Former district ranger guides tour of forest, talks legislation

A blanket of smoke covers the Tobacco Root Mountains Wednesday morning, as seen from an aerial flight over the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest. Photo by Ben Coulter.

BUTTE – Former Madison Ranger District district ranger Mark Petroni narrated an aerial tour of the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest for a small

Former Madison District Ranger Mark Petroni (right) narrates an aerial tour of the Beaverhead Deerlodged National Forest Wednesday morning from the front seat of a Quest Kodiak. Photo by Ben Coulter.

group of the media Wednesday, highlighting some of the proposed wilderness areas in the region that would be affected by the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.

The flight from Butte was made possible by the LightHawk environmental aviation organization and the Montana Wilderness Association, and covered several mountain ranges in the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest. After taking off the seven-passenger Quest Kodiak crossed the Highland Mountains before going south over the Ruby and Snowcrest Ranges and the Centennial Mountains near the Idaho border. From there the small plane turned west toward the Lima and Italian Peaks, eventually returning to Butte by way of the Big Hole Valley and Pioneer Mountains.

The proposed wilderness areas in the region offer a prime habitat for many big game species, and this is reflected by the booming hunting economy in southwest Montana. According to Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ 2012 harvest and hunting reports, hunting expenditures in Beaverhead Deerlodge hunting districts have continued to grow despite recent periods of economic recession.

FWP’s data indicates the number of hunter days in the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest has increased from almost 255,000 in 2006 to over 280,000 in 2011. Last year over 270,000 of those days were spent in pursuit of elk and deer, and hunting expenditures increased from $26.3 million in 2006 to $31.8 million in 2011.

The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act was first introduced in 2009 by Sen. John Tester, and aims to protect Montana’s legacy of land management. The act would designate special areas for wilderness and recreational/special management within the Beaverhead Deerlodge, Lolo and Kootenai National Forests where hunting, fishing and other traditional recreation uses will continue in perpetuity. These designations also provide protection for the Missouri, Madison, Beaverhead, Ruby, Blackfoot, Clark Fork, Kootenai, Jefferson and Big Hole Rivers.

The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act has generated a lot of controversy with lcoal policy makers and Madison County officials over the past few years since it was introduced. Many who have questioned the act have voiced concerns about the lack of local input into the legislation and questioned the need for new wilderness areas.

Petroni explained that while management of forest landscapes can often be a controversial issue, the whole point of the act is protecting wildlife and their core habitat areas for future generations.

“Wilderness has always been a bit of a divisive subject in Montana, even though surveys have shown that Montanan’s support wilderness, help support wild places, to the tune of 70 percent of those responding to those surveys,” he said. “The controversy between motorized and non motorized, even though many of the areas in this act that would be set aside as wilderness, really don’t have much motorized use now, if any.”

Some of the areas identified in the legislation would continue to see motorized use, Petroni said.

He also pointed out that the current forest management plan identifies the need for 65,000 acres of aspen restoration over the next 15 years.

“Whether it’s the wilderness portion, the recreation management areas, but even the jobs portion looks at managing forest landscapes as a whole, doing an analysis on the entire forest landscape, and then doing restoration work,” he said. “The jobs portion could focus solely on aspen restoration, harvesting conifers from and around aspen stands to help restore aspen on the landscape.”

While the view of the vast mountain ranges of southwest Montana were somewhat masked during the flight by smoke from regional wildfires, Petroni pointed to landmarks out both sides of the plane, having become familiar with them over the years spent working in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.

“My ability to get into these backcountry areas is much more restricted than it was 20 years ago,” he said. “I’m not wanting to protect these areas for me. I want to protect them for my kids’ kids’ kids. That’s what’s important to me.”


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