Doug Ferrell Commentary: “Wilderness Protection”

I want to talk a little bit today about some encouraging progress and momentum in protecting some of Montana’s precious wild country.
Actually what is especially encouraging goes way beyond how we manage wild country. It includes important progress on how we Montanans can work together on controversial issues and find ways to solve problems together.
At a time when our country is polarized and divided on so many issues, and when our congress is having great difficulty finding common ground and getting its basic work done, it is encouraging to realize that we do have the ability to tackle and solve tough problems.
So what has been happening, and how has it been done?
Right now, two pieces of legislation before congress represent important agreements made by diverse groups of Montanans, many of whom have been historical opponents on land use issues. The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, introduced by Senator Max Baucus, and the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act introduced by Senator Jon Tester were both created by large, inclusive groups. These groups worked to find common ground and craft visionary agreements about better ways to manage some special areas of our public lands. Polls show both bills are supported by over 70% of Montanans, with support crossing party lines and geographical boundaries.
There are a couple of key reasons why these two efforts have been so successful so far. One is that they started with modest goals. In the case of the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, ranchers, landowners, sportsmen and conservationists all agreed on a general goal of keeping this marvelous area pretty much the way it is today. The present mix of land uses supports world class wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities, and traditional ranching and outfitting industries. The agreement generally protects these existing land uses into the future. In the case of the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which covers mostly forest land, the goal was to provide for active forest management and timber harvesting, permanent designations for motorized recreation, and wilderness protection for some of Montana’s premier wild country. These goals are modest and reasonable, and they represent a step forward from the gridlock and conflict over public land management that we have experienced for too long.
The second reason for our success is that the diverse groups committed to understanding and respecting each other’s values and goals, and then committed to actively support each other’s goals, whenever they were not in conflict with ours. Yes, we found we had a lot more in common than we thought, and we found some really great opportunities to support each other and get things done. What a great experience this has been. Along the way we have gotten a chance to meet some damn fine people.
As a wilderness advocate, I am thrilled that we now have a good chance to protect some of our remaining, magnificent wild country, in places like the Sapphires, the West Big Hole, the Snowcrest, and the Pioneer Mountains, plus additions to the Scapegoat, the Mission Mountains, and the great Bob Marshall Wilderness. These are treasured places that we hope to protect for future generations to use and enjoy in their present wild and natural condition. Now, we just hope we can get these bills through congress. Let’s get it done!
The 5000 members of the Montana Wilderness Association are proud to be part of a new day in working together to get things done. One where our treasured public lands bring us together to not only improve land management, but one where we as Montanans sit down together, find common ground, and make decisions that strengthen our communities.
I want to invite anyone hearing this message to go to the web and join MWA, and help support our work – work which is inspiring, challenging, and deeply rewarding.

Doug Ferrell is the President of the Montana Wilderness Association.

Supreme Court roadless area action affects 6 million acres of Montana forest land

Environmental groups across the West are hailing a U.S. Supreme Court action not to take up an appeal of a federal rule which prohibits development on National Forest Lands classified as roadless areas.

This might signal the end of a long-standing battle over the future 50 million acres of roadless forest land, including about 6 million acres of National Forest Land in Montana.

Conservation Director at the nonprofit Montana Wilderness Association John Gatchell was happy to hear about the Supreme Court’s decision to not take up the appeal of the roadless areas. Gatchell says this essentially upholds Forest Service status quo—where lower courts have said the agency has the discretion to block off areas to development in this way.

He says the 6 million Montana acres this affects are some of the wildest lands in North America, like “the Crazy Mountains, the Rocky Mountain Front, the Swan Range, the Sapphires, the Pinters, places like that.”

This process started in the late 90’s when the Forest Service declared a moratorium on developing roads in these lands. A year or two of defining the rules around this distinction followed. The roadless declaration was signed into law by then Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman in the final days of the Clinton Administration, January of 2001. The state of Wyoming and the Colorado Mining Association appealed, saying closing so much land to development harmed the timber and mining industries in those states.

The Montana Mining Association filed a friend of the court brief in this appeal.

“It certainly puts certain areas off limits for us, it makes them impossible to reach,” said MMA Executive Director, Tom Hopgood.

Opponents to these lands say marking them off as roadless creates de-facto wilderness areas. They say Forest Service lands should be preserved for mixed-use. John Gatchell with the Montana Wilderness Association says yeah, roadless areas are part of the mix.

“This is the backcountry part of the mix,” Gatchell said. “This is the place you turn to for clean water, for hunting, for fishing, for camping.”

He counters that roadless areas do have different rules than wilderness. Gatchell thinks some of these areas should be designated full wilderness. He says most are not that great for timber or mining development anyway.

“In general, they’re very unproductive, they’re the highest, most remote areas that we have. that’s why they’re roadless,” Gatchell said.

Julia Altemus works as Executive Vice President of the Montana Woodproducts Association. She wanted the Supreme Court to take up this case. Altemus says a lot of these 6 million acres are too remote for timber development.

“Yes, there’s a lot of rocks and ice in those 6 million acres,” she said. But not everything. She points to one area in the Bitterroot that sits right up against the wildland-urban interface.

“There are definitely timberlands in there that could have, should have been managed for timber production and timber harvest,” she said.

Altemus agrees parts of the roadless lands should remain roadless, and some should be wilderness. But she says the boundaries could have been better drawn.

“Because of the way it was handed down at the end of the Clinton Administration I don’t think we got a chance, i don’t think the public got a chance to really take a look at these maps and resolve it like we should have resolved it,” she said.

There is one more challenge against the roadless areas awaiting federal court in D.C. This challenge comes from the state of Alaska.

Yet, Altemus says this week’s action from the Supreme Court likely means the lands will stay as designated, unless Congress takes up the issue.

Volunteers working on gaps in Continental Divide Trail

14 year-old Casey Cruse uses his pickax to work on the Continental Divide Trail Wednesday

The Continental Divide Trail runs 3100 miles—from Canada all the way to Mexico.

Yet, there are gaps in that trail, where hikers either walk on roads or even across private property. And nowhere is there more gaps than the section crossing Montana—the trail is less than 60 percent complete.

Every year, that percentage inches higher due to the work of volunteers.

Capitol Reporter Dan Boyce takes us to Stemple Pass outside of Helena for this trail crew’s vacation of manual labor.

The Montana Wilderness Association is still seeking volunteers for trail projects later in the Summer. CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION.

Sally Mauk talks with John Gatchall about volunteers building the Continental Divide trail..

In 1978, Congress approved the Continental Divide National Scenic trail – running from Mexico to Canada. Nearly 1000 miles of the trail are in Montana – but it’s not finished. The Montana Wilderness Association wants volunteers for several trail projects this summer. In this feature interview, News Director Sally Mauk talks with MWA’s John Gatchall about the trail –and the work to be done…