Montanans have long debated public lands and its use.
The current debate is about releasing Wilderness Study Areas. Wilderness Study Areas in the state were created after the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, which directed land management agencies to look at areas that weren’t designated as wilderness, but would be suitable for wilderness under the guidelines of the Wilderness Act.
For example, they had to be over 5,000 acres in size, unroaded, been affected primarily by the forces of nature rather than human activity, and provide outstanding opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined types of recreation.
Both Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont. and Greg Gianforte, R-Mont. have introduced bills to release many Wilderness Study Areas in Montana, claiming they’ve been looked at long and hard enough and simply aren’t suitable as wilderness after more than 40 years of being managed as such.
The problem, critics note, is that neither lawmaker have had a public meeting in Montana on their release.
Gianforte has two bills in Congress. Combined, his bill would release nearly 800,000 acres of public lands. Daines’ bill would release around 400,000 acres.
“Not one public meeting has been held in Montana,” Tracy-Stone Manning of the National Wildlife Federation said last week during a hearing on Gianforte’s bills in Washington, D.C.
The closest Wilderness Study area to Columbia Falls is the Ten Lakes Wilderness Study area. It’s almost exactly 80 miles to the Rainbow Lake Trailhead from Columbia Falls.
The Ten Lakes WSA is not included in Daines or Gianforte’s bills, but the Lincoln County Commissioners in February wrote a letter asking that it be included and other local lawmakers have asked that it be included as well.
The area was a popular place for local snowmobilers and snowbikers in the winter and had been for decades. Snowmobile interests filed suit in 2016 against the Forest Service to keep it open, too, but a federal judge ruled against them last year.
The Forest Service, in its recent Forest Plan for the Kootenai National Forest, recommended the bulk of Ten Lakes should be wilderness.
When we hiked there last week, to the top of Poorman Mountain — the highest point in the area — we saw no one. There was another car at the trailhead, but we never ran into them.
The area is unique in several respects.
For one, it has alpine larch, a hardy species of larch that thrives in harsh alpine environments. Secondly, unlike most of the mountains in the nearby Whitefish Range, the peaks have some dramatic cliffs, particularly on their north-facing slopes. It looks like a rock climber’s paradise.
Views from the peaks look well into Canada and Glacier National Park. From the summit of Poorman (which is just a walk-up) one gets a good look at the Lake Koocanusa Reservoir as well.
There’s also a wedge of land between the U.S. and Canada that has few trails and is truly primitive.
Amy Robinson of the Montana Wilderness Association last week asked the Columbia Falls City Council to write a letter of support asking Gianforte and Daines to at least have a public discussion in Montana on WSAs. Council took no action on the matter, though councilman Mike Shepard expressed concern about release of a study area in southwest Montana.
“We’re trying to proactively build a public process,” Robinson said in a later interview. “We’re saying we need a public process ... and that balance includes some wilderness.”
Robinson noted that legislation over the years has tried to codify several of the Wilderness Study Areas in the state. The largest was a wilderness bill that passed the House and Senate in 1988, only to be vetoed by President Reagan in the waning days of his administration.
Most recently, Sen. Jon Tester’s (D-Mont.) Forest Jobs and Recreation Act would have codified some of the WSAs in the state, and released others. That bill has yet to move forward in Congress however.
Wilderness or not, Ten Lakes is a pleasant place to hike.
From the Rainbow Lake trailhead to the summit of Poorman Mountain, it’s about 10 miles round trip with about 3,200 feet of elevation gain. You get cool views and plenty of solitude. It even has viable white bark pine forests and Clark’s nutcrackers could be heard calling overhead.
It’s also an interesting drive. You can access the area by going up the North Fork Road to Trail Creek and over the Whitefish Divide. We opted for the Grave Creek Road via Whitefish and Highway 93 instead.
The Grave Creek Valley is gorgeous and the road for several miles is quite unique — it’s a paved one-lane road with a multitude of pullouts.