KALISPELL, Mont. — For outdoor enthusiasts traversing the southern section of the Alpine 7 Trail atop the Swan Mountain Range, even a smoky day opens up sweeping views of the Swan Valley and the jagged, snow-studded peaks rising from the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
And in the thickly forested mountains and valleys between the two lies a historic battleground for the multitude of Flathead National Forest stakeholders, reported the Daily Inter Lake (http://bit.ly/2dFCY0d).
As forest officials continue their years-long effort to draft a revised management plan for the 2.4 million acres overseen by the federal agency, an old conflict has reignited over the future of the Bunker Creek Drainage and the surrounding Swan Range.
Bordered by the mountains’ ridge to the west, the Spotted Bear River to the east and the Bob Marshall Wilderness boundary to the south, the drainage is ripe for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System, according to Amy Robinson with the Montana Wilderness Association.
“It has a history of citizen science, of biologist and agency support for inclusion,” Robinson said. “It has incredible wildlife habitat for mountain goats, grizzly bears, and exceptional bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout habitat in its streams.”
She added that Bunker Creek has historically been an important site for research biologists and backcountry outfitters, and sportsmen and conservation groups have fought to protect the area from logging since the 1950s.
“It’s about values, and looking 50, 100 years into the future, I think and others believe as well that there’s going to be more strain on human populations and wildlife populations,” Robinson said. “We’re going to need more protection for wildlife to roam, and for humans as well, for our solitude and well-being.”
Her view isn’t shared uniformly, however, and some of the forest’s myriad stakeholders worry that the “recommended wilderness” designations conservationists are pushing in the forest plan revision goes too far.
Just north of 1 million acres, or 45 percent, of the Flathead National Forest falls within designated wilderness. Because new wilderness areas require an act of Congress, that number will remain the same regardless of the direction chosen for the final forest plan revision.
However, each of the four alternatives identified in the draft plan’s environmental impact statement includes a different amount of recommended wilderness, a land designation used for roadless, wild forestlands that meet wilderness characteristics.
Within those lands, forest officials are required to retain wilderness characteristics for future inclusion in the wilderness system — meaning no timber harvest, forest thinning or fuels reduction, and no increases to historical mechanized recreational use.
The forest’s current plan, as amended since its adoption in 1986, recommended wilderness spans 98,388 acres, or 4 percent of the forest’s overall area.
That includes the southern half of the Bunker Creek drainage and a nearly 45,000-acre swath along the western front of the Swans overlooking the valley. Only one of the scenarios currently proposed for the forest plan revision — Alternative C — includes any significant expansions of that designation.
A group of residents in the Swan Valley has vocally opposed any recommended wilderness west of the ridge line, citing the potential for passive forest management leading to wildfires that could threaten communities in the valley.
“When the wilderness is an unmanaged area next to your fire district, it’s just hard to put out wildfires,” Allen Branine, chief of the Swan Lake Volunteer Fire Department, said.
Citing the current recommended wilderness boundary’s proximity to the wildland-urban interface along the eastern edge of the valley, Branine said he would prefer the area be designated as a targeted recreation area. Some thinning and other management activity can occur under that land use, which he believes would reduce the threat posed by major wildfires like the Crazy Horse Fire in 2003 and the Holland Peak Fire in 2006.
The Flathead Forest’s planning team leader Joe Krueger noted, however, that even designated wilderness is not completely devoid of human manipulation. He said about half of the wildfires that started in the Flathead’s wilderness areas this past season were actively suppressed, contrary to claims that forest managers allow wilderness fires to burn without interruption.
Paul McKenzie, land resource manager for F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co., said recommended wilderness areas can create an unnecessary barrier to future land management, but noted he has focused his energy on other aspects of the plan. He said he hopes the final forest plan revision will prioritize land designations that allow for more latitude in timber harvest and other management activities.
“When you start looking at adding some more fringes (to existing wilderness), that’s where I get kind of nervous,” McKenzie said. “If you have a wilderness boundary right next to a general-forest boundary, there’s going to be a potential for folks to say, even in those general forest areas you shouldn’t be managing that area, because it’s right next to the wilderness boundary.”
Noah Bodman is a board member of Flathead Fat Tires, a nonprofit that advocates for mountain biking in the region. While he said most of the group’s members would consider themselves conservationists, they object to the designation being pushed by wilderness advocates for Bunker Creek that would prohibit all mechanized uses on trails connecting the popular ridge trail to the Hungry Horse Reservoir area.
“You’re obviously not seeing the kind of traffic that you’re seeing on the Whitefish Trail or something like that,” Bodman said. “But there’s no scientific evidence that mountain bikers have more significant impact than any other non-motorized group.”
In the four alternatives offered in the current forest plan proposal, the amount of recommended wilderness varies from one-fifth of the overall landscape to zero.
Under Alternative A, the forest would retain its current plan and maintain the current 98,388 acres of recommended wilderness.
Included in that acreage are existing areas in Bunker Creek and along the Swan range, as well as an area south of the Spotted Bear River and north of the current Bob Marshall Wilderness boundary, along with an area along the northern boundary of the Great Bear Wilderness and south of Marias Pass and Square Mountain.
The current plan also designates the 15,000-acre Jewel Basin Hiking Area as a “special area,” a separate land use applied to just a handful of locations in the forest. Alternatives B and C would change the Jewel Basin to a recommended wilderness. Alternative D would eliminate all recommended wilderness areas, while retaining the Jewel’s “special area” designation.
At the current stage in the plan revision, the forest has not identified a preferred alternative. Alternative B most closely resembles the initial proposal unveiled by forest officials last year, however, mixing elements of the more conservation-focused Alternative C and the more intensive management proposed in Alternative D.
A significant recommended wilderness addition under this alternative lies within a large portion of the northern Whitefish Range extending to the Canadian border. That area was adopted, in large part, from a set of recommendations presented by the Whitefish Face Working Group, a group of stakeholders from across the spectrum that focused on the Whitefish Range to create a blend of recommended wilderness, backcountry recreation and timber production land.
Under Alternative C, 21 percent of the forest would be classified as recommended wilderness, extending the designation further south throughout much of the Whitefish Mountains and spanning nearly the entirety of the Swan Range.
More than a year of continued revision lies ahead for the forest plan, however, and few, if any, stakeholders had expressed satisfaction with any single alternative.
McKenzie, who was involved in the Whitefish Face Working Group’s deliberations, expressed frustration that none of the current proposals adopt all of its recommendations.
“They really haven’t given us the compromise alternative,” he said. “They gave us the standard maximum, the minimum and then (the alternative) in the middle. We’re hopeful that we can get to a more balanced alternative through this next step.”
Both he and Robinson believe there is still the potential for further compromises to be found outside the Whitefish Range.
“This isn’t really a wilderness-versus-timber fight,” he added. “That’s really not what this is about, and that’s really driven home to me when I work in these collaborative groups.”
Information from: Daily Inter Lake, http://www.dailyinterlake.com