GREAT FALLS TRIBUNE 7-28-16 Homegrown Help

Jul 28, 2016


Community backs conservation efforts surrounding Seeley, Ovando




Land conservation is no longer just an environmentalist’s ambition. The Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project has piloted a community-inclusive approach to land preservation. h

For more than a decade, conservation groups have been looking for ways to protect the Blackfoot and Clearwater valleys while defending the various groups with stakes in the land. h “There’s a number of lessons that can be learned, like being respectful of a resource, but mostly about people,” Jim Stone, owner of Rolling Stone Ranch in Ovando, said. “Sometimes we don’t want to hear the other side. But this has bridged the gap. We’re all still talking10 years after the inception.”

Backcountry horseman, ranchers, snowmobilers and the timber industry all have vested interest in the future of the area and have weighed in to help create a conducive plan for the mid-elevation lands bordering the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Mission Mountains wilderness areas around Seeley Lake and Ovando.

“It’s all about natural resources, protecting the landscape and sustaining the rural economy,” Stone said. “The idea that we can sustain local economies together sets standards. We’re managing this land for our kids and their kids. It’s a homegrown approach.”

Scott Brennan, Montana director for The Wilderness Society, said the land encompassed by the project was historically a mining and logging community. It has since been refocused toward recreation and ranching.

The stewardship project is broken into three major sections: timber, recreation and conservation. The proposed conservation land area covers 1.5 million acres of land.

In 2010, the project established the Southwest Crown Collaborative to address the first part of the three-pronged approach. Through the collaboration, the area already has seen $19 million in federal investments leading to an overall investment of $33 million in the local economy.

Additionally, 46,222 acres have been treated for noxious weeds, 130 miles of streams have been restored and 2,000 miles of trails have been maintained.

To address recreation in the area, the project members will maintain hunting and fishing areas. The project also proposes turning 1,800 acres near Ovando into the Otatsy Recreation Area, a location for snowmobiling.

“This won’t change how people use the land,” Stone said. “It’s still public access.”

The Otatsy Recreation Area will be located around Otatsy Lake, an alpine lake on a ridge between Spread Mountain and Lake Mountain.

For their conservation efforts, the conservation project members intends to add 83,000 acres of critical elk, deer, moose, grizzly bear, black bear, mountain goat, mountain lion and wolverine habitat to the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Mission Mountain wilderness areas.

“It feels like wilderness, it looks like wilderness, it’s just not protected,” Stone said.

Though the proposed conservation area feeds from one watershed, the land is incredibly diverse. The Blackfoot River, made famous by the film “A River Runs Through It,” cuts through the immense slopes of the surrounding mountains. Below the pitches of the wilderness, the yellow, flat farmlands of Ovando and Clearwater stretch to Seeley Lake in the north.

“This project brought together diverse groups of stakeholders,” Bruce Gordon, president of Ecoflight, said. “All of their voices have been heard. That means not everyone will get everything they want, but something will actually get done. This is going to be the new model. This is how to get things done.”

Ecoflight is a nonprofit organization that advocates for the protection of wild lands through the use of small aircraft aerial tours. Gordon uses his aircraft to provide important perspectives on conservation. He said looking down on an area shows the natural connectivity of nature.

From the air, people are able to see where valleys and farms run into mountains and where plains and forest animals likely would travel for food, shelter and mating season. In seeing how these areas fit together like a puzzle, Gordon believes people can better grasp the importance of maintaining full habitats and critical wildlife areas.

Gordon came to Montana from Colorado. In comparison, he believes Montana has a unique advantage for conservation.

“In Colorado, many conservation areas are already developed, so conservation projects are more about clean up,” Gordon said. “It’s too crowded now. Before that happened, in my opinion, there was not enough critical land preserved. They weren’t proactive.”

Gordon flew a few groups over the area. Stone had refused to get in the plane for fear of flying. Before he could be persuaded otherwise, he and his corgi Dillon loaded up in his truck and headed back to the ranch.

The small plane followed the curves of the valley and cruised through stretches of land that seemed totally untouched by man. Alpine lakes shimmered in the sun and dense trees gave way to mauve rock faces.

As the plane neared Otatsy Lake, Gordon opened the side window and dipped the left wing toward the earth.

“We’re so blessed up here in Montana,” Gordon said. “We have big, untouched protected areas. That’s unique in the United States, aside from Alaska.”

The Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project has received support from the three counties impacted by the project. Their next step is to persuade Montana’s congressional delegates to pass the legislation.

“Congressional support is critical,” Stone said.

The project members ask those interested in helping their efforts to write their local paper in support of the project and contact the state’s congressional delegates.