On November 28th, the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest (NPCNF) released the Final Environmental Impact Statement, Draft Record of Decision, and Draft Final Revised Forest Plan.

This Plan is critically important because it will dictate management of the 4-million-acre forest for decades to come. It’s also critical because the decisions made on the NPCNF affect what occurs on the adjacent Lolo National Forest (LNF).

To say we are disappointed in this draft decision is a huge understatement. Our concerns are specific to the proposed management of the Hoodoo Roadless Area; commonly known as the Great Burn.

Many of you have had the privilege of recreating in this amazing area. Straddling the Idaho and Montana border, this 252,000-acre roadless area is one of the largest and wildest roadless areas in the lower 48. Management is shared between the NPCNF and the LNF. The wilderness qualities of the Great Burn have been recognized by the US Forest Service and the area has been administratively recommended for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) in both the Clearwater and Lolo National Forest Plans since the mid-1980s and managed as such.

The Great Burn has been included in 16 wilderness bills introduced to Congress by Idaho and Montana legislators since 1984. It is only a matter of time before the Great Burn will be permanently designated wilderness, unless a USFS decision jeopardizes its future.

Sadly, we’re afraid that time has come. The draft decision by the NPCNF supervisor removes 32,000 acres of recommended Wilderness from the Great Burn. The decision proposes snowmobiling and mountain biking in some of the wildest parts of the Great Burn as well as in areas where it will be next to impossible to keep snowmobilers from trespassing onto the LNF where snowmobiling is prohibited.

The proposed action allows snowmobiling up to the stateline which is also the boundary of the LNF. The stateline is an open meadowy ridge with numerous lake basins on the LNF. Though a ridgeline may be considered a recognizable feature for the purpose of keeping activities legal, if there are attractions in the adjacent closed area, our experience as recreation and wilderness managers has shown that there will be illegal intrusions into the closed area.

In fact, one of the basic tenets of recreation management is to make it as easy as possible for the public to be legal in their activities. This decision welcomes trespass onto the LNF and makes it impossible for the remaining recommended wilderness to ever be successfully managed as designated wilderness.

In preparation for the Forest Plan revision, the NPCNF completed an assessment of the qualities of roadless areas that would result in an area being recommended for inclusion in the NWPS. The NPCNF assessment gave one of the highest wilderness ratings, of any area, to the Great Burn.

Yet, the decision is to remove 32,000 acres thus jeopardizing the potential for the area ever being designated.  Why did they do this?  To appease a handful of elite high-mark snowmobilers and snowbikers who have been illegally snowmobiling in areas of the Great Burn that have been closed to snowmobiling and snowbiking since 1986.

Nothing in the EIS completed for the Forest Plan revision justifies this major change. The snowmobilers claim that they don’t have comparable areas in which to snowmobile and snowbike.  The fact is, there are over 100 miles of groomed snowmobile trails in that area.

Our heartfelt opinions are based on nearly 100 years of collective experience managing Wilderness and roadless areas in Idaho and Montana.

If you are as irate as we are about this proposal, please consider writing to Regional Forester Leanne Martin at USFS Forest Service Northern Region, 26 Fort Missoula Road, Missoula, MT 59804 or leanne.marten@usda.gov.

Kathy McAllister, Deputy Regional forester, USFS, Northern Region (retired); Chris McCarthy-Ryan, Wilderness Program Manager, USFS Northern Region (retired); Deb Gale, Wilderness Manager, Bitterroot National Forest (retired); Kari Gunderson, PhD, Wilderness Management Professor and Mission Mountains Wilderness Ranger (retired)