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Pine Creek Lake. Photo by Walker Stole
Oct 17 2016

Big Wild in the Little Belts

The wild Tenderfoot/Deep Creek roadless area is one more reason to love the Smith River watershed

Exploring Montana, Featured

Looking out on a clear day from the old Monument Peak fire lookout in the Little Belt Mountains, you can see Montana from top to bottom – from Chief Mountain along the Alberta border to the Beartooth Mountains along the Wyoming border.

From this same vantage point, you can also look across the 88,000-acre Tenderfoot/Deep Creek Roadless Area. In front of you are several drainages that gradually narrow into deep canyons lined with steep, limestone cliffs. This is all Smith River country, the site of one of the most popular floats in Montana, but also one of the last large roadless blocks in the Little Belt Mountains.

This segment of the Smith provides the best wilderness experience you can have along the river. Tenderfoot Creek, which has its headwaters in the roadless area, is a critical fishery for the Smith, and along with Deep Creek, provides cold, clean water when mainstem flows drop off in the summer.

Those looking for a wilderness experience would do well to follow the trails from Monument Peak and the Deep Creek trailhead through Tenderfoot/Deep Creek. As you walk along the ridge top, the viewscape allows you to see why this mix of forestland and big open parks provide excellent habitat for elk, mule deer, black bear, mountain lion, and grouse.

This segment of the Smith provides the best wilderness experience you can have along the river.

Just how this area will be managed in the future will be determined by the forest plan revision that the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest is currently working on. The forest plan needs to give Tenderfoot/Deep Creek a greater level of protection than it has now.

In the early 1990s, Tenderfoot/Deep Creek was included in Wilderness legislation introduced by former Montana Representative Pat Williams. Though it passed the House of Representatives, the legislation died in the Senate, leaving the roadless area with little protection.

Since then, efforts have been made to enhance the wilderness character of the roadless area through a combination of land trades that consolidated public land and through conservation easements on other private inholdings that prevented future development. The 2007 Lewis and Clark National Forest travel management plan left about half of the roadless area – mostly a corridor along the Smith River – as quiet and non-motorized, with the upper portion of the roadless area limited to seasonal motorcycle use.

MWA is proposing a plan that reflects the work that has been done over the years to improve the wilderness character of the roadless area while also honoring the current travel management plan. That would mean managing the quiet, non-motorized portion of the roadless area along the Smith River corridor for its wilderness characteristics. It would also mean managing the remaining portion much like the “conservation management area” included in the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, where traditional foot and horse trails are protected and existing motorized use can continue, but is not allowed to expand.

The forest plan revision process provides opportunity, maybe the last, to apply some administrative protections and preserve the option for more permanent protection of the Tenderfoot/Deep Creek Roadless Area. Decisions made during this process are important because they will be in place for as long as 20 to 30 years.

As one of the last blocks of undeveloped, unroaded and largely quiet non-motorized land, the Tenderfoot/Deep Creek Roadless Area should be managed in a manner that is compatible with the management of the Smith River and consistent with the efforts made over the years to better protect and restore the values and resources that make it a special place.

As part of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest Plan revision process, the Forest Service will release its “Proposed Action” for roadless areas such as Deep Creek/Tenderfoot later this fall, at which point there will be an opportunity for you to comment on the agency's proposal. Contact me at (406) 453-9434 or at mgood@wildmontana.org to learn how you can be most effective in shaping this forest plan revision.

Room with one incredible view

Located off Logging Creek Road in the Little Belts, the Monument Peak Lookout is accessible by vehicle. Built in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, it was removed from its original tower and restored for public use as a rental cabin with two beds. The last 4 miles of road leading to the cabin are rough and a high clearance vehicle is recommended. To reserve it, visit recreation.gov.

- Mark Good, central Montana field director