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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
May 08 2020

Another Wilderness Proposal Takes Shape

Public lands in Lewis and Clark County are at the center of a Lincoln-based collaborative MWA helped launch

Set along the Big Blackfoot River in the shadow of the Continental Divide, the small town of Lincoln is the birthplace of the nation’s first citizen-initiated wilderness, the Scapegoat

It’s also where Montana Wilderness Association, the Lincoln-based Ponderosa Snow Warriors snowmobile group, and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks signed an agreement over cake and coffee at the Lincoln Community Hall in 2005. The agreement identified areas appropriate for snowmobiling and those that should be set aside for quiet non-motorized recreation and wintering wildlife.

Eight years later, the Lincoln Ranger District officially adopted the 2005 agreement as its winter travel plan. Years of dialogue had overcome bureaucratic obstacles to produce strong outcomes for wildland conservation and recreation, both of which are so vital to Lincoln’s economy. 

That success set the stage for more collaborative conservation efforts. In 2015, building on the success of the winter travel plan, a group of recreationists, loggers, local officials, conservationists (including MWA), hunters, and anglers began to discuss developing a comprehensive and unified approach to managing wildlands, fire, logging, fish, wildlife, water, and recreation in the Lincoln area. 

Over the course of the next four years, the group discussed, debated, and slowly shaped elements of a common vision. At times, common ground seemed so close; at other times, it seemed implausible to think we could ever bridge such wide chasms of opinion. 

Ultimately, we managed to find common ground and forge a plan with which all of the involved parties were comfortable. In January of 2019, a dozen representatives signed a large map in the Lincoln Public Library, agreeing to pursue a unified management agenda incorporating wilderness, conservation areas, motorized recreation, mountain biking, fire mitigation, and forest restoration.  

Three major elements comprise the proposal.

Wildland Conservation Areas  (119,000 acres) 

The proposal would designate the new 40,000-acre Nevada Mountain Wilderness, an area abundant with wildlife – including grizzly bears, Canada lynx, and wolverines – that straddles the backbone of the Continental Divide northwest of Helena. An additional 16,000 acres of wildlands in Arrastra, Red, and Falls Creeks would be protected as additions to the Scapegoat Wilderness.

The proposal would also designate 63,000 acres of conservation management areas along the Continental Divide and surrounding Stonewall Mountain and the Alice Creek National Historic District, which encompasses the prehistoric trail followed by Meriwether Lewis in 1806. 

Like the conservation areas designated in the 2014 Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, these areas would be managed to prevent new roads and development while allowing existing uses. CMAs would not be available for mining and oil and gas leasing. 

Forest Restoration Areas (69,000 acres) 

The agreement would establish the Lincoln Gulch and Ogden Mountain Forest Restoration Areas upwind of Lincoln to better prepare communities for wildfire, reduce fuel loads, and improve fisheries and watersheds to protect grizzly, lynx, and wolverine habitat. 

Recreation Areas and Assets (15,800 acres)

The 5,200-acre Copper Bowls Winter Recreation Area would be established, allowing snowmobiling consistent with current travel plans. Likewise, the agreement would establish the 10,600-acre Bartlett and Sandbar Creek Recreation Areas north and south of Highway 200, allowing OHV use on designated routes consistent with travel plans. 

Finally, an 18-mile non-motorized trail would connect Lincoln to the Continental Divide at Stemple Pass. 

The proposal has already gained key endorsements from Lincoln businesses, the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce, and the Lewis and Clark County Board of Commissioners. I’m confident that it will continue to pick up steam. 

 

John Gatchell
Senior Conservation Advisor

John assists in long-range work to keep and conserve Montana’s outstanding wild and wilderness candidate areas. He enjoys backpacking, hiking, snowshoeing, mountain biking, and swimming, and teaches Argentine tango.
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