Duncan Adams – The Montana Standard, Butte
The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest installed the radio repeater and antennae in July 2020 on top of O’Dell Mountain in the West Pioneer Wilderness Study Area.
It took a while for the fur to fly.
Roughly a year later, Taylor Orr, a former wilderness ranger for the Forest Service, encountered the radio installation while on a horseback quest for the solace and solitude of wilderness. He found the juxtaposition jarring.
According to the Forest Service, categorical exclusions “are a list of activities which agencies have determined from analysis and experience to not have significant environmental impacts and therefore do not require more detailed environmental analysis.”
Last year, the Flathead National Forest initially proposed relying on a categorical exclusion approach to evaluating the controversial expansion of the Holland Lake Lodge.
Adam Rissien with WildEarth Guardians said the Forest Service failed to provide meaningful public engagement opportunities before siting the radio repeater in a Wilderness Study Area and improperly relied on the categorical exclusion process.
Rissien noted that, among other things, the West Pioneers provide crucial connectivity habitat for threatened grizzly bears and Canada lynx. In addition, there is important habitat for wolverines and whitebark pine, he said.
O’Dell Mountain (sometimes spelled Odell) housed a fire lookout tower from 1916 through 1963 and previously included an FM repeater, the Forest Service said.
Cat McRae, a spokeswoman for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, said the area was reserved in 1956 as the O’Dell Administrative Site. She said that reservation was not superseded by the Montana Wilderness Study Act of 1977.
In February 2020, a Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest memo reported that “additional radio repeater sites are needed to provide adequate and consistent communication in areas of the Forest where geographic barriers interfere with radio coverage.”
The memo referenced categorical exclusion and observed that installing the repeater on O’Dell Mountain would be covered under “repair and maintenance of administrative sites” and thus neither an environmental assessment nor environmental impact statement would be necessary.
Rissien sees it differently.
“Forest officials knew very well there was no administrative site in 1977 when the Montana Wilderness Study Act was passed into law,” Rissien said.
He noted the act requires the Secretary of Agriculture to maintain the existing wilderness character of Wilderness Study Areas for possible inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System until Congress makes a decision about their fate.
After an article in the Missoula Current that described the recent radio repeater’s installation as illegal, the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest issued a news release on Jan. 26 tracing the progress of Forest Service communications in Montana.
The release emphasized the importance of good communication when fighting wildfires and cited the deaths of 13 smokejumpers in August 1949 when attempting to fight the Mann Gulch Fire on the Helena National Forest.
The release said expanded communication was important for public and employee safety. It made no mention of the Missoula Current article.
Instead, it lauded the improved communications that the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest said were essential during the fires of 2021, “when the Trail Creek and Alder Creek fires shut down highways, threatened the Big Hole National Battlefield site, and caused repeated evacuations for the community of Wise River.”
Generally, a radio repeater allows two-way radios to achieve better coverage, better penetration and longer range.
Montana hosts dozens of Wilderness Study Areas.
The majority of Wilderness Study Areas in Montana are managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The Forest Service manages seven, including the West Pioneer WSA, which is about 148,150 acres and about 40 air miles northwest of Dillon in Beaverhead County.
In years past, the Forest Service has recommended that the West Pioneer WSA be managed as non-wilderness.
Wild Montana’s description reports that the West Pioneer WSA is the largest remaining roadless area in southwest Montana and is the traditional homelands of the Selish (Bitterroot Salish) and Shoshone-Bannock peoples.
“Rolling and forested, the West Pioneers provide gentle contrast to the craggy summits of the East Pioneers and are home to a large population of elk,” according to Wild Montana.
“The crest of the range offers spectacular views of the Continental Divide and East Pioneers, while creeks meander through meadows to the east into the Wise River and on to the famous Big Hole,” the non-profit reports.
Wilderness Study Area is a designation for lands managed to protect existing wilderness characteristics until Congress either concludes that the WSA deserves inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System or directs that the area be managed for multiple use.
Orr said the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest’s installation of the radio repeater violated its own forest plan. He said he believes the forest could have received a waiver if it had followed the provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA “requires the federal government to use all practicable means to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony” and outlines provisions for environmental assessments and environmental impact statements.
Orr also said he feels the Forest Service could have installed the repeater in a less obtrusive spot on O’Dell Mountain.
Rissien said WildEarth’s larger concerns focus on what he described as a trend toward the Forest Service allowing degradation of Wilderness Study Areas. There are incursions involving off-road vehicles, unauthorized roads, unauthorized grazing and more, he said.
“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” Rissien said.
He said efforts to date to resolve the dispute with the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest have failed.
Other groups objecting to the forest’s handling of the repeater’s installation have included Friends of the Bitterroot, the Backcountry Horsemen of Missoula and the Selway-Pintler Wilderness Backcountry Horsemen.
Orr said a compromise remedy might be to re-locate the repeater to a less obvious, less prominent spot on O’Dell Mountain.
“But I think that would be a distant third option,” he said. “Our first choice is to have the repeater removed.”
Meanwhile, the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest reported that it believes proper procedures were followed to place the repeater and that the Forest Service does not intend to remove it.