The Bitterroot National Forest Service hosted a second virtual public meeting on Wednesday to discuss the development of a Forest Climbing Management Plan (CMP).
Over the past year, the forest service has worked to combine the wishes of environmental groups and climbing groups in a key document that consolidates the rules and ethics of climbing in the Bitterroot. Around 50 people took part in the forum on Wednesday.
“For me, this meeting means getting us back on track,” said Steve Brown, Stevensville district ranger. “Somehow it got off track and became a ‘we-versus-them’. There is no us and they. There is only one we. We’re all in the same boat. “
The process was lengthy and full of divisions, Brown said in an interview with the Republic. The idea of creating a climbing management plan arose out of controversies such as the Mill Creek Conflict, where tensions persist between climbers and other groups. Previous disputes resulted in restrictions on placing climbing hooks in rock faces near raptor nests near Mill Creek climbing routes, warnings to climbers of tampering hooks, and a complete ban on drilling in the canyon in 2015.
“The problem of intentionally damaged bolts has plagued Mill Creek for some time, adding an unpleasant element to the already weak relationship between the climbing community and surrounding residents who are unhappy with the level of activity in the canyon,” wrote an article in the Missoula Independent the year 2016.
These old feuds were still present in Wednesday’s session.
“There seem to be problems with the forest service on both sides,” wrote a participant in the Zoom chat on Wednesday. “Some people in my breakout group said they felt they were inadequate closures to birds of prey, which relates not so much to climbers as to forest service regulation. But even climbers have reason to mistrust the forestry office after the still applicable and unresolved blanket ban. “
But the ranger district has no rules to fall back on, Brown said. He couldn’t punish anyone for the damaged bolts for not allowing the bolts at all. According to Mill Creek, officials wanted a comprehensive set of rules to avoid confusion.
“Basically, it’s about looking ahead,” said Brown. “Many of the Mill Creek issues and the mutually perceived injustice regarding Mill Creek are a big reason we decided to take a step back and tackle the entire forest.”
In April 2020, Brown and his team set out to create the plan. The pandemic has slowed the process down. Rather than being able to immediately host public forums as he originally intended, Brown worked on creating a website that explained CMP issues in more detail – a task that was safer and much easier to do remotely.
This website was completed last fall. In June this year, the Forest Service held its first public commentary session to get input on the plan.
In the second public discussion, a number of key issues were raised. Participants spoke out against damaged bolts and destroyed signs. Some asked what the Forest Service defines as “wilderness area”. Another insight was the importance of the management plan as a living document that changes over time.
“Management needs to be adaptable, otherwise the ban is the only option if we are acting from the standpoint of the possibility of future impact,” said one participant.
“I think we should keep working together and revisiting issues as they arise and as the Bitterroot grows, but that doesn’t mean we need to be overly aggressive in our first draft of the CMP. It should be something that is revisited every 10, 20, 30 years when the Bitterroot changes, ”said another.
It seemed like everyone agreed on the need for a management plan. Brown agreed that it mattered less that one side wanted the CMP and the other didn’t, but that the two disagreed on the details.
“Everyone agrees that we should have some kind of protection,” Brown said. “The insight is: ‘How do we work together?’ Because it looks like everyone is still trying to bring their problems to me, but they’re not talking to each other. “
“Perhaps these divisions are bogus dichotomies,” said Shawn Johnson, executive director of the Center for Natural Resources & Environmental Policy and moderator of the meeting on Wednesday. “Maybe there isn’t that much separation between the two sides.”
“I think we can all agree that a climbing management plan is the goal of this process,” said Dane Scott, professor of ethics at the University of Montana’s WA Franke College of Forestry & Conservation.
Much of the meeting reflected what Brown, Johnson, and Scott said. The participants talked about the same topics for two hours. Everyone agreed that a CMP was necessary, but many were less sure how to work out a mutually satisfactory set of rules.
Brown said his staff would gather in the coming week to discuss key points that were raised. Officials plan to hold monthly meetings leading to the conclusion of the CMP. The next meeting will take place in mid-August and will be less of an open talk and more of a focused discussion on specific areas of the plan, Brown said.
The forest service plans to complete the CMP this winter in time for the 2022 climbing season. Brown hoped the planning process would go more smoothly, especially since similar management plans had been passed across the country.
“In reality, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “A lot of preparatory work has been done across the country. We should be able to copy and paste or at least adapt to our needs. “