BONNER – What was billed as a reintroduction of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act turned into a full-fledged celebration of the Montana landscape on Friday, and the clear, cold waters pouring from the state’s prized wilderness.
Sen. Jon Tester used the KettleHouse Brewery on the banks of the Blackfoot River to announce his plans to reintroduce the popular act, which remains locked in the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee despite having the support of 73 percent of Montana residents.
“We need to get it out of that committee and have some success passing this as a standalone piece of legislation, or attaching it to another piece of legislation that’s moving forward,” Tester said. “As in many things, you may ask why a bill like this can’t get passed. I’ll be damned if I can give you an answer to that question.”
As they did when crafting the legislation in a true collaboration nearly 13 years ago, stakeholders from different backgrounds with different interests gathered again on Friday to support the measure.
They included members of the timber industry, the mountain biking community, wilderness advocates, hunters, backcountry guides, snowmobilers and others.
“We wouldn’t be here if not for the hard work started over a decade ago by folks who have made a living off the land – folks who have hunted and fished and hiked and mountain biked and snowmobiled in this ecosystem,” Tester said.
“We’re going to reintroduce this bill again to ensure that our kids and grandkids have the same opportunity in this very special landscape, a landscape you don’t see everywhere on this earth.”
The stewardship project finds its roots in the Forest, Jobs and Recreation Act, which became mired in politics and ultimately failed. It was subsequently broken into three key components: timber, recreation and conservation.
To date, only the timber element has passed Congress, leaving what Tester described as unfilled promises to the many stakeholders who helped write the larger legislation.
“We’ve got more promises we have to keep, whether it’s dealing with the wilderness part or the recreation part,” Tester said. “The bottom line is, this needs to get passed.”
Those behind the Blackfoot-Clearwater project helped champion that timber element, and its success is hard to deny. It has maintained or created 140 jobs and has netted $23 million in federal investment while restoring 172 miles of streams and 2,000 miles of trails.
Loren Rose, the chief operating officer for Pyramid Mountain Lumber in Seeley Lake, said it’s the only element of the project that’s been fulfilled. If the project is a three-legged stool, he said, it’s standing on a single leg.
“The original vision of that diverse array of interests was the proverbial three-legged stool,” he said. “We wanted increased forest management and restoration, and we got that. We wanted increased recreation opportunities and more acres in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and we don’t have that.
“My hope is the elected officials in D.C. can put aside whatever politics divides them and put the last two legs under this stool. It’s not going to stand on one leg forever. We’re still pulling for it, and it’s time to get it done.”
Those two unfinished tasks include a recreation component, one that looks to the opportunities present in the Blackfoot and Clearwater valleys.
The proposal would open 1,800 acres in the Otatsy Recreation Area to snowmobiling near Ovando and establish the Spread Mountain Recreation Area for mountain biking. Both would play a role in boosting what’s already a $7.1 billion outdoor recreation industry in Montana.
“When we look at the partners in this agreement, we see stakeholders as diverse as Montana itself,” said Ben Horan, director of Mountain Bike Missoula. “While we will never, probably, see eye to eye on every single thing, we’re bound by a common love for this landscape, for this place, and a passion for protecting it for future generations.”
A portion of that passion and energy also stems from the stewardship act’s third component. Conservation plays a vital role in the legislation, though it remains one of the two pieces still unfinished.
In a nod toward compromise and in exchange for wider timber harvests, those behind the act proposed adding 80,000 acres to the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Mission Mountains wilderness areas.
In doing so, they would protect prized wilderness gateways, including the North Fork of the Blackfoot River, Monture Creek, the West Fork of the Clearwater River and the rugged Swan Mountain front.
“We have a window in time to take an action that’s going to help set the stage for future generations, and protect and carry this forward,” said Mack Long of Bob Marshall Wilderness Outfitters. “The world is both growing and shrinking, and we’re not getting any more resources. Setting aside a small piece of it to become part of the bigger complex is a great stroke and a great opportunity.”
Long’s wife, Connie, served as president of the Backcountry Horsemen of Montana when the stakeholders first sat down in search of the compromise that resulted in the Blackfoot-Clearwater project.
She also partnered with backcountry legends like Smoke Elser and Jack Rich to move the effort forward and ensure it included a wilderness element. Like the other advocates, she’s still waiting for those efforts to win the support of Montana’s congressional delegation and their fellow lawmakers back in Washington.
“The Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship project was a very unique concept,” she said. “Who would have thought you could get snowmobilers, mountain bikers, businesses, the timber industry and ranchers around one table to come out with a final project all the stakeholders are proud of?
“We all had to give up some of what we wanted for the greater good.”