Big Sky’s Big Draw: 5 Treasures of Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest

Forest Service should protect Montana’s outdoor recreation, and its economic benefits

Big Sky’s Big Draw: 5 Treasures of Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest
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A hiker pauses above Crystal Lake in the Big Snowy Mountains south of Lewistown, Montana.
Zack Porter

There’s a reason Montana is known as Big Sky Country: From many vantages in the state, the horizon seems to unfurl endlessly under an all-encompassing sky. That’s the case in much of the 2.8 million-acre Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, which is beloved by locals for its world-class mountain biking, fishing, skiing, camping, and hiking.

Now the U.S. Forest Service has a chance to preserve those benefits. The agency is crafting a plan that will guide the management of the forest for the next 10 to 20 years, a process that will determine which areas will stay as they are and which will be offered for development. Some of the places under consideration are congressionally designated wilderness study areas (WSAs)—places that lawmakers have determined are natural and undeveloped, with outstanding opportunities for solitude. WSAs are managed to preserve those characteristics until Congress decides whether to designate them as a part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. 

The Forest Service wants to hear from Americans before making a final decision about how these public lands will be used. So whether you live in Missoula, Miami, Helena, or Houston, your input can help shape the future of wild country along hundreds of miles of the Continental Divide and in seven island ranges—isolated mountain ranges that appear as "islands" of higher ground—in central Montana.

Here are five places that the Forest Service should protect in its Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest Plan Revision.

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Intrepid hikers can find permanent ice caves in the Crystal Lake area of the Big Snowy Mountains.
Zack Porter

Big Snowy Mountains

Ninety-eight thousand acres of the Big Snowies became a WSA when Congress passed the Montana Wilderness Study Act in 1977.  One of the state’s island ranges, it is the largest pristine mountain landscape in central Montana, sheltering quiet trails and wildlands for hiking, horseback riding, spelunking, hunting, skiing, snowshoeing, and camping. Its streams are the source of some of the purest drinking water in the state.  The range is home to a variety of wildlife, including elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, moose, black bears, and mountain lions. It also has a rich cultural history that began with Native Americans and continued through the peak of the homesteading era early in the 20th century.

Hiking and snowshoeing are popular in the Middle Fork Judith Wilderness Study Area south and east of Great Falls, Montana. The area is notable for its canyon spires, caves, and ponderosa pine trees.
Mark Good

Middle Fork Judith

The Middle Fork Judith Wilderness Study Area, which also earned its designation in 1977, is a place with limitless opportunities for primitive recreation and hunting. The area encompasses the Judith River’s Lost Fork and Middle Fork, which is teeming with native cutthroat and rainbow trout.  Both branches have cut deep, twisted canyons through multicolored limestone cliffs. The area also has open meadows that provide excellent habitat for elk and other wildlife.   

The wild character of the Middle Fork Judith and Big Snowies WSAs are under threat from two bills pending in Congress that would remove protection for nearly half a million acres of land managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Read more about those bills and the importance of WSAs here.

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The Smith River, legendary among anglers for its native westslope cutthroat and big brown trout, runs through stunning scenery, including high meadows that are habitat for elk.
Willie Rahr

Deep Creek

The segment of the Smith River that runs through the Deep Creek area offers great opportunities for anglers and for those who want to experience the water on a float. Tenderfoot Creek, which has its headwaters in this area, is a critical feeder stream for the Smith and, along with Deep Creek, is a source of cold, clean water, even in summer.

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A light dusting of snow and wildflowers covers the upper reaches of Nevada Mountain.
John Gatchell

Nevada Mountain

Nevada Mountain, about 30 miles northwest of the state capital, Helena, is a vast roadless area teeming with wildlife. A wilderness designation for this area in the forest plan would protect important habitat for grizzlies, elk, wolverines, lynx, martens, mountain lions, black bears, bobcats, and moose.

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The U.S. Forest Service has proposed designating as wilderness nearly 2,000 acres of an area known as Red Mountain. The acreage is adjacent to the existing Scapegoat Wilderness.
John Gatchell

Scapegoat Wilderness Additions 

The Dearborn Silverking, Arrastra Creek, and Red Mountain areas, which adjoin the 260,000-acre Scapegoat Wilderness, merit permanent protection as wilderness.  The 30,000 acres of rugged and wild land in the three recommended wilderness areas contain many of the natural qualities of the Scapegoat, a wonderland dominated by massive limestone cliffs and scattered subalpine forests. The areas provide some of the most vital habitat for grizzly bears in the country and are also home to wolverines, elk, lynx, and other species.

Outdoor recreation is big business in Big Sky Country, supporting 71,000 jobs and generating $7.1 billion in consumer spending annually by the 81 percent of state residents who participate in outdoor recreation each year and by visitors from across the country and around the world who come to fish, hunt, and hike. The Forest Service should ensure that these landscapes maintain their extraordinary allure by keeping them wild, protected, and free from development.

The agency is accepting comments on the plan through Oct. 9.  Click here for more information on how to comment. 

John Gilroy directs Pew’s U.S. public lands program.