All Give, No Get

The only thing even remotely assured by S-507 is wilderness, not recreation, or stewardship

By Dave Skinner

Since late February, the Beacon and other Montana papers have published many letters in support of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act, introduced by U.S. Sen Jon Tester (D). But the letters are sparse in terms of details – we all know Congress’s deviltry is always in the details.

The bill, S-507, is found at the Library of Congress’ website, “Thomas.” By far the most significant part of S-507 is wilderness, specifically four chunks: Two in Monture Creek, one at Grizzly Basin, plus the west fork of the Clearwater, a total of 79,060 acres that “shall” be added to the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Mission Mountains wildernesses.

Also included are 2,013 acres of “Otatsy Recreation Management Area,” in which new roads and timber harvest would be prohibited. Mineral entry is permanently banned as well. For four months a year, subject to snow cover and whatever conditions “the Secretary determines to be necessary,” sleds would be allowed. All other “motorized and mechanized vehicles,” including mountain bikes, would be verboten. In short, it’s wilderness that allows sleds, and sleds only.

New this time around is the so-called Spread Mountain Recreation Area, 3,835 acres. Spread has similar restrictions to Otatsy except “mechanized vehicles” (not motorized) are allowed and nothing prohibits “the construction of trails” for “mechanized vehicles,” hikers and horses. Again, wilderness – for mountain bikes.

Not surprisingly, there’s no bill language about how trails “shall” or “should” or “will” be built – any recreation trail expansions would be “subject to appropriations” and “may provide for the construction of any of the routes included in the [collaboratively developed] proposal.” If there’s no money, the Secretary “may accept” volunteer help with construction and maintenance. As for public recreation on the Seeley district in general, S-507 directs that, after a full National Environmental Policy Act review to take no more than five years, the Secretary of Agriculture “shall give priority to expanding motorized and nonmotorized recreational trail opportunities within the [ranger] District that are in the public interest” within three years of the review being finished (such as surviving litigation, of course). Eight years just for the “recreation” trail plan, and only then will anyone learn what “the Secretary” determines is “priority” or “in the public interest.”

What about the “Stewardship” included in S-507’s title, “the job of taking care of something” like national forests? Well, S-507 would order a three-year “landscape assessment” on the Lolo National Forest’s Seeley Lake Ranger District, to “identify restoration actions needed” to “facilitate ecosystem sustainability, resilience and health” and lay out a “10-year schedule of restoration projects.”

Such projects would fall under the aegis of the Collaborative Forest Restoration Act, which originally passed in about 2006, amended by the massive 2009 public land omnibus bill passed by the Democrats when they controlled both sides of Congress.

CFRA has important restrictions. Federal CFRA statute law (Section 7303a(F)ii) prohibits new permanent roads, and mandates removal of any temporary roads. And while up to 50 percent of project costs can be subsidized, the total national pool of funds, which must be spread around rather thinly, is only $40 million a year. Finally, and this matters, nothing under CFRA can run longer than 10 years. And, after 10 years, what happens to Pyramid Lumber?

The only thing even remotely assured by S-507 is wilderness, not recreation, or stewardship. Wilderness comes first, while all the non-wilderness things “may” happen, sorta, kinda, for 10 years at best.

Keep in mind that Congresscritters can write any legislation they want. If Sen. Tester were really serious about stewardship or recreation, he could write S-507 to make the wilderness give contingent, say on Pyramid staying open past 2027. How about exempting Seeley projects from lawsuits until 2027? Perhaps subject final wilderness designation to formal approval by a vote of Montana’s legislature after 10 years of successful stewardship?

It is clear S-507 is simply a downsized version of Sen. Tester’s past wilderness efforts, all give for wilderness special interests, with utterly no get for anyone else. Granted, S-507’s “give” this time seems smaller, but the “get” for everyone else is the same as always – nothing.