifty dollars from every entry fee also goes to the Montana Conservation Corps program that employs teens doing local trail work. Winners will receive an origami swan and a hug, but no prize money.

“Any money left over will be donated,” Lamson said. “The run organizers are getting nothing out of this.”

Given the extreme distance of the run, participants will be traveling at around 3 miles per hour, and roughly half of the racers will finish. All of which causes Matulionis to question how that impact is significantly different than the Swan Rangers group Hammer often joins for weekly hikes along the same trails throughout the year.

“It’s no different,” Matulionis said. “It’s just because it’s a different group of people, perhaps.”

Hammer answers that hiking clubs like the Swan Rangers travel in single parties, so they cause less disruption to grizzlies and since no money changes hands, such hiking clubs don’t require special use permits. Hammer is also concerned this race could set a precedent for larger races with mountain bikes, motorcycles and skiing on the Swan.

“We don’t want to see the Swan Range become one more mountain range that is overrun by people and by extreme sports,” Hammer said. “The public should be involved in making the decision about whether that is appropriate here on the Swan Crest.”

Lamson replies that the notion of the Swan Crest run getting bigger than 50 people in the future, much less turning the Swan Range itself into a haven for outdoor sports competitions is “far-fetched.” He and other organizers, at this point, plan to continue preparing for the race to occur on its scheduled dates, though he regrets that the event, intended to be a celebration of the Swan, has become such a charged issue.

“It stands for a lot more than just the run,” Lamson said. “It stands for the national forest: It’s yours, it’s mine.”

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