A Mixed Bag
While protecting the Big Snowies and Nevada Mountain, the Helena-Lewis and Clark Forest plan falls short for too many places
On May 21, the U.S. Forest Service released its final draft of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest (HLCNF) plan, covering 3 million acres of public lands in seven mountain ranges stretching from the Continental Divide eastward to the Big Snowy Mountains.
The plan recommends Wilderness protection for the most remote portion of the Big Snowy Mountains near Lewistown, as well as four areas along the Continental Divide near Helena and Lincoln.
We’re pleased the Forest Service recognized the importance of conserving the wildest areas along the continental divide and in the Big Snowies, but we were disappointed to see little protection for remote areas along the Smith River, Middle Fork Judith, and in the Elkhorns, places that provide clean water to multiple communities, enable fish and wildlife to thrive, and offer us the solace we need now more than ever for our wellbeing.
The final draft of the HLCNF plan recommends Wilderness protection for two-thirds of the 98,000-acre Big Snowy Wilderness Study Area. Unfortunately, the agency reduced the size of the recommended Wilderness area from 95,000 acres, as proposed in the last draft plan, to less than 67,000 acres in the final plan.
In addition to the Big Snowies, the plan recommends almost 32,000 acres for Wilderness on Nevada Mountain. Located along the Continental Divide northwest of Helena and south of Lincoln, the area is a major corridor for grizzly bears, wolverines, Canada lynx, elk, and many other species.
The Forest Service also recommends protecting Red Creek and Silver King areas adjacent to the Scapegoat Wilderness and keeps in place the Electric Peak recommended wilderness from the 1986 plan.
The final draft sadly reduces recommended wilderness in the Big Belts from the 1986 plan and leaves Camas Creek and key portions of Baldy-Edith unprotected. It also offers no Wilderness protection for the Little Belts, which includes the Middle Fork Judith Wilderness Study Area and Deep Creek/Tenderfoot area along the Smith River.
More than a thousand elk migrate to the Middle Fork Judith’s parks year after year, while thousands of Montanans vie each year for a permit to experience the Smith River corridor, of which Deep Creek/Tenderfoot are tributaries. Given how much Montanans cherish these two areas, it’s extremely hard to understand why the Forest Service would give these places a pass on wilderness.
Also given no protection in the forest plan are the Elkhorn Mountains, even though it’s home of the nation’s one and only wildlife management units.
Those who submitted comments on previous drafts of the HLCNF plan now have 60 days to submit their objections to the final forest plan draft before the Forest Service signs its record of decision, the final step in the forest plan revision process.
MWA will provide guidance in the coming weeks on how best to submit objections. MWA will also provide an outline for which parts of the plan need objections.
I will be holding virtual office hours Monday and Wednesdays from noon to one through July 20, the deadline for submitting objections. If you are interested in discussing the plan or having me review your objection, please email me at email@example.com to set up an appointment. And stay tuned for an objection writing webinar.
Central Montana Field Director
Zach works on building community support for protecting wildlands in central Montana, from the Badger-Two Medicine to the Big Snowies. When he isn’t working, you can find Zach hiking, fishing, and camping with his family, and caving to explore Montana's underground.