It seems odd to stand beside Seeley Lake, looking at the mountains that border the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, and not actually see the wilderness.
The border of that 1.6-million-acre, federally protected backcountry runs along the crest of the Swan Range. The western face of those mountains, where all the trailheads start, has no special status.
That makes sense from a scenic standpoint. The Seeley-Swan Valley lacks the churning peaks and glittering lakes that glorify the Bob Marshall and Mission Mountains wildernesses on either side. From the air, the state Highway 83 corridor offers no contest to the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
“The amazing thing about the Bob Marshall is, as large as it is, it’s surrounded by significant large landscapes with no guarantee they’ll remain the way they are,” said Zack Porter of the Montana Wilderness Association. “That could change with the stroke of a pen. Monture Creek is 16 miles from trailhead up to the Bob Marshall boundary, even though it’s surrounded by rugged, wild country. The North Fork of the Blackfoot River, all the way west to Grizzly Basin, looks and feels and smells like the Bob. But it was left out by a twist of fate.”
When it was mapped out, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex corralled the watershed feeding the South and Middle Forks of the Flathead River. The mountain ridgelines defined the water drainages, so that’s where the boundary went. But that neglected the way wildlife use the region, migrating back and forth in pursuit of seasonal food sources, spawning areas and climate sanctuaries. The western face of the Swan Range, and corridors across the Seeley-Swan Valley, were just as important to critters as the high-elevation crags were to adventurers.
So more than a decade ago, a coalition of environmentalists, timber workers, business owners and snowmobilers put together the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project. It envisioned a congressional deal where the U.S. Forest Service would get new authority to barter landscape restoration for commercial logs, backcountry advocates would get protection for unique wildlife habitat, and winter sports enthusiasts would have guaranteed play areas.
The whole package was inserted into Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act in 2008, as one of three locally developed Montana land projects. That bill never made it to a full Senate floor vote, although it had several close calls.
Meanwhile, other initiatives such as the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program in 2010 realized the timber parts of the Blackfoot-Clearwater proposal. The Southwest Crown of the Continent project brought about $33 million to bear on timber sales, road removal, habitat restoration and trail work between Swan Lake and Lincoln. But the wilderness designations remain in limbo.
“That’s the unfinished part of the deal that got everyone together in first place,” said Tim Love, recently retired Seeley Lake District Ranger who helped convene the coalition. “No one’s left the table. We’re all still at the job.”
The group seeks Congressional recognition of four places. The smallest, and perhaps most significant, is the 4,460-acre West Fork Clearwater addition to the Mission Mountains Wilderness. That bit of forest around Lake Marshall holds some of the most valuable spawning streams for bull and cutthroat trout – two native fish species under serious threat from loss of habitat.
“That’s phenomenal wildlife habitat, really,” said former Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 2 supervisor Mack Long, who now outfits guided trips into the Bob Marshall. “There’s a lot of access for hunting there. And it wraps around the Seeley Lake snowmobile trails and cross-country ski trails. That’s why the Seeley Lake snowmobile club is supportive. This keeps good habitat protected, but isn’t going to hurt the motorized use going on.”
Snowmobilers also back creation of the 2,013-acre Otatsy Recreation Management Area north of Ovando. The area would not be open to motorized use in summer, but would allow snowmobile riding between Dec. 1 and April 1.
Along the Swan Range, three more sites would get wilderness designation. They include 40,072 acres of the Monture Creek drainage leading to the headwaters of the South Fork of the Flathead River; 30,967 acres of the North Fork of the Blackfoot River headwaters drainage alongside the Scapegoat Wilderness; and 7,792 acres of Grizzly Basin northeast of Seeley Lake where several popular trails punch into high-altitude fishing areas.
The plan hasn’t pleased everyone. Friends of the Wild Swan director Arlene Montgomery said she could not support the piecemeal nature of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project when a more comprehensive proposal, the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, was also seeking congressional support. That legislation would give wilderness designation to about 23 million acres of inventoried roadless land in public hands.
Other critics have challenged the project’s combination of timber access for wilderness land, saying the two issues shouldn’t be linked or traded off.
There’s also no new commitment or draft legislation in Congress to formalize the plan. While Democrat Tester and Republican Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Ryan Zinke have expressed interest in the coalition’s proposal, they haven’t put it in writing. Tester did not reintroduce FJRA in this congressional session, although the bill’s language could be revived.
For Long, the years of work also represent the diversity of support for protecting the edge of the Bob Marshall and Mission Mountains wildernesses, and the people who live in between.
“Ovando, Seeley Lake, Condon and Lincoln all depend on year-round recreational use,” Long said. “This whole project is to keep the viability of those communities going, to keep people buying gas, staying in motels and using trails. I started working on this 10 years ago, and I don’t know what hat I’m wearing any more. But it’s the right thing to do.”