Fight for Wilderness in Bitterroot National Forest, USA

The process of protecting Wilderness in the United States has become an inspiration for many people worldwide. The National Wilderness Preservation System includes more than 50 million hectares of protected Wilderness today. Nevertheless, the struggle to protect the last remnants of Wilderness in this country is still ongoing. Our colleagues in Montana, Mr. Van Keele and Mrs. Karen Savory, illustrated the complexity of this process and shared their experiences in Bitterroot Wilderness with us. This is what they had to tell:

Bitterroot National Forest

Just hours away from Montana’s internationally renowned Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks lies a hidden gem: the Bitterroot National Forest. Situated in southwest Montana BNF is 640 000 hectares in size, with half being congressionally-designated Wilderness. From grasslands to glaciated peaks, elevations range from 1 100 m to 3 100 m. There are diverse ecosystems within the two mountain ranges that comprise BNF, supporting an array of amazing flora and fauna. It reaches from 700 year old pines and 1000 year old larches to endangered and rare creatures like wolverines, grizzly bears, peregrine falcons, bull trouts, and rubber boas.

These lands are the ancestral home of the Salish. There are numerous Native American cultural sites including medicine wheels, caves, and Indian peel trees. Lewis and Clark made an arduous journey through Bitterroot in 1805 with many landmarks, plants, and birds named in their honor. It’s home to world class fishing, rock climbing, back-country skiing and hiking.

The Big Wild in Bitterroot

My wife and I moved to the Bitterroot in 1999 because of the extensive public wildlands, notably the three Wilderness areas that span BNF. We have access to the largest expanse of Wilderness in the US outside of Alaska. To live here is a gift that we do not take for granted. While we are very fortunate to reside in such a paradise, all is not well. There are threats on the immediate horizon to national forest lands in the Bitterroot.

The Threats: Real or Imagined?

The imminent threats are exemplified by two upcoming, gigantic logging projects: Gold Butterfly (22 000 hectares) and Bitterroot Front (60 000 hectares). The Forest Service promotes and justifies both projects for “forest health” and “fuel reduction”. While there is a kernel of truth to this, the reality is that both projects will unnecessarily log hundreds of hectares of old growth trees, do huge clear cuts and construct roads. That will damage many square-kilometers of resources and harm wildlife, and fragment rare and irreplaceable habitats.

Both projects are using recently weakened environmental laws and regulations – plus legally questionable environmental analyses and tactics – to expedite them in the face of broad public opposition. They could both achieve their stated goals of forest health and fuels reduction by not building more roads, doing clear cuts, or logging old growth.

Gold Butterfly: No pot of gold

The Gold Butterfly project is in the final stages of environmental review before its implementation. A citizens-initiated alternative that would have achieved project goals and avoided new road construction and old-growth logging was summarily rejected by forest officials despite over 75% public support. Gold Butterfly will log and build roads through roadless lands that are home to wolverines and ancient trees born before the birth of this nation.

The Front-al Assault

The Bitterroot Front project is in an early proposal phase. It includes ALL forest lands on the valley’s west side right up to the Wilderness boundary. Inexplicably, this includes thousands of hectares of specially designated forest lands including Recommended Wilderness, Research Natural Areas, and Wild and Scenic Waterways. The agency intends to use a highly flawed environmental review process – condition-based analysis – that’s unproven and (rightfully) hung up in the courts.
Wolverine, wolves, mountain goats, and 1000-year-old larches are just a few of the rare and sensitive inhabitants.

Endless Pressure, Endlessly Applied

Friends of the Bitterroot is a local, grassroots, all-volunteer environmental organization that’s on the frontlines of these threats. They started in 1988 and among their co-founders was Stewart Brandborg. He shepherded the Wilderness Act through the US Congress to its passage in 1964. They continue to believe that there are sensible and effective ways to manage our public lands that follow the law and protect wildlife, habitat, and resources. Unfortunately, Gold Butterfly and the Bitterroot Front projects are together a devastatingly harmful threat to all of the above. FOB remains steadfast in their advocacy. But, they need everyone’s help, far and wide. As environmental icon Brock Evans always says, “Endless pressure, endlessly applied.”

Please take action to make a difference on the Gold Butterfly and the Bitterroot Front Projects.

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