Tester’s Stewardship Act given lead role in Outdoors Festival

Sen. Jon Tester touts his Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act during a outdoors business panel at the Wilma Theater on Wednesday.

Of all the reasons to pass the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act, the most important are the relationships that created it and the relationships it could create, according to advocates.

On Thursday, as part of the Last Best Outdoors Fest, Sen. Jon Tester joined seven supporters in a discussion of his Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act and how it and other public-land related efforts could keep Montana’s outdoors economy humming.

“The Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act is a good bill. The reason it’s a good bill is not because of me. The reason it’s a good bill is what Stone talked about: people from all different walks of life getting together and sitting at the same table,” Tester said. “They said ‘what do we want from our public lands?’ And they found out that they agreed on far more than they disagreed.”

The Stone Tester mentioned is Jim Stone, a quick-witted rancher from Ovando who has been one of the driving forces behind the Blackfoot Challenge, a collaborative effort to keep rampant development out of the Blackfoot Valley. He knows what it’s like to bring together people who may not always see eye-to-eye.

Even Stone said he was guilty of not initially wanting to talk to agency or nonprofit representatives. But looking back over the 15 years that it’s taken to hammer together the compromises included the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act, Stone credited the relationships that Montanans can build if they take the time and are willing to work together.

As a result, the act has a little bit of something for everyone: wilderness, timber sales, motorized trails, mountain bike trails and stream restoration.

Stone said many projects have already begun and are reaping benefits, and “the act hasn’t even passed yet.”

“There’s something that kind of sticks with me that kept me wanting to come back. It’s sort of what the DNA is in all these communities that make up not only the Blackfoot but really Montana. It’s that culture,” Stone said. “It takes time to do this. You don’t build trust; you don’t build relationships overnight.”

The Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act was originally part of Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act first introduced in 2009, which included similar compromises worked out on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Kootenai national forests. But the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership didn’t represent enough stakeholders like the Blackfoot Challenge, and some entities opposed the proposal. That ended up dragging the entire bill down.

In 2015, the decision was made to cleave off the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Act to free it to move forward on its own merits with hopes it would pass during the Obama administration.

The act would create 83,000 acres of wilderness in areas where it’s already been recommended. Meanwhile, the 1,859-acre Otatsy Recreation Management Area outside Ovando was proposed for motorized winter recreation, the proposed wilderness boundary was moved to keep mountain bike trails open and logging projects have been proposed or are moving ahead.

If the bill passes, the increased recreation and related business could bolster the region’s economy as it has done across the state, said Marne Hayes, Business for Montana Outdoors founder.

Hayes presented some results that summarize several recent reports that analyze Montana’s recreational economy.

First, 95 percent of Montanans say outdoor recreation is important to their quality of life. That quality of life may diminish because Montana’s population is growing and popular spots are getting crowded, so more access is needed.

The report says visitation to state parks rose 40 percent over the past decade; almost three-quarters of Montana families use trails annually and motorized recreation has shot up 200 percent over the past 20 years.

With all that use, the outdoor recreation economy is growing rapidly. It now generates $7.1 billion in consumer spending and is responsible for 71,000 jobs statewide. The Blackfoot-Clearwater region is bound to see an economic bump if Tester’s bill passes.

However, with all that use comes the downside of too many people loving an area to death. Bringing in more jobs and people tends to destroy the very quality of life they’re coming to Montana for. Trails and campsites get beat down, trailhead parking overflows, wildlife is pushed out and native Montanans bemoan the loss of carefree experiences they once knew.

“We need to find a way to balance the growth in commercial use of the public resources versus the growth in use by private entities. I don’t think anyone wants a Blackfoot River that you have to get a permit to float down,” said Trailhead owner Todd Frank.  “If our rivers become so crowded with guided and outfitted fishing trips, then local people are going to be less inclined to want to go and less inclined to support it.”

Fortunately, a recent poll also showed 71 percent consider themselves to be conservationists, and 68 percent say loss of wildlife habitat is a serious problem. Perhaps a balance can be struck between demands to grow the economy and the increasing need for ecological preservation. Some say the Stewardship Act is a stab at finding that balance.

“In the state of Montana, tourism should sustain or enhance the character of our place. But we’ve never defined what that character is,” said software developer Evan Tipton. “Our character is directly related to the people who call this place home and our public lands that they call their backyard. Once you get rid of that character, there’s no getting it back.”

(The Montana Constitution said) we have this civic responsibility to protect the grandeur of our mountains and the quiet beauty of this state for generations. That’s exactly what the Stewardship Act is trying to do.”

Tester said the bill is pending in committee now, so the public needs to get involved.

“If you agree with it, send me a note, send the delegation a note and send the governor a note, saying this needs to pass,” Tester said. “Because quite frankly, when people get together – just like those folks did in the Blackfoot – and make their voices heard, change can happen for the better. But it will not happen unless people speak up.”