Blackfoot-Clearwater project: no quit in collaboration

By Martin Kidston

A group of collaborators with a big vision sat down with Sen. Jon Tester this week to talk about the political reality of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project and how to push it forward despite inaction by Congress.

Sen. Jon Tester, right, meets with members of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project in Missoula to discuss ways to move the effort to conserve public lands and expand timber and recreational opportunities forward.

For the past decade, a diverse group of loggers, conservationists, snowmobilers and hunters have worked together to craft a plan to ensure the multiple use of public land continues in the Blackfoot and Clearwater valleys.

But despite their combined efforts to expand recreational opportunities and expand jobs while adding new wilderness to the Bob Marshall, much of their work has been in vain, leaving Tester and members of the coalition frustrated.

Still, they told the state’s senior Democratic senator, they remain determined to see the project fully realized. They called upon the state’s Congressional delegation to work together to get it passed.

“Ten years is crazy – a rancher can’t even focus on three days,” said Ovando rancher Jim Stone. “But the fact we’re all together still after 10 years is crazy. We’re gaining ground, but we need to do a better job at telling what this does. The footprint is there. We need to take it to the next level.”

Gordy Sanders of Pyramid Mountain Lumber said it took the group six months to agree upon a compromise vision for the two western Montana valleys. Despite the group’s diverse composition, its members were able to agree on a shared vision.

That art of compromise appears to be lacking in Congress, they said. Nine years and six months later, they’re still waiting for action in Washington, D.C.

“We’ve always been big supporters of seeing something bipartisan and having our entire congressional delegation on board,” Sanders said. “Every legislative effort has a time. It has a time when it’s more likely to happen.”

Despite the delay, Sanders said the group’s vision still holds true. After nine years, Pyramid still supports the stewardship project, which includes a vision for sustainable timber rooted in the restoration of fish and wildlife habitat.

Members of the project also helped establish the Southwestern Crown of the Continent Collaborative. Sanders said that effort has created or maintained roughly 138 jobs and has attracted $19 million in federal investments.

“What we were expecting to come out of that was 130 million board feet over 10 years from three different districts,” said Sanders. “There’s some level of certainty there. Certain bipartisan support in Congresses, both in the house and senate to support that, has been huge.”

While progress has been made on the timber front, the stewardship project also envisioned expanded recreational opportunities in the Blackfoot and Clearwater valleys – an effort that has seen little progress. Among other things, that vision would open 2,000 acres in the Otatsy Recreation Area near Ovando to snowmobiles.

Addrien Marx of Romero’s Ace Hardware in Seeley Lake said outdoor recreation is the lifeblood of her community. Diversified recreational opportunities would serve as an economic boon to her small mountain town.

“If our businesses are not healthy, our schools are not healthy and our workers are not healthy, then this state is not healthy,” said Marx. “We know the state’s $1 billion economy from outdoor recreation can grow. The more recreation opportunities we can provide – equally – the more economic opportunities from our state.”

Lee Bowman of the Montana Wilderness Association agreed, adding that a feasibility study completed six years ago suggested that Seeley Lake could expect to gain $1.4 million in revenue from an expanded trail system. Combined with added snowmobile visits, he said, it could be enough to provide year-round jobs as opposed to seasonal employment.

“That would be a big step forward for us,” said Bowman. “We have a remarkable economic opportunity in front of us, and the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project facilitates and ensures those opportunities continue.”

Bowman and other members of the group believe the project also provides a unique opportunity to satisfy the conservation community by adding 83,000 acres to the western and southern portion of the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

A map of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project.

“The west fork of the Clearwater addition protects an incredible wildlife corridor connecting the Missoula Mountains with the Bob,” said Bowman. “The south end of the Bob additions, those also provide more wilderness and hiking adventures. The Otatsy Recreation Area would open up to snowmobiling.”

Smoke Elser, a retired outfitter, also believes the project satisfies all interests. Outfitters in the Ovando area remain busy with guests, he said, and everyone wants to take part in the landscape.

That, he added, benefits area businesses.

“I think that piece of land is very valuable to this generation for fishing and hunting,” said Elser. “It’s going to give our future generations a place to fly-fish for cutthroat trout, and still give our future grandsons and granddaughters a great place for hiking and horseback. There’s nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of horse.”

Tester listened over the course of the hour-long meeting and praised the group for its work.

“If anything is successful in this state with on-the-ground collaborative forest management, it’ll be you guys,” Tester said. “We’re going to try to figure out what’s the best path forward, not only for you guys, but for the state of Montana.”

Tester said his team will study the political landscape over the next few months before deciding it’s next move. He said the group may have to face reality and settle for a portion of the overall package.

“We’ll talk about what we have to do politically to get this done and try to figure out how we can utilize what’s coming up here with this election, possibly a lame duck opportunity,” Tester said. “We have to sit down and have a conversation. We’ll take as much as the apple as we can get.”