A bill heard in a U.S. Senate committee on Sept. 16 proposes nearly 90 thousand acres of new wilderness and recreation areas in northwest Montana.
The Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act stems from nearly a decade of collaboration between people representing wilderness, recreation and timber interests near Seeley Lake.
Democratic Senator Jon Tester re-introduced the legislation in Congress last year after it failed to pass out of committee in 2018.
"It's a bill that I didn't write. The people of Montana wrote it. And and quite frankly, it's a good bill. And the reason it's a good bill is because it, it really hits all the buckets," Tester said.
The Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act proposes adding nearly 80,000 acres to the Scapegoat, Bob Marshall Complex, and Mission Mountain wilderness areas, and creates two recreation areas near Ovando with over 2,000 acres for snowmobiling and around 3,800 acres for mountain biking and hiking.
The legislation would also require the U.S. Forest Service to identify timber projects in the Seeley Lake Ranger District.
A 2020 University of Montana Public Lands Survey said 75 percent of the 500 Montanans surveyed support the bill. Critics have expressed concern about timber harvests, as well as snowmobiling and mountain biking in grizzly habitat.
U.S. Forest Service Deputy Chief Chris French in the hearing on Sept. 16 said the agency had some concerns with the bill in its current form.
“We share Senator Tester’s commitment to collaboration. We do have some concerns about the implementation of certain provisions, and we’d like to work with the subcommittee and the senator as this bill progresses," French said.
In written testimony, French said one concern is that the bill’s timeline for approving proposed trails could delay Lolo National Forest’s upcoming forest plan revision. Another concern was that enhancing mountain biking opportunities in the Spread Mountain area, which is currently recommended wilderness, could create conflicts with wildlife and other recreation uses.
A spokesperson for Jon Tester said the senator is happy to work with the Forest Service to find a path forward with the bill.
Montana’s Republican Senator Steve Daines, who sits on the committee where the bill was heard, has not yet taken a position for or against the proposal. A spokesperson for Daines told YPR the Senator “will continue to listen to local residents and stakeholders to determine the best path forward."