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ATVs in the Bob?

Montanans are adept at simply saying "nope." We don't say it often but when we do—we mean it. The Bob Marshall Wilderness is threatened and it's time for us to say "nope."

From its southern reaches at the Scapegoat Wilderness through Deep Creek, the Sun River Game Range and The Front to the Great Bear and Two Medicine, the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and its still wild perimeters are the flagship of America's Wilderness fleet. It has been Montanans—the hikers and hunters, those who fish and camp as well as those who only stand and stare—who, through grit and determination, have nurtured and preserved this best known of America's Wilderness.

First in the stewardship of these lands were the native people. For centuries Indians venerated these mountains and thousands still believe the peaks and valleys are sacred places—particularly those of the Badger-Two Medicine.

 Later generations of Montanans have also vigorously protected these lands. The Montana Legislature created the Sun River Game Range in 1913, a half century prior to the U.S. Congress's designation of the Bob Marshall as the nation's first Wilderness. Later the Congress, at the special urging of Montanans, added first the Scapegoat and then the Great Bear, completing this 1.5 million acre complex which is one-half of all the designated wilderness in our state.

Contemporary Montanans have been particularly determined to protect The Bob's eastern flank, the internationally renowned Rocky Mountain Front. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s both Democratic and Republican members of the Montana congressional delegation sponsored legislation to declare The Front wilderness. Time and again both the U.S. House and Senate have listened to Montanans and voted overwhelmingly to protect The Front. Parliamentary shenanigans in the Senate along with the tragic veto of the 1988 Montana Wilderness Bill by then- President Ronald Reagan prevented Montanans from achieving that ultimate protection.

Each generation has to fight anew to stop the threats of the corporate raiders and political ideologues. In the early 1980s former Secretary of the Interior Jim Watt proposed oil exploration along The Front and under The Bob. In the 1990s, the charge was led by mining and gas interests. Now, in the new century, it seems certain that the two oil men occupying the Oval Office and the Vice Presidency have their drilling sites targeted on The Front.

Now, another threat has arisen. Back in 1988 the office of the Lewis and Clark National Forest unveiled a travel plan which would have opened The Front's hiking and hunting trails to off-road vehicles. The regional forester wisely declared the plan invalid. Surprisingly, the Lewis and Clark office has virtually resurrected that flawed plan and is considering its adoption. Travel plans are extremely important because once adopted, they set the transportation allowances for at least a decade; once motorized traffic is permitted, it is very unlikely to ever be removed. The Forest Service's travel plan proposal is stunning in its reversal of The Front's un-roaded wildness. What have for centuries been secluded trails may soon become corridors, motorizing two-thirds of The Front. The Forest Service in Montana is methodically motorizing Montana's remaining wild country. Prior to 1990, forest trails had been maintained primarily for hiking but for the past dozen years the Forest Service has been steadily widening those trails into "motorized corridors."

And that surrendering of Montana's once secluded trails to motorized use is in addition to the 30,000 miles of Forest Service roads which already exist in our state. Thirty thousand miles is the equivalent of 15 round trips between Montana and New York. Motorized uses—ATVs,ORVs, snowmobiles, motor bikes—are growing in Montana and our public land agencies should appropriately accommodate their activities. However, traffic must not be allowed in our most pristine, un-roaded, and critically important wild places.

The future of our world-class hunting and fishing depends completely on preserving our world-class habitat and watersheds. That preservation is absolutely vital to both our economy and our way of living. Deep Creek alone provides fall, winter and spring ranges for deer, elk, bighorns and mountain goats. To accept the Forest Service proposal for dirt bikes, ATVs and snowmobiles around that area would be foolhardy. Our citizens are unwilling to permit such endangering of Montana's premier calving and spawning grounds. People will not allow the noise of motorized traffic to intrude upon the solitude of their hunts and hikes. Native folks are understandably opposed to the proposal - allowing off-road vehicles to roar through the high country which is, in fact, their sacred churches. Yes, the growing use of motorized enjoyment can continue to be accommodated, but Montanans are understandably opposed to a small minority being allowed and encouraged to carve and gouge and crisscross our remaining wild and flourishing public estate.

Our simple, Montana answer is "nope."


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Author info

Rep. Pat Williams Rep. Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at the University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West and is Northern Director of Western Progress.

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