Local rock climbers cried foul last week over an agreement between the Ravalli County Road Department and Forest Service that impacts one of western Montana’s premier climbing areas. A lawsuit, filed July 28 in Federal District Court, alleges that a decision to move 1,000 cubic yards of rock ignores multiple federal guidelines.
The dispute began when the Road Department wanted to build new bridges in the area, but lacked the $25,000-$30,000 needed for large stones to buffer them. Identifying a possible work-around, they approached Darby District Ranger Chuck Oliver about taking rock from an area called Lost Horse Canyon, a popular climbing spot in the Bitterroot National Forest. Much to the ire of local conservation and recreation groups, Oliver agreed to the deal.
“It’s a very popular canyon, and it gets a lot of use from many different recreationalists,” says Steve Porcella, a member of the Bitterroot Climbing Coalition.
Porcella’s group contends that the Forest Service not only volunteered the rocks, but also granted the project a categorical exclusion from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), allowing it to move forward without a scoping notice, public comment period or an environmental impact statement. Slated to begin August 1, the mining work is now stalled until a Federal District Court decision.
Forest Service officials acknowledge the opposition, but say the project’s scope and short-term duration make it an easy candidate for a categorical exclusion. And in court documents filed Aug. 5, Oliver says the Forest Service did conduct a scoping notice that included letters, a press release and a May 27 public meeting.
“People won’t even know it’s gone,” says David Ohnstad, Ravalli County roads supervisor. He says his crews won’t lay a hand on the cherished vertical climbing walls and will only take piles of loose scree from the valley floor.
Oliver concurs, saying the project will only impact 4.9 acres, just .1 acre below the 5-acre impact rating, which would require NEPA’s regulations. He also downplays the disturbance to nearby recreational users, adding that county road crews will only operate during weekday working hours.
Both he and Ohnstad say the project will take between one and two weeks to complete.