Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) The Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest supervisor trumpeted her new forest plan as the best compromise for all, but when it comes to proposed wilderness, both advocates and opponents disagree.

When the final draft of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest Plan was released at the end of November, wilderness advocates immediately noticed that the Hoodoo Recommended Wilderness Area on the Idaho side of the Great Burn Proposed Wilderness had shrunk by thousands of acres from what was proposed in 1987. A long section of land extending from Fish Lake northwest to Hoodoo Pass was gone, relegated to regular forest, along with a large lobe on the southeastern edge near U.S. Highway 12 and Blacklead Mountain.

Hayley Newman, Great Burn Conservation Alliance executive director, said the loss of the Blacklead area was a likely loss for winter wildlife. Research, including a 2018 Rocky Mountain Research Station study, has shown that wolverines, elk and lynx avoid areas frequented by both motorized and non-motorized winter recreationists.

“You have some of the deepest and most sustaining spring snowpack in the entire region, which is vital for wolverine denning. With climate change, all their range is shrinking, so why are we trying to piece up that shrinking habitat?” Newman said. “There’s also a struggling mountain goat herd in that area and Idaho Fish and Game has records of its decline over the past 15 years. So opening it up to use just doesn’t make sense.”

In her decision rationale, Forest Supervisor Cheryl Probert said the question of what to recommend as wilderness garnered the most public interest of all aspects of the draft forest plan released in December 2019, accounting for 18% of almost 20,000 comments.

Probert said she’d heard about the need to protect wolverine and mountain goats but also heard complaints from snowmobile users who said that “there are no replacements for the opportunities provided here.” She asked opposing groups to come up with a compromise, but none came. So she carved the area up to create one.

To the northwest, the Fish Lake Trail will be opened to motorized use, and the State Line Trail will be opened to bicycles but not motorized use. Snowmobilers have been given the Blacklead Mountain area and the entire area north of Fish Lake, because they’d been allowed to use it until the 2011 Clearwater Travel Plan shut down snowmobile access. On the Montana side, snowmobiles were banned from the Great Burn in 1999, after the Lolo National Forest’s 1986 forest plan was belatedly enforced.

Probert said snowmobiles wouldn’t affect persistence of native species, and she couldn’t justify shutting down a “unique” motorized winter recreation area. The area was also closed to bicycles by a 2017 Travel Management decision so that would also open up.

Newman said the State Line Trail, which snakes along high ridge lines, doesn’t lend itself to competing user groups.

“I know there’s been a lot of discussion on that Stateline Trail about stock use. The second that mountain-bike use gets to a certain level, that completely displaces stock users. Even though it’s an open trail, it won’t be safe. Some of that trail is really exposed, and if you’re on a horse and meet someone going at speed, it’s dangerous,” Newman said. “I’m a mountain bike rider, I like to mountain bike. But I’m also a horse rider, and some places just need to stay slow.”

Probert said the rest of the Hoodoo area would still be managed for wilderness. Wilderness advocates are skeptical because the Forest Service hasn’t done a good job of managing the area for wilderness before.

In most cases, the Forest Service is supposed to manage recommended wilderness as it does designated wilderness: no mechanized vehicles or equipment allowed because they can degrade the wilderness character. However in some cases, such as the Sapphire Wilderness Study Area, national forests looked the other way in the 1970s and ‘80s when motor vehicles encroached.

In 2011, the Clearwater Travel Plan closed all proposed wilderness areas to motorized and mechanized travel with the exception of the Fish Lake Trail. But forest managers were found to repeatedly ignore their plan in the Hoodoo.

In 2015, the courts ruled in favor of wilderness groups, saying the Clearwater Forest had violated its Forest Plan requirement to protect elk habitat when it allowed motorized use in some areas and it violated its Travel Management Rule when it didn’t minimize the damage of motor vehicles.

Snowmobile groups like Missoula-based Backcountry Sled Patriots pressed the Forest Service to reopen the area. After the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and the Blue Ribbon Coalition sued in 2015, challenging the restriction, the Forest Service agreed to reconsider proposed wilderness boundaries and restrictions in its forest plan, which had begun scoping in 2012. That set the stage for the proposed plan.

As the Forest Plan process dragged on, snowmobilers grew frustrated. In May 2018, Missoula-based Backcountry Sled Patriots drafted an executive order for President Donald Trump to sign, requiring the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to prove snowmobiles would specifically harm a proposed wilderness area before denying mechanized access. The order wasn’t signed.

In a January 2021 letter to the Nez Perce-Clearwater Forest, the Missoula County Commissioners registered their opposition to allowing motorized winter use in the Idaho portion of the Great Burn.

“We believe there are more suitable locations for motorized winter use and would be interested in working together to address the needs of recreation communities in ways that do not negatively impact wildlife populations that are already subject to increasing habitat fragmentation, the stressors of climate change and increasing recreation pressure on our wild areas,” the letter said.Finally, in March 2022, an Idaho federal court ruled that the Forest Service again violated the Clearwater Forest Plan as well as the agency’s Travel Management Rule in allowing motorized vehicles into the Fish Lake part of the proposed Great Burn Wilderness.

Shrinking the recommended wilderness would eliminate those legal snag for the Forest Service, but the public has 60 days to oppose the final draft of the forest plan and wilderness groups intend to do so.

“The Forest Service has sat back while illegal motorized use has encroached on the Great Burn for years, and now it’s decided to reward illegal use by rewriting the forest plan to make it okay,” said Maddy Munson, Wild Montana Public Lands director.

Newman said one forest - the Nez Perce-Clearwater - shouldn’t be allowed to diminish a wilderness that’s partially managed, and managed differently, by another forest: the Lolo. For example, the Lolo Forest recently designated the mountain goat as a species of concern while the Nez Perce-Clearwater has not. Plus, one forest plan might sway another, said Katie Bilodeau, Friends of the Clearwater staff attorney, during a 2020 forest plan meeting.

“Why care about a forest plan in Idaho?” Bilodeau said “What happens in Idaho is coming here. The Lolo and Bitterroot national forests have not yet revised their forest plans. So if the forest set some precedent with this forest plan, you can pretty much guarantee this is coming to some forests near you.”

In 1987, the Clearwater National Forest recommended almost 112,000 acres in Idaho as part of the Hoodoo Wilderness in 1987. At the same time, the Lolo National Forest recommended an adjacent chunk on the Montana side to bring the entire Great Burn Recommended Wilderness to about 250,000 acres.

Previously, the Forest Service gave this area one of the highest wilderness ratings of any area in the National Forest System since the 1970s. In 1988, that rating encouraged Congress to vote in favor of Montana Sen. John Melcher’s bill to designate the Great Burn as wilderness. The entire area would be wilderness now if not for a pocket veto by President Ronald Reagan.

Prior to being combined with the Nez Perce Forest in 2009, the Clearwater Forest had little wilderness; just a sliver of the Bitterroot Selway. But the addition of the Nez Perce upped that to 25% wilderness across the two forests. Probert said that, combined with Idaho Roadless areas, provides enough protected lands. Local governments and citizens don’t support creating any more wilderness, Probert said, and more wilderness “would hamper our ability to suitably manage” the forest.

“I realize that some people may not agree with that assertion,” Probert wrote.

Newman doesn’t. “We are looking at this area at a landscape scale and that means on multiple forests. So it’s important to be looking at it as a whole instead of just this half,” Newman said. “We view the Great Burn and surrounding roadless areas as this stepping-stone area. When you’re looking at grizzly bears coming back into the Bitterroots, these large animal movements across the landscape, the Hoodoo area is this giant missing puzzle piece. They’re funneling through the Ninemile and going right into the Great Burn. We need to encourage these land managers to look on a larger landscape scale.”

In fact, wilderness groups want the Forest Service to enlarge the Great Burn Wilderness to encompass adjacent roadless areas to the west, an addition of 40,000 acres. But, Probert bypassed three plan alternatives with more recommended wilderness - between 309,000 and 857,000 acres - preferring an alternative with just 197,700 acres of proposed wilderness.

However Probert did propose one new wilderness, Meadow Creek, with almost 73,000 acres adjacent to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness south of the Selway River.

That prompted Idaho County Commission Chairman Skip Brandt to say the forest plan goes too far because he wants to log the Meadow Creek area to deal with wildfire risk, according to the Lewiston Tribune.

"My first look was at the recommended wilderness and I am not in favor of any additional wilderness, so that is a negative," Brandt told the Tribune.

The objection period for the Forest Plan is open until late January. To see the related documents, follow this link.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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