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The Island Unit Plan – A Divide and Conquer Strategy
Today an article appeared in the Big Fork Eagle weekly about Forest Service plans to expand off-road vehicle opportunities and construct quiet trails in an area of the Flathead National Forest called the Island Unit. Click here for the article.
Back in 2007 the Flathead National Forest began a process to add more motorized trails to the Island Unit. Some local residents wanted forest officials to include construction of quiet trails that connect to Blacktail Mt. since none existed in the area. Still others even questioned the need to provide more motorized opportunities at all given the amount of roads in the area, a dedicated off-road vehicle trail and the atmosphere of lawlessness from all the illegal motorized use on closed roads and user-created routes.
Rather than listening to these concerns, Swan Lake District staff moved forward with the project in 2009 that proposed to expand off-road vehicle opportunities, and did not address the need to provide quiet recreation opportunities.
To be clear, the Forest Service could have used a Categorical Exclusion to construct non-motorized trails that people would be using today. Instead, they produced an environmental assessment that combined the motorized and quiet trail proposals in what seems like a strategic move to head off opposition to opening closed roads and building new trails for off-road vehicles. So if anyone opposed their motorized use expansion plans, it would come at the expense of the quiet use proponents. Swan Lake District planners knew of that opposition from the outset.
The Island Unit Area
The Island Unit encompasses a 46,000 acre area north of Lake Mary Ronan, and east of Lakeside, MT. Home to the Blacktail Mt. ski area, Plum Creek Timber lands and the Wild Bill Off-Road Vehicle trail that allows all types of vehicles, this area has experienced heavy use.
The area has 127 miles of road open year-long or seasonally, and 207 miles in storage or available for administrative use only due to road impacts on deer and elk. Most of the closures only have a gate that off-road vehicles can easily ride around, or in some instances pull down. The 321 stream crossings on its official road system deliver 11 tons sediment to streams each year, and the five watersheds in the Island Unit have road densities ranging from 4.3 - 6.1 mi/mi2; many of these roads were built in the 50’s and 60’s for Forest Service timber production. Surprisingly, these watersheds are functioning well according to Forest Service analysis and Watershed Condition Framework scores. Click here for more information on the framework.
However, wildlife does not fare so well in the Island Unit. Deer and elk security is low due to high open road densities, which is why roads were closed in the first place. Unfortunately, the Island Unit project would convert 20 miles of road to motorized trails thereby decreasing security and reducing elk habitat effectiveness. Additionally, the agency’s analysis revealed the preferred alternative will likely adversely impact grizzly bears.
In 2005 the Forest Service issued regulations requiring each national forest to conduct travel planning to better manage impacts caused by off-road vehicles, otherwise known as Subpart B of the travel management regulations; click here for more information.
Unmanaged motorized recreation was a key threat identified by former Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, who instituted the 2005 Travel Management Rule. To address the threat, the rule mandates that forest officials produce a Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM) illustrating the specific routes and areas open to summer off-road vehicle use. This process ensured that off-road vehicle designations on each road and trail adhered to specific criteria in order to minimize damage to forest resources and impacts on wildlife. However, the rule allowed forests to forego the planning process if it did not change any authorized designations.
The Swan Lake District chose to issue an MVUM of the designated motorized system without going through a formal travel planning process (which the regulations allowed if there were no changes), so the Island Unit project is the first opportunity for the district to analyze motorized impacts in the planning area to determine compliance with travel management regulations. Of course, such an analysis is required each time a project would result in a revised MVUM, but it is especially important for the district to take a hard look now under the Island Unit EA to demonstrate how proposed motor vehicle designations minimize environmental impacts and conflicts with other recreational uses.
Surprisingly there was no mention of this in the Island Unit’s purpose and need, especially so since Wildlands CPR and other have been submitting comments at each opportunity since 2007 pointing this out. Adhering to travel management planning regulations is not optional and Swan Lake staff should know this, which is why it seems they are deliberately pursuing a divide and conquer strategy where they will point to those of us who just want to see off-road vehicle use properly managed as the reason the project was delayed or scuttled, and why the quiet trails were not constructed.