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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Jun 15 2015

A Courageous Plan for Our Wild Divide

Forest Service travel plan protects quiet recreation and improves wildlife habitat

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In late April, the Helena Ranger District issued a draft Record of Decision for the Divide Travel Plan.  

Praised as “courageous” by backcountry horsemen and hunters, the proposed plan protects wildlands, restores abused lands, and significantly expands protection of the Continental Divide Trail while providing large tracts for snowmobiling and establishing, at last, a legal system of four-wheeler routes.

Montana Wilderness Association and the Montana High Divide Trails Partnership laud the courage it took forest leaders to end 14 years of foot-dragging with this new travel plan. Helena conservationists, mountain bikers, hikers, horseback riders, and backcountry hunters all back the plan, because it resolves decades of shameful neglect and abuse along the Continental Divide near Helena and south of Lincoln. 

It’s been a long time coming indeed.

Eighteen years ago, I stood on the Continental Divide northwest of Helena, where someone had ripped out barriers carefully placed to keep motor vehicles off the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. A trail intended for quiet recreation had been turned into a new road for four wheelers. 

Closer to Helena and near Sweeny Creek, four-wheel vehicles trampled native plants, spread weeds, exposed bare soils, and left more and more vehicle scars across national forest. In the roadless Little Blackfoot above Kading Cabin, ATV wheels carved ruts across roadless meadows and slopes.

Further north along the Divide, a maze of illegal motorways were spray-painted orange and then cut into forests within the majestic Nevada Mountain proposed Wilderness, the largest remaining tract of road-free wild country on the Helena Ranger District Divide. Visible from Mount Helena, this wild area, with its lingering summer snowpack and cirque basins, sustains large elk herds, resident grizzlies, black bears, lynx and a surprising population of wolverines.

High road densities are the kiss of death for healthy national forests. While forest roads provide important public access for work and play, excessive unmanaged roads and vehicle ways contribute to erosion, weeds, and reduced habitat for wildlife. Elk habitat quality (“effectiveness”), for example, declines by 50% when new vehicle ways invade wild country. Grizzly bears, lynx, and wolverine likewise thrive best beyond the reach of roads and vehicles.

Apart from the damage it does to wildlife, driving off road, damaging plants, and causing erosion have long been illegal in national forests, and so has creating unauthorized vehicle ways. Hunters, hikers, horsemen, and neighbors complained about the damage and lawlessness year after year for nearly two decades.

“Wait until we complete a new travel plan,” the Forest Service told us year after year.

For the last 14 years, travel planning for the Divide has started and stopped, started and stopped. Meanwhile, lack of enforcement has allowed illegal and destructive four-wheeler ruts and routes to proliferate across mountains, meadows, and streams. No one seemed to be minding the store.

Finally, with this travel plan, it appears the U. S. Forest Service is again minding the store, protecting and passing on the outstanding habitat, quiet trails and outdoor legacy of the wild Continental Divide.

- John Gatchell, MWA's conservation director