Forest Service: Fewer people using woods

The rugged terrain in the Big Belt Mountains east of Helena is seen in this file photo.

Independent Record file photo

Motorized trail users may push for a new campground near Hellgate Gulch, as the Bureau of Land Management recently released travel management proposals and an environmental assessment for lands it manages in the Big Belt Mountains southeast of Helena.

The BLM began accepting public comment June 1 and will continue to do so through July 9 for proposed travel plan alternatives in the Missouri River Foothills Planning Area, which will decide what routes will be open or closed to motorized use. The BLM parcels include a little more than 16 miles of roads, primitive roads and trails currently open to motorized use. The plan contains one no-action alternative that would maintain the status quo, and three action alternatives newly designating several routes as open, closed or restricted seasonally.

Alternative B is the most restrictive of motorized use, decommissioning nearly 10.5 miles of travel routes and prohibiting over-snow travel. Alternative C focuses on moderate motorized use, decommissioning 2.65 miles and seasonally restricting over-snow travel to designated routes. Alternative D maximizes motorized use, keeping the full 16 miles open with seasonal over-snow travel, including cross-country.

“We’re looking for something substantive in the comments, not just that ‘I like Alternative A,’ but why you like it,” said Scott Haight, BLM Butte Field Office manager. “Maybe we missed something in this particular area or something during scoping that slipped through the cracks that the public can let us know about.”

Travel planning has often been a contentious issue between motorized and nonmotorized public land users. Last month’s release of a Forest Service travel plan for the Divide area west of Helena was applauded by several nonmotorized groups while irking motorized users over areas proposed for motorized closure.

Supporter of the Divide plan and president of the Wild Divide Chapter of the Montana Wilderness Association Bill Hallinan said he had not yet reviewed BLM’s proposal for the Missouri River Foothills, and could not offer comment.

BLM is one of the smaller landowners in the nearly 400,000-acre Missouri River Foothills running the length of the Belts along Canyon Ferry Reservoir and the Missouri River. The agency owns about 5,500 acres scattered in six segments, but much of that property connects to larger parcels of public lands.

“It’s low to medium sized as far as travel plans, but sometimes it’s not just the acreage,” said Brad Colin, BLM outdoor recreating planner and travel management coordinator.

One of those segments between Hellgate and Magpie gulches would be an ideal place for a new campground for motorized riders using the Belts’ trail and road system, said Doug Abelin of the Capital Trail Vehicle Association. Changes to the existing Hellgate Campground managed by the Bureau of Reclamation made parking motor homes and vehicles problematic, he said.

“What we want to do is use it for a staging area -- that way we don’t have to cross the highway and it’s a perfect location,” he said. “It’d be a multiple use area -- the BLM or Forest Service could use it for rock climbing or fire training; it’s just an ideal spot.”

The idea of a campground initially came up informally about a year ago, but the major hurdle is securing access across a parcel of state trust land, Colin said.

“They’re asking about building a campground on BLM, we said ‘sure,’ but so far they’ve not been successful at getting access,” he said. “They can certainly camp out there, but as an agency we’re certainly not going to move forward until access is secured.”

Abelin was back in touch with the manager of state lands, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation reported Thursday.

“The hang-up was that state lands didn’t sound receptive, and we just have to cross it,” he said. “We’re going to take the BLM statement to the state land guys and have to negotiate that access across.”

A campground would not be off the table if it is not included in the travel plan, and could be worked on in the future, Colin said.

The Forest Service completed travel planning for its 215,000 acres of the planning area in 2008, and Townsend District ranger Corey Lewellen said they will be looking at the BLM proposals and likely providing some comments. Ideally, BLM and the Forest Service will strive for the same management direction on open and closed routes, he said.

BLM has looked to coordinate with the Forest Service travel plan as it develops its own, Colin said.

The travel plan and environmental assessment is available at www.blm.gov/mt/st/en/fo/butte_field_office.html.

Comments can be mailed to Brad Colin, Butte Field Office, 106 N. Parkmont, Butte, MT 59701, or emailed to bcolin@blm.gov.

To be considered, all comments must contain the name and address of the submitter.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com

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Natural Resources Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter / Assistant Editor for The Independent Record.

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