Covering more than 2.8 million acres across 17 counties in central Montana, the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest is home to a wide range of wildlife, including elk, deer, bighorn sheep, black bears, grizzly bears, lynxes, mountain lions, and bald eagles and is a major draw for locals and visitors seeking quiet recreation, such as hiking, cross-country skiing, hunting, and fishing.
The forest includes almost 80 miles of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail plus the Scapegoat and Gates of the Mountains wilderness areas.
On May 21, after years of hard work and public engagement, the U.S. Forest Service released its proposed plan for managing the Helena-Lewis and Clark. The announcement marks a step forward for conservation but also misses some opportunities to protect important wild lands that provide essential habitat as well as habitat connectivity for diverse species. The proposal, which will probably be signed by the forest supervisor and made official later this year, will guide the management of the forest for at least the next 15 years.
Here’s a look at what the Forest Service gets right in the plan, and where it could do more.
The Big Snowy Mountains
The “Big Snowies” form one of Montana’s largest island mountain ranges, with isolated peaks rising from the plains. Congress designated 91,000 acres of the Big Snowies as a Wilderness Study Area (WSA) in 1977. WSAs are undeveloped lands with outstanding opportunities for solitude that are managed to preserve their wilderness character until Congress either grants them a wilderness designation or releases them from further study. The Forest Service’s proposed plan recommends that Congress designate 66,894 acres of the mountains as wilderness, which would protect vital wildlife habitat and help preserve the forest’s rich cultural history that began thousands of years ago with the native peoples now known as the Blackfeet, Gros Ventre, Salish, Shoshone, Kootenai, and Metis, among others.
Nevada Mountain is a large roadless area about 30 miles northwest of Helena along the Continental Divide that includes important connective corridors and habitat for grizzly bears and lynxes. The area is popular with day hikers and backpackers who come to explore the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail and enjoy the mountain’s scenic ridges. The proposed plan recommends that Congress designate 31,948 acres in the Nevada Mountain area as wilderness, which would protect these lands for future generations.
Scapegoat Wilderness additions
Designated by Congress in 1972, the 260,000-acre Scapegoat Wilderness straddles the Continental Divide, contains hundreds of miles of trails, provides some of the country’s best habitat for grizzly bears, and is home to wolverines, elk, lynxes, and other species. The Forest Service’s plan includes a recommendation to add 21,068 acres in the Red Mountain and Silver King areas to the Scapegoat, which would help conserve the densely wooded river bottoms and scattered subalpine forests of this area.
The Middle Fork Judith area
Congress designated 81,000 acres around the Middle Fork of the Judith River as a WSA in 1977. Located in the Little Belt Mountains, central Montana’s largest island mountain range, the lands around the Middle Fork Judith support elk herds and at-risk wildlife such as the black rosy finch, and the area’s streams support populations of western cutthroat trout. Unfortunately, the Forest Service’s proposed plan does not recommend permanent protection for these lands, which would leave them vulnerable to activities that that are usually prohibited in wilderness and diminish their wild character and threaten wildlife.
Deep Creek and Tenderfoot Creek areas
To the west of the Little Belt Mountains, the Smith River—a popular destination for boaters and anglers—traces the national forest boundary through spectacular limestone cliffs as it flows to the Missouri River. Protection of its feeder streams and the lands from which those streams arise is critical for supporting the quantity and quality of the river’s flows. Unfortunately, the Forest Service missed an opportunity to protect these lands and waters by not recommending the remote lands around Deep Creek or Tenderfoot Creek for wilderness designation.
What’s next for the plan?
The release of the proposed plan offers no opportunity for public comment, but people and organizations that submitted substantive comments earlier in the planning process can file an objection to decisions in the plan. The Forest Service will then meet with objectors to address the issues they raise and may elect to modify the plan as a result.
The forest supervisor is expected to approve the finalized plan in late 2020 or early 2021, after which the Forest Service will begin its implementation. The Pew Charitable Trusts supports the Forest Service wilderness recommendations on the Big Snowies, Nevada Mountain, and the Scapegoat Wilderness additions and hopes the agency will take another look at protecting the Middle Fork Judith and Deep Creek and Tenderfoot Creek areas before approving the plan.
John Seebach is a director with Pew’s U.S. public lands and rivers conservation project.