by Eve Byron, Independent Record Staff Writer
Seven appeals have been filed in opposition to a Helena National Forest management plan for the Clancy/Unionville area south of town.
Five of the appeals came from motorized vehicle proponents, who mainly claim that the decision is too restrictive. “We want reasonable use and access to public lands,” said Doug Abelin, a member of the Capital Trail Vehicle Association. “If there was a visible reason, a logical explanation why they closed all the roads, then we would be receptive to some changes. But we can’t find one good reason for it. We are pretty adamant that we haven’t abused the land, and have in fact helped out there getting grants for work. We just feel the public has a right to be there, and closing Brooklyn Bridge is probably the straw that broke the camel’s back. That road has been there for about 100 years.”
Others who opposed portions of the travel plan include the Montana 4X4 Association and three individuals.
The two additional appeals came from three environmental groups who have concerns about the vegetative portion of the decision. They include a joint appeal by the Ecology Center and Alliance for the Wild Rockies, and one by the Native Ecosystems Council.
Alliance Executive Director Mike Garrity said the main points in their 90-page appeal involved old trees, a proposed logging road in an area that most people think is a protected roadless area and the cost of the logging. “We’re not convinced they (the Forest Service) knows where the old growth is, so they’re not sure if they’re going to be cutting it or not,” Garrity said. “Another problem is they would put a road on land contiguous to the Black Mountain Roadless Area, into an area that most people think is part of the roadless area. And then they’re going to lose $200,000 on the logging alone. I think it would be more productive to invest the money in land acquisition.”
The appeals didn’t surprise Helena District Ranger Duane Harp, who noted that the Forest Service had worked closely with area residents to come up with a “good project supported by a thorough analysis.” “Although we are disappointed in the number of appeals, we fully expected to get appeals on opposite sides of the issue,” Harp said.
This is the second go-round for the Clancy/Unionville project, which covers 36,000 acres of national forest in the mountainous terrain that provides the scenic southwest backdrop for Helena. The project area includes Oro Fino, Wakina Sky and Grizzly gulches, as well as Park Lake and the Brooklyn Bridge trail.
Interspersed among the federal lands are scores of homes, many of which could be threatened should catastrophic wildfires occur in the forest, which prompted the need for a management plan.
The first plan was issued three years ago, after five years of studies and meetings. It called for logging almost 8 million board feet of timber on 1,900 acres, as well as using small “controlled burns” on 2,450 acres to take out shrubs and small trees that provide fuel for wildfires. It also called for thinning trees on another 850 acres, removing 20 miles of existing roads and converting another eight miles of roads to non-motorized trails.
Seven environmental groups successfully protested the plan, which a regional forester said didn’t adequately address the cumulative effects of the project. Three of those original groups also appealed the newest plan, which Helena Forest Supervisor Tom Clifford issued in February.
It calls for logging 5 million board feet on 1,450 acres and “decommissioning” 28 miles of roads, including closing the popular Brooklyn Bridge forest service road. That left 136 miles of road and six miles of trails open to motorized vehicles, including routes in the north and south forks of Quartz Creek and Kady Gulch.
Abelin said the decision forces trail riders onto roadways, where they have to have current drivers’ licenses and street legal vehicles to ride. Not only does this limit access to public lands, it also raises the age for youths to ride legally. Under current laws, children 12 and older can ride on trails if accompanied by an adult.
Garrity counters that the proposal actually creates five miles of new roads, but added that their appeal doesn’t involve the travel management part of the plan.
The Forest Service is now preparing its response to the appeal points. During the week of April 28, a review team at the Regional Forester’s office in Missoula will make a recommendation to an appeals deciding officer to either uphold the decision or remand it to Clifford for further analysis.
If the plan is upheld this time, and there are no subsequent legal challenges, project work would begin this summer and could take up to seven years to implement.
Reporter Eve Byron can be reached at 447-4076 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org