The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Senator Tester’s Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act

Montana’s Democratic Senator Jon Tester sponsored S. 1493, dubbed the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act. But due to its minimal new wilderness designation, mandated logging provisions, special interest carve-outs in currently roadless national forests, and opposition by Montana’s Republican Senator Steve Daines, it’s fair to say the measure is facing a serious headwind in Congress.

The Good

The bill designates 79,000 acres as “tack on” additions to the existing Bob Marshall, Mission
Mountains, and Scapegoat Wilderness Areas in western Montana. Although the new wilderness designation is welcome, much more public land should have been included as wilderness since the Blackfoot-Clearwater area is anchored by inventoried roadless areas and the functioning forest ecosystems they support. Numerous studies conclude roadless areas and Wilderness provide the best habitat for elk, the best water quality, and the most secure habitat for threatened species such as grizzly bears, bull trout, and lynx.

The Bad

Unfortunately, due to its special interest carve-outs, the result of the collaborative process lauded by the proponents, thebill destroys the Monture Creek proposed wilderness addition. Monture Creek is a critically important roadless area that includes federally designated Critical Habitat for lynx and bull trout under the Endangered Species Act. It also provides secure habitat for grizzly bears and is a stronghold for native Westslope Cutthroat Trout. It’s also a major elk migration corridor from the Scapegoat Wilderness to the winter ranges below.

Instead, the bill slices the Monture Creek roadless lands in half while designating more than 5,000 acres of these critical public lands as play areas for snowmobiles and mountain bikes. The Forest Service has already testified that the area trails are incompatible for mountain biking and such use will impact wildlife. It also opens the rest of these increasingly rare roadless areas for logging companies to bulldoze and clearcut.

The Ugly

Tester’s bill also sets a horrible precedent by exempting proposed projects from a thorough environmental analysis and the opportunity for full public review, comment, and objection required by existing environmental laws. Granting private interest groups these exemptions basically turns the wealth and well-being of our national forests over to private corporations and special interest groups.

For example, the bill mandates a ten-year schedule of logging projects with no public involvement. An unlimited number of logging projects up to 3,000 acres each are “categorically excluded” from the National Environmental Policy Act. By breaking them into pieces, tens of thousands of acres of logging won’t be analyzed for cumulative environmental impacts nor will the public, who own these forests, have the opportunity to even review, let alone comment, or object to the logging and road-building.

Instead, the bill turns management under the rubric of “stewardship” to corporate logging  and recreational special interests to construct and maintain roads and trails for motorized and mechanized use within sensitive wildlife and roadless areas. The Forest Service has testified this provision threatens the upcoming revision of the Lolo National Forest Plan by severely limiting their management options.

Can it Get Any Worse?

Montana’s Republican Senator Steve Daines, has already announced he will only support S.1493 if it is paired with his new bill revoking long-standing, Congressionally-designated Wilderness Study Area protections from more than 300,000 acres of public land in Montana.

Think this would never happen? As part of the collaborative “deal” to pass the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act in 2014, that set a terrible precedent  — which Sen. Daines is now hoping to use —  Senator Tester joined Montana’s Senator Max Baucus to support opening 208,000 acres of roadless lands to logging, road building, and permanent livestock grazing without environmental review and removing 29,000 acres of existing Wilderness Study Areas.

There is A Real “Stewardship” Alternative

The Blackfoot River is a national treasure but under Tester’s bill for-profit timber companies tell the Forest Service where they want to clearcut so they can maximize their profits. Instead of preserving the watershed of this famous river, the American public will be left with clearcuts filled with noxious weeds and a spider web of eroding logging roads spilling fish-choking sediment into the once-pristine stream.

The sensible alternative is the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA), which has already been introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate as H.R. 1755 and S. 1276.  The measure designates all of our dwindling roadless areas in the Northern Rockies as Wilderness Areas, including in the Blackfoot River watershed. NREPA will actually protect our national forests for future generations and the threatened species that depend upon their still-intact forest ecosystems – and that’s far more prudent than turning these public resources over to the “stewardship” of timber corporations, mountain bikers, and snowmobilers.

This column first ran in The Hill.

Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.