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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Page One News at a Glance

Camp Eureka! explores the Bitterroot River

Coalition calls for public hearings on wilderness dam bill

Dual-use motorized vehicle trail planned in West Fork

Mega-subdivision to go before Planning Board

Camp Eureka! explores the Bitterroot River

By Michael Howell

Last Wednesday about a dozen children, who are either blind or visually impaired, enjoyed an exploratory journey down the Bitterroot River from Bell Crossing to the Stevensville bridge. Along with all the scents, sounds and rhythms of a float trip down the river, the children also got a healthy dose of learning about river ecology, river dynamics, and the life of some very small river loving creatures, called invertebrates. On hand to help with the instruction were Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks biologist Chris Clancy and a very special guest scientist, Dr. Geerat Vermeij, a professor of marine ecology and paleoecology at the University of California, Davis.

One thing that makes Dr. Vermeij special, besides having been awarded the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship Award in 1992, the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal by the National Academy of Sciences, and being named 2004 Faculty Research Lecturer by his colleagues at UC Davis, is the fact that he is blind, and has been blind since the age of three. Despite the handicap, in the span of his career Dr. Vermeij has written over 160 publications including papers in leading journals such as Paleobiology, Science, American Naturalist, and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. His latest of five published books, "Nature and Economic History," compares the principles of economics and the principles of evolution, and relates both to major trends in the history of life and the history of humanity.

As a scientist who has been blind since youth, and who has a passion for learning and teaching about the natural world, he provided inspiration as well as instruction to the children, and everyone else for that matter, who took the float trip that day.

The float trip was only one day in a weeklong experience for the children as part of Camp Eureka, 2006. It is a summer Natural History Camp for children aged 8 to 13 who are blind or have severe visual impairments. For a week they are invited to explore western Montana's wetlands and forests under the guidance of mentors who are blind, and with expert educators and naturalists specially trained to work with children who have visual impairments.

Camp Eureka!, in its second year of operation, is sponsored by the Montana Conservation Science Institute (MOCSI), in partnership with the National Federation of the Blind and the Montana Association for the Blind.

Beth Underwood, MOCSI environmental education specialist and Program Director for Camp Eureka!, said, "We have two goals in the program. The first is to acquaint children who are blind, or have low vision, with their natural environment by encouraging mud-and-boots adventure and exploration. The second is to empower the children with a greater sense of independence and a realization of unlimited personal potential."

Besides water wars, peaceful wading along the shore, and lessons in ecology and biology along the Bitterroot River, the children also got to take field trips at the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge near Stevensville and the Teller Wildlife Refuge near Corvallis. They learned more about plants and insects, soils and water from the Botany Museum curator at the University of Montana, Peter Lesica. They learned a lot about birds and their habitat from Dr. Erik Greene, from the University of Montana, including how to identify some by their calls. They learned about the use of a Global Positioning System in tracking Bighorn Sheep from Dr. Jack Hogg, research biologist and Director of MOCSI.

Throughout the week art and music were woven into the program by such notables as local folk musician, storyteller and educator Chip Jasmin; Blackfeet Indian and singer, songwriter and storyteller, Jack Gladstone; VSA director, Alayne Dolson; artist Bobby Tilton, UM Art Education Department; Sandy Gates, Teller Wildlife Refuge master gardener; and audio/video producer, Robert Meyers.

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Coalition calls for public hearings on wilderness dam bill

By Michael Howell

A coalition of retired Forest Service-Northern Region officials, local water users and conservationists are calling on Senator Conrad Burns to hold a hearing in the Bitterroot Valley on his wilderness bill (SB 2633) before pursuing any action on the bill in Congress.

That bill, designed by an organization of dam owners in the Bitterroot Valley called the Water Cooperative, would grant right-of-ways to owners of dams located in the Bitterroot National Forest.

"Notwithstanding the Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, or any other provision of law, the Secretaries shall, on the date of enactment of this Act, grant to the owners, for no consideration, rights-of-way...," states Burns' bill.

The rights-of-way being granted include up to 120 feet along the existing trails, and no less than 50 feet but no more than 500 feet around the high water mark, although additional area may be included "determined as necessary by the owner." Construction of structures is permitted on the right-of-way around the lakes.

The bill would also grant the use of motor vehicles and motorized equipment of any kind, including aircraft, which may land in the right-of-way, "notwithstanding Section 4(c) of the Wilderness Act."

The bill also absolves the dam owners of any liability for any claim or damage that may arise from the conduct of activities on their part unless negligence was involved. The rights-of-way so granted "may subsequently be conveyed by the owner without the consent of the Secretaries."

Coalition members claim that the bill is a giveaway of large swaths of public land. It would convert half of all wilderness trails within the Montana side of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness into private roads with unlimited motor vehicle traffic allowed. It would allow road building, construction of structures, and unlimited use of motorized equipment in the wilderness. It would allow unlimited access by aircraft. It would also exempt all activities of the dam owners from any federal law including the Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Dam Safety Program Act, and any federal law designed to protect fish, wildlife or water quality, they claim.

According to coalition member Bill Worf, a former head of the Forest Service's wilderness programs in Washington, D.C., and founder and former president of Wilderness Watch, a national environmental organization headquartered in Missoula, "What Burns proposes would rip holes in the most important part of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and set a terrible nationwide precedent."

Worf said at a press conference on Monday that the issue of accessibility to the dams in the wilderness was debated extensively at the time the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964. A method was devised to allow continued ownership and maintenance without motorized access and it has worked all these years.

Ed Blodel, also a former head of the Forest Service's wilderness programs in Washington D.C., who was also part of the Big Creek dam reconstruction in the Bitterroot, said that the current law did allow for special use of heavy, mechanized equipment at the dams and the use of helicopters for access.

"Someone is always looking for some excuse to change wilderness designation into recreational use by motorized vehicles," said Blodel.

Stevensville resident and former District Ranger and administrator in wilderness management on the Beaverhead, Humboldt, and Toiyabe National Forests, Vernon Sylvester called the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness "the economic engine of the valley." He said that it was a source of pure water that supports the Bitterroot River fishery. He also believes that it provides a "viewshed" that is of value.

"If this bill passes," said Sylvester, "we might as well call it the Selway Wilderness instead of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness."

Hamilton resident Bob Oset, a former wilderness ranger, a leader in the development of the Forest Service's wilderness programs, and originator of the "leave no trace" wilderness policy, said that the dam operators have been operating successfully for a hundred years with the "minimum tools necessary" policy. He sees no reason to change now.

"If this bill passes it becomes a dam operation area, not a wilderness," said Oset.

John Pearson, president of the Bitterroot Back Country Horsemen and president of the Sweeney Creek Water Users, which operates a dam in the wilderness, said that he was satisfied with the status quo. He said that he moved here in 1988 to be near to and use the wilderness. He said that the use of primitive tools to maintain the dam at Holloway Lake was working. He said that in his career as a commercial pilot he had seen a lot of the world and he knows how important it is to protect this resource.

Stevensville resident and former Forest Service engineer Kirk Thompson said that according to the dam owners and the Forest Service, none of the wilderness dams in the Bitterroot have been determined to be unsafe. He noted that heavy equipment was needed in the repair of dams up Bass and Tin Cup Creeks.

"Over 14 types of heavy equipment are allowed under the current rules," said Thompson. "This is working. There is no reason to change... If changes are necessary, before giving away the wilderness we ought to consider some options."

Thompson said that some options to be considered might include letting the Forest Service take over maintenance of the dams for a fee from the water users. Another alternative might be for the public to purchase the water rights. New methods of off-stream water storage might be considered. Or the public might acquire other water rights and trade them to the dam users for the lake water.

"The coalition believes that a look at these options could provide a win-win solution for both dam owners and the public," said Dale Burk, local writer, publisher, and conservationist, who moderated the press conference.

The coalition members claimed to be alarmed at "rumors" that Burns planned to insert the bill as a "rider" in an appropriations bill during a hearing of the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, which he chairs. This would, in their view, allow passage of the bill without proper public scrutiny and debate.

"The wilderness dams bill is a multi-million dollar giveaway of public lands, and as such would not likely pass as a stand alone bill," said Burk. He claimed that Burns' staff would neither confirm nor deny the rumor when contacted.

When contacted by the Bitterroot Star following the press conference, however, James Pendleton, the Billings-based spokesman for Burns' office, said, "The rumors are false. Period."

He said that Burns' wilderness dams bill would work its way through the normal legislative process and that Burns was considering holding field hearings on the bill, but no decision had yet been made. He reiterated that the bill was not going to be attached as a rider to a Department of Interior appropriations bill, but would proceed as a stand alone bill before Congress. The Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness was designated as one of the original Wilderness Areas in the Wilderness Act of 1964. At 1.3 million acres it is the fourth largest wilderness in the entire National Forest system.

There are 17 privately owned irrigation dams in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. All existed at the time of wilderness designation. All the dams were built on existing natural lakes in order to raise the level of the lakes and to regulate the release of water for downstream irrigation. All the dams are accessible on existing trails by foot or horseback. And all are situated on public land.

The dams include Bass Lake, Big Creek Lakes, Blodgett Lake, Canyon Lake, Fred Burr Lake, Hauf Lake, Holloway Lake, Knaack Lake, Lappi Lake, Mill Lake, Reed Lake, Sears Lake, Sheafman Lake, Tamarack Lake, Tin Cup Lake and Wyant Lake.

The wilderness trails involved include those in the following drainages: North One Horse, Sweeney Creek, Bass Creek, Big Creek, Fred Burr Creek, Sheafman Creek, Mill Creek, Blodgett Creek, Canyon Creek, Tin Cup Creek, Chaffin Creek and Boulder Creek.

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Dual-use motorized vehicle trail planned in West Fork

By Michael Howell

West Fork District Ranger Dave Campbell hopes that his plans for a dual-use motor vehicle trail, that is one used by both full-sized motor vehicles and All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs), will prove to be a success and a model for other forest districts around the state to follow. It will be the first such designation in the state. It is also the result of a collaboration between usually opposing interests, according to Campbell.

Campbell called out the press recently for a trip up Jew Mountain in the West Fork to view the proposed changes along with representatives of the concerned citizen groups that helped design the precedent-setting changes.

To begin with, groups like Friends of the Bitterroot, the Montana Wilderness Association, and the Sierra Club were concerned about the negative effects observed in the existing trail in the area, especially the bottom part which is too steep and suffering from erosion. They were also concerned about the safety of the highway crossing where ATV trail 185 crosses the West Fork Road, using the highway for a short distance.

The Forest Service and members of the recently formed Ravalli County Off Road Users Association (RCORUA), it turns out, share those concerns. Of course, both of them are also looking to accommodate the use of off-road vehicles when possible.

In this case, according to Campbell, by all sides collaborating, a unique proposal emerged that involves a dual use of a portion of Forest Service Road 5706, which will create a new 12-mile loop, with incredible views of the mountain peaks, that will be open to both full-size vehicles and non-street legal ATVs.

Dan Thompson, president of the Off Road Users Association, was excited about the new plan. He recognized that it would be a challenge in merging the two uses.

Campbell said that the key to merging the uses was to slow the speed of all the vehicles. He said that the plan was to reduce the maintenance level and add some dips to force people to slow down.

The plan also calls for obliteration of the steep bottom portion of the trail going up from the highway. Instead, ATVs using trail 185, which currently travel down the highway a few hundred feet before climbing steeply up the mountain, will trailer their vehicles and drive a few miles up to a parking lot along Overwhich Creek. From there they can use the 12-mile loop road that is being created by constructing a small connector road. The entire project involves relocating the existing road in three places, some road reconstruction, some trail obliteration, construction of a few miles of connector road, and the construction of a parking lot.

Funding for the entire project is uncertain, but work on the connector road is underway.

Everyone admits that, regardless of all the efforts, some renegades may still continue to violate the regulations, use the clay pit and generally go wherever they want to go, the steeper the better.

"No one can prevent a determined violator," said Campbell. "But we think the key is to provide a good, responsible alternative."

Besides the Jew Mountain Trail, the only other trail on the Bitterroot National Forest designated for ATV use is the Chain of Lakes Trail up the East Fork. Although many of the trails on the forest are open to motorized use, since they are single track, they are not open to use by ATVs.

ATVs traveling on Forest Service roads must be licensed. But unlicensed ATVs may travel on Forest Service roads closed to full-sized vehicles.

Thompson said that the new Jew Mountain Trail redesign will especially benefit young people who don't yet have a drivers license.

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Mega-subdivision to go before Planning Board

By Michael Howell

One of the largest subdivisions ever proposed in Ravalli County, Aspen Springs Subdivision in the Eight Mile area, is scheduled for a hearing before the Ravalli County Planning Board on Wednesday, July 5.

The proposal involves construction of 636 residential units and seven commercial units on 393 acres at the top of Lower Woodchuck Lane. The subdivision is planned to be constructed in 33 phases over a ten- to twenty-year period and would add an estimated 5,200 vehicle trips to the access road. The developer is asking for eight variances including a variance on density restrictions.

Opposition to the development has been intense. An organization of concerned citizens has formed to fight the project. They have expressed concerns over potential pollution, lack of water, density, and the drain on already overstressed public services. At a recent public meeting sponsored by the group, both the Ravalli County Sheriff and Florence Carlton School Superintendent expressed deep concerns about the impact of such a huge development on their services.

Critics point out that the development almost equals the size of Stevensville in the number of residents, but lacks the infrastructure and political structure of a town.

The Planning Board hearing is scheduled for July 5, at 7 p.m. in the Hamilton Middle School Auditorium, located at 209 S. 5th Street, Hamilton.

The citizen group fighting the subdivision is providing free transportation to the public hearing. Anyone needing a ride to the meeting can contact Cheryl at 273-0636.

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