By Perry Backus, of The Montana Standard
WHITEHALL -- Doug Abelin is used to holding his cards close to the vest. But when it came time for Abelin to sit across the table with eight others hoping to find common ground on the future manage ment of the Bureau of Land Management's portion of the contentious Whitetail-Pipestone area, he and everyone else tried a different strategy. `` We all put our aces on the table right at the beginning,'' said Abelin,
who represents the Montana Trail Vehicle Riders Association. `` Usually
people like to hold their aces till the end '85 but I think it's why this
worked as well as it did.''
Abelin is part a diverse group selected by the BLM's Western Montana Resource
Advisory Council to develop a travel plan alternative for the popular
Whitetail-Pipestone area, north of Interstate 90 between Whitehall and Butte.
The nine-person panel hammered out a proposal that the BLM has adopted as its
preferred alternative in an upcoming draft envi ronmental assessment.
The Whitetail-Pipestone area has long been popular for both motorized and
non-motorized recreationists. The area is managed by the Forest Service and
Bureau of Land Management. In 1995, the two agencies told the public they
would develop a joint plan to manage recreation and other resources in the
Five years later, the Forest Service dropped out of the project due to bud
getary cutbacks. That agency man ages 84 percent of the total area.
The Forest Service's decision to back out left the BLM at a temporary loss.
The advisory council, however, wanted to salvage what had been done on the
plan so far. BLM manages 28,000 acres in the area.
Over the winter of 2001, the nineperson panel debated and decided on a
proposal that everyone agreed gave each side a little and took a little away.
`` Not everyone is going to like all of it,'' said Abelin. `` We were looking
for something that everyone could live with.''
The proposal calls for leaving about 50 miles of trail open to motor ized use
year around. Another 22.7 miles of trail will be open seasonally. About 28
miles of trail normally open to motorized use will be closed.
On the trails that remain open for motor ized use, the BLM and motorized user
groups would be required to take mitigation mea sures to address water and
soil erosion issues. Cross-country off-highway vehicle use would not be
allowed in the area.
Steve Hartmann, the BLM's liaison for the group, said the proposal could be
altered depending on public reaction. Comments are being collected through
Hartmann said he believes the process worked for several reasons.
First, the participants were willing to lis ten to other views and look for
common ground. They also wanted to see the process to a conclusion. And, use
of a neutral facilita tor helped keep everyone on track, he said.
Jefferson County Commissioner Sam Samson said the panel worked hard because
its proposal would have the backing of the Resource Advisory Committee.
`` We all knew that this was more than just a shot in the dark,'' Samson
said. `` We knew we'd have the backing of the full RAC and we knew that our
decision would be considered '85 and not just end up in some filing
Jim Kuipers, who represented both the Southwest Montana Wildlands Alliance
and Montana Wilderness Association, said every one looked for balance. All
saw value in pro tecting wildlife and the non-roaded areas, Kuipers said.
`` None of us were purists,'' said Kuipers. `` There's no way it would have
worked if we were.''
The area is prone to erosion due to its granitic soils, Kuipers said. Major
erosion issues occur in places used excessively by all-terrain vehicles, he
`` Our goal was to not let that erosion affect surface waters,'' he said.
That meant in places trails had to be reconstructed to cut down on erosion
and in other places unneeded trails were eliminated, said Kuipers.
`` We eliminated every single trail that did n't go somewhere,'' he said. ``
Motorized users like loop trails and that's what we looked for. If two trails
went to the same spot, we elimi nated one of them.''
`` The BLM just did a great job in getting the people together and
facilitating this process,'' said Kuipers. `` They used local peo ple who
would make the end product their own. They got a better result because of
Kuipers said he hopes the Forest Service will take note.
Jack de Golia, spokesman, BeaverheadDeerlodge National Forest, said the
agency has identified the Whitetail/Pipestone area as high priority under the
planning process identified by the its Off-Highway Vehicle EIS.
Each forest was required to prioritize site specific areas for travel
management under the auspices of the EIS, he said. The West Big Hole and
southeastern portion of the Pioneer Mountains were selected as the first two
areas in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, said de Golia. Planning
efforts will begin this year on those areas.
Starting next fiscal year, which begins October 2002, planning for the
Whitetail/Pipestone area will begin, he said.
`` That's assuming we get funding,'' said de Golia.