Opposition to Swan Crest Run Overkill

By Beacon Staff

Anybody who reads my column knows I’m an environmentalist, especially when it comes to protecting our roadless lands, and proud of it. I also used to be an avid trail runner before my tibialis posterior gave out a few years back, but I relish many fond memories of long trail runs through Montana’s roadless splendor.

When I read about the Swan Crest 100, a 100-mile trail run scheduled for July 29-31, I instantly dreamed of the day when I could do it. The race starts in Swan Lake and runs along the spectacular divide of the Swan Range, much of it on famed Alpine Trail No. 7, down Columbia Mountain and finishing in Columbia Falls.

I’ve hiked parts of this route and heard stories about the rest. What a great route for such an event.

As a group, trail runners are probably about as passionate wilderness advocates as you can find, and now, other environmentalists are attacking them for harming wildlife and wildlands values. Whoa! What goes here?

The organizers of the Swan Crest 100, a small group of volunteers who love to run wilderness trails, didn’t think getting a special use permit for doing something with about one-fourth the environmental impact of a single pack train would be a problem, so they didn’t apply for it until May 13. If you think that’s incompetence, well, you probably haven’t been involved in organizing small volunteer events like this. Volunteers are always trying to pull it together at the last minute. The Flathead National Forest has routinely approved such permits for similar running events in the past, so why should it be a problem this time?

It would not have been if Keith Hammer of the Swan View Coalition (SVC) had not threatened to sue the Forest Service if the agency gave out the permit without preparing an environmental assessment, which would be a lengthy process.

Odd, isn’t it, how the threat of a lawsuit has more impact than the actual lawsuit, which likely would not even be filed in this case? You could call that the Law of Intended Consequences.

This permitting process now might take more time than organizers have. Rich Kehr of the Swan Lake Ranger District told me his agency will probably make the decision before the scheduled date of the event, but if an environmental assessment is required, that probably can’t be done in time, requiring the event to be moved or canceled.

Event organizers have already filled the 50-runner field, accepted the entry fees ($225 each, which includes a $50 donation for trail work in the Swan Range), done all the promotion, lined up volunteers and done a lot of other work that would be out the window, not to mention the positive economic impact to the Flathead area. And now, they face the possibility of not getting the permit at all, which would mean canceling or trying to move the event at the last minute. If they move it, well, they’ll still need a permit and might face another call for an environmental assessment, so they would have little choice but to forget it and just go for a long hard run to pound off their anger.

If there’s any use of our national forests that has less environmental impact than trail running, I’d like to know what it is. Fifty runners, plus a few volunteers hiking in to be course marshals and set up aid stations, probably has as much impact as one horse party or one elk camp or even one group of hikers, such as those the SVC regularly leads into Swan Range – with no environmental assessment, I might add.

Hammer wants the event moved to where it wouldn’t impact sensitive roadless lands, but he’s missing the point. The organizer picked this route because it’s a scenic route through wild country, not because it’s convenient or easy to manage.

To be kind, the SVC’s objection is overkill. This isn’t a big commercial endeavor, nor will it ever be. Even if it doubles or triples in size in future years, it would still have near-zero environmental impact, but it would have double or triple the positive economic impact.

In fact, I’m betting the event will have a positive environmental impact, too, by drawing attention to the threatened nature of the Swan Range and building a bigger, more energized constituency in support of permanent protection from true commercial use. I’m also betting those interested in promoting timber and motorized recreation in the Swan Range are having a giant horse laugh over this controversy, as they should be.

Environmentalists have enough to do, and they need to do it together, instead of fighting each other, as we are in this case. So, Mr. Hammer, please withdraw your objection to this event and move on to something important.

Assuming Hammer doesn’t blink, which is also a good bet, the next best thing is to tell the Forest Service to approve the permit without further delay and without wasting public resources on an environmental assessment. The agency is currently holding a “scoping process” to decide what to do.

Technically, you only have until June 18 (tomorrow) to make a call (406-837-7500) or e-mail ([email protected]) to support the event. Kehr told me he would consider comments all the way up until “we make the decision.”