Seeking Balance in a Remote Land

By Beacon Staff

SPOTTED BEAR RANGER DISTRICT – Driving along the Hungry Horse Reservoir on a weekday morning gives visitors the distinct feeling they’re not on Flathead or Whitefish lake, despite the big body of water and beautiful scenery.

Few boats dot the open water while secluded bays hold pockets of recreationists, though not in huge crowds. Vehicles are scarce on the gravel roads. Most notably, there are no houses on the shoreline and above Hungry Horse Dam there are no power lines.

The weekends bring considerably more visitors, particularly to the lower part of the reservoir, but that sense of vastness never really leaves.

“The reservoir is kind of like a hidden gem,” Joe Krueger, forest environmental coordinator for Flathead National Forest, says. “There are so many coves and so many different spots on the reservoir, I think it will continue to emerge as a place to go.”

Nearby and beyond the Hungry Horse Reservoir lies some of the most pristine country in the lower 48 states: the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, accessed here through Flathead National Forest’s Spotted Bear Ranger District, arguably the most remote ranger district in Montana. Much of the reservoir, formed by the “wild and scenic” South Fork Flathead River, is located in the Hungry Horse-Glacier View Ranger District.

Taking into account the landscape’s unique qualities and protection designations, Flathead National Forest officials have proposed and completed a number of projects in recent years aimed at finding a balance between recreation, conservation and forest health. Krueger says it is an example of the agency’s “multiple-use” management approach.

“We try to strike the appropriate balance,” Spotted Bear District Ranger Deb Mucklow says.

This balance, as anyone familiar with western land-use politics understands, is delicate, contentious and at times litigious – especially when large tracts of protected wilderness and river corridors are thrown into the equation.

In February, Friends of the Wild Swan and Swan View Coalition filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Missoula opposing the Spotted Bear River Project, which proposes harvesting 1,193 acres of trees, thinning 660 acres of saplings and prescribed burning on 1,346 acres.

Reed Kuennen, center, a biologist with the U.S. Forest Service, points out a tree to fellow Forest Service employees while standing in a beetle-affected of Flathead National Forest. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

Then in April, the two groups filed suit against the Soldier Addition II Project on the opposite side of the South Fork Flathead River and Hungry Horse Reservoir. That project proposes harvesting 1,128 acres, thinning 823 acres of saplings and burning 1,333 acres. Both projects are located in the Spotted Bear Ranger District.

On a recent tour around Hungry Horse Reservoir and up the South Fork Flathead River corridor above the reservoir, a team of Flathead National Forest officials and employees laid out its case for moving forward with the protested logging projects. Krueger said the agency wants to have all of its timber sale contracts lined out and ready for a June 2013 start date.

Those on the tour described the dangers of beetle-affected trees, both dead and dying, as well as the need to manage other sections of the forest for its own long-term viability and to obtain timber products. Heidi Trechsel, a silviculturist with the Forest Service, said the reemergence of mountain pine beetles in portions of Flathead National Forest poses fire and visitor safety hazards.

But Friends of the Wild Swan and Swan View Coalition say the projects are a threat to critical habitat for a variety of “imperiled fish and wildlife,” such as lynx, gray wolves, wolverines, fishers, grizzly bears and bull trout. The groups are represented by the Western Environmental Law Center out of Helena.

“The cumulative effects to wildlife from the Soldier Addition II and Spotted Bear River Projects are enormous,” Arlene Montgomery, program director of Friends of the Wild Swan, said in announcing the second lawsuit.

Forest Service officials say extensive research and a multi-year public planning process went into the projects to ensure that environmental concerns were addressed. They also point out that the area has traditionally seen timber harvests and management efforts, including intensive treatments.

“Yes, it’s a remote area, however, the Forest Service has been actively managing this area for a long time,” Krueger said.

Joe Krueger, left, walks with fellow U.S. Forest Service employees to a beetle-affected section of forest on the east side of the Hungry Horse Reservoir. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

With that mind, Trechsel said “it’s important to put our current proposals in the context of past projects and the landscape.”

Along the reservoir, the Forest Service has been sprucing up recreational sites, endeavors that have been decidedly less contentious. In 2010, the agency opened its new Doris Point boat launch on the reservoir’s west side, giving Hungry Horse its first dock.

Now the agency is beginning a multi-phase recreation improvement project on the reservoir’s east side, with plans to renovate four existing developed campgrounds and upgrade a dispersed camping site into a developed site.

And even in the remote Spotted Bear Ranger District above the reservoir and deep up the South Fork, the Forest Service has turned its eye to recreational upgrades, including at trailheads that serve as the Flathead National Forest’s entrances to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. At the Meadow Creek trailhead, potentially hazardous trees killed by beetles have been targeted for removal.

Work in the Spotted Bear is an exercise in backcountry resilience. The ranger station is located at least two hours away from pavement and modern conveniences, though it has electricity thanks to its own small hydroelectric system set up on a nearby creek. Infrequent supply runs to town must be carefully planned as to not leave out something vital for the staff and volunteers stationed in the woods.

The ranger station is a microcosm for the area, exemplifying that fine line between remoteness and accessibility, with the Forest Service responsible for maintaining that line.

“There’s nothing like it – the Bob Marshall right here and the wild and scenic corridor right here and then you have the reservoir,” Krueger said. “The uniqueness of the recreation opportunities is pretty impressive.”

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