By Bill Avey, Helena-Lewis & Clark National Forest Supervisor
“Where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question shall always be answered from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.” – Gifford Pinchot, U.S. Forest Service Chief, 1905-1910
The Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest is mandated to responsibly and objectively manage nearly three million acres of National Forest System lands in central Montana for multiple uses on behalf of the entire American public, while following numerous laws, regulations, and forest standards. It is a tough mission, but it is one that my colleagues willingly take on because they are passionate about doing what is right for “the greatest number in the long run.”
Often times while managing for multiple uses, we encounter conflicting opinions, recommendations, desires, and requirements, regarding proposed projects or final decisions. Nowhere is this more prevalent than during a travel management project process.
In March 2016, after extensive public involvement and comprehensive analyses completed by forest specialists, I signed the Final Records of Decisions (RODs) for the Divide Travel Management Plan. As I’ve said before, there is no doubt these decisions are controversial, since it is very apparent that in many respects different factions of the public are simply opposed to each other’s positions and desired “use” of these public lands. The final Divide Travel Management Plan, and the associated Forest Plan programmatic amendment for Standard 4a, are based on the best science available, and they provide the widest variety of recreational opportunity within the constraints of the resources and the laws that apply to their management.
It is in that respect that I would like to correct and clarify the inaccurate information that was shared with your membership network in the News from The Capital Trail Vehicle Association article that was printed in the April 2016 newsletter.
As written in the article: “It is extremely biased against the motorized community and following is some of the major impacts: closes 149 miles (34%) of the current 435 miles of trails and roads; closes the entire Sweeny Creek recreation area located at the bottom of Priest Pass; closes most of the routes starting on August 31st instead of the traditional date of October 15th; prohibit camping and picnicking further than 70 feet from a roadway.”
Currently within the Divide Travel Plan area, there is 450 miles of all-types of open motorized road and trail routes, of which 336 miles are National Forest System (NFS) routes; the other types of roads/trails are private, county, or unauthorized routes. In the Final ROD, I decided to keep 170 miles of NFS roads open to highway legal vehicles, as well as increase the number of miles of motorized trails to 53 miles (originally, there was 20 miles of motorized trails available), and will now include connector and loop trail opportunities. Many of the routes that were closed were dead-end jammer roads, redundant or parallel routes that went to the same locations.
Another change within the Divide Travel Plan decisions is that some routes have different seasonal closure dates, to help ensure safe and suitable habitat opportunities for wildlife during those time periods. We worked closely with the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department to comprehensively analyze what seasonal closures were necessary for wildlife habitat; this decision provides a balance to wildlife habitat needs and public requests for motorized recreational opportunities during big game hunting seasons, both archery and general rifle. In the decision, I specifically left Forest Service route #1870 open to motorized uses until October 14th, which was an important area for the public. Though we do have trails that close August 31st, approximately 12 miles of National Forest System (NFS) trails have no seasonal restriction(s) and five miles of NFS trails are open until October 14th.
Lastly regarding the rule that motorized travel associated with dispersed camping needs to be within 70 feet from a designated route, I want to note that within this decision I designated more than 80 historic or existing dispersed campsites—many of which are more than 70-feet from a designated route—to remain on the landscape, provided there is no subsequent resource damage, and that resource concerns can be reasonably mitigated. I did this because we, as a Forest, recognize the value of having dispersed campsites greater than 70 feet from the edge of a designated route available to the public. Forest staff will monitor dispersed camping and dispersed-use recreation sites, to evaluate impacts to resources and/or any changes that may be needed to ensure protection of those resources.
There are many more details within the Divide Travel Management Plan that specifically outline the scientific analyses completed and the public’s recreational requests. At times those conflict with each other; however, I believe that the final decision reflects a solid balance between the ecological needs for the natural resources, and the strong desire for the public to enjoy their public lands in a variety of ways.