ATV users blast travel plan for Big Belts - "Give the public's land back to the public"

Helena Independent Record

HELENA, MT - 3/14/03– In a conference room in the Helena National Forest office, frustration clouded the air like exhaust on a frigid winter morning as 50 motorized vehicle users vented their disgust over the proposed North Big Belts Travel Plan.

Their anger boiled down to one overriding sentiment – give the public’s land back to the public, and cut back on the proposed limits to motorized vehicle use.

“There’s never been a decision where motorized users haven’t been the loser,” said Doug Abelin. “Motorized groups have been active in trying to do the right thing and they have never received a fair shake.”

But Abelin and other motorized vehicle users organized Wednesday night’s meeting with representatives of the Forest Service to learn how to work within the system to come up with a travel plan for the Belts that better suits their needs.

“It’s up to us to show the need to alter those guidelines,” Abelin said. “We need to be a reasonable force in their decision, rather than a minor force. If 50 of us show up here and only two comments, it’s no big deal. But if 50 of us show up here and 5,000 comment, then they’re going to say damn it, that’s a force.”

Helena District Ranger Duane Harp tried to assuage some of the fears voiced by the group, telling them that the proposal is in the early stages, and changes can still be made. The information released last week was just a blueprint to show the direction the Forest Service was going, and it could be modified as it moves through the Environmental Impact Statement process, which is expected to take a year.

This is the second go-round for travel planning in the Big Belts. The first EIS was released in 1999, but needed major revisions after the Cave Gulch wildfire in 2000 burned through a large part of the project area.

The new proposal drops the miles of road open to motorized vehicles year-round from 264 to 218, and the miles of trails open to motorized vehicles year-round from 37 to 20. The miles of non-motorized trails, including those in the Gates of the Mountains wilderness area, would increase from 103 to 151.

Some of those at the meeting acknowledged that between federal and state laws governing forest management – including the recent listing of the Canadian lynx as a threatened species – not all of their wishes were going to be met.

“You people have got to realize one thing – those guidelines are pretty dog-gone tight and all revolve around wildlife,” said Jack Mahon. “So your wants and your comments are not going to have much weight when you run up against policy and guidelines they’re dealing with in their constant concern for wildlife.

“There is all kinds of huggy-feely but the nitty-gritty is they don’t have a lot of room to wiggle in wildlife, running timber, grazing access issues. So I’m not condemning them for that.”

Others weren’t as understanding. They wanted to know whether comments from people who don’t live in Montana would be given as much weight as those who recreate in the Big Belts on a regular basis.

“There seems to be something out there, that someone who has never visited the Belts can say close the roads, because they’re tearing up the country,” said Jim Martin. “The sportsmen and hunters should have more weight.”

Beth Ihle, North Belts team leader for the Forest Service, responded that the comment process “isn’t a beauty pageant” where the proposal with the most votes win.

“What we look at is the quality of the comments, based on how thoughtfully you looked at it,” she said. “A quality comment will say ‘we need access of this kind to get to do these activities,’ or ‘this route connects people from here to there, and if you cut it off, we have to cross private lands.’”

Others argued that routes shouldn’t be closed during hunting season, because they haven’t seen any detrimental effects to elk or deer when riding on their ATVs or trucks.

“I’ve driven past them less than 75 yards away and they don’t move,” said Bill Tiddy. “Closures during hunting season are ridiculous. It’s just another stonewalling thing to try to make people happy. You have been spending too much time with obstructionist environmentalists.”

Another man noted that as the Helena, Gallatin and Beaverhead/Deerlodge forests go through their travel planning process, they’re tightening a noose around ATV enthusiasts by crowding them onto smaller and smaller areas.

“If you have 100 areas to ride in and you close down one, it puts pressure on the other 99 areas. That continues until all you’re left with is one area that’s so ungodly ugly that even people who ride it will not ride it anymore,” the unidentified man said. “I don’t think that some closures aren’t relevant or deserved, but it’s just like someone is strangling us and bit by bit we’re gasping for air until little by little there is nothing left.”

Charlie McKenna, who worked on the first North Big Belts travel plan, urged the ATV users to be specific in their comments, and relate the human aspect of the Belts to all the scientists within the Forest Service.

“That should be just as important as the land, water and animals,” he said. “The Forest Service is full of ‘ologists’ – biologists, hydrologists – but very few sociologists. ... You know the ground and the trails and it all comes down to that piece of trail and piece of ground.”

Other groups can request an audience with Forest Service officials to go over the newly released documents in detail by calling Harp at 449-5490 or Ihle at 266-3425. Comments on the proposal are due by March 14, and a formal draft Environmental Impact Statement is expected to be issued by mid April.


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