Sen. Conrad Burns’ Dec. 2 field hearing on the U.S. Forest Service’s forest plan revision process didn’t yield many surprises. Witnesses who testified during the hearing at the University of Montana’s College of Technology in Missoula—titled “Challenges and Opportunities in Region One Forest Planning”—were picked by Burns to offer testimony on what the senator said were his “concerns about how this process is moving forward.” Mainly, Burns wanted to know why the Forest Service was proposing to cut back on timber sales while increasing acreage managed as wilderness and imposing new restrictions on off-road vehicle (ORV) use.
But the scenes before and after the gavel fell offered a good view of the political and social battles playing out over access to Montana’s forests. The tension between interest groups was palpable during the hearing, and downright visible after it.
The public wasn’t invited to testify during the hearing though that didn’t stop many from speaking their minds.
As people filed into the room for the hearing, four blaze-orange-clad members of the Hellgate Hunters and Anglers (HHA) handed out literature explaining why roadless areas are important to hunters and fishermen. Following the hearing, the Hellgate Hunters were among the hundred or so people who stuck around to talk about the hearing as event staff cleared away chairs.
“I think we really realize that there is a reelection effort in the offing, and that probably the topics that were chosen and the people that were chosen to speak were aligned to support [Burns’] reelection effort,” said HHA’s Tim Aldrich following the hearing.
Sporting field camouflage and a bird-hunting vest with the phrase “Roadless Areas = Great Hunting” penned in black ink across the orange front, Hellgate Hunter Pelah Hoyt said she downed an antelope and a deer this year in an area where ORVs are off-limits.
“I felt if ORVs had been allowed into the area where I was hunting, they would have pushed the game a lot farther back. I wouldn’t have been able to just walk in and hunt.”
As Burns rapped the gavel to signal the close of the hearing, about a dozen people silently raised multicolored placards as hundreds of audience members–many of whom traveled to Missoula from all corners of the state to support off-road vehicle use in national forests—milled about.
“Yes to Hunting. No to Burns,” read one sign.
“Defend our Forests,” demanded another.
Some took no notice of the demonstrators; others simply raised their eyebrows at the signs and the people who held them. But a few were clearly incensed at the display and made their displeasure known in no uncertain terms.
As Dan Cottrell stood holding a sign that read, “I can’t fish in an open pit mine,” he was approached by Sam Harvey from Bozeman’s Gallatin Valley Snowmobile Association.
“Are you going to put the signs down or do you want me to disrupt you?” Harvey asked Cottrell.
Pointing in the direction of a wary security guard, Harvey threatened to “cause a disturbance” in order to get both men thrown out of room.
“Isn’t it a law enforcement officer’s job to protect my right to free speech?” Cottrell responded, still holding the sign over his head.
“You have freedom of speech but you can’t be disruptive,” Harvey countered. “You’re being disruptive by showing those signs.”
Harvey said he’d been involved in debates over access to public lands for 25 years. He said if the proposed travel plan for the Gallatin National Forest goes through, his group will lose access to 50 percent of the trails currently open to snowmobiles. He didn’t explain why Cottrell’s sign about fishing and mines offended him.
Cottrell told Harvey he’d take his sign down if a law-enforcement official asked him to. Harvey nodded and walked off.
Minutes later, Cottrell found himself on the receiving end of a verbal assault by a heavy-set man in a baseball cap wearing a blue snowmobile club jacket and sporting an orange goatee.
“You’re disrupting as fucking hell,” the glowering snowmobiler told Cottrell.
As the man pointed toward Burns, who was shaking hands with a group of students on the other side of the room, he said: “This man takes his fucking time to come here and talk to us, and then you act like a pompous ass. So that’s the disruptingness [sic]. See, right now, this is disrupting.”
As a growing group of bystanders watched the tense scene unfold, an armed Forest Service law enforcement officer made his way toward the commotion, but only looked on.
“You cause controversy, you’re disruptive,” continued the angry man in the blue jacket. “But I can tell you’re still on mama’s breast milk. Somebody else is feeding your ass. I work for a living.”
Cottrell, a Missoula smoke jumper with 10 years of fire experience, did his best to ignore the onslaught as the Forest Service officer moved between the two men.
“Where do you work? At McDonald’s or Burger King?” the man jabbed as he walked out of the room with Harvey.
The Forest Service officer gave Cottrell a knowing grin and said out of the corner of his mouth, “If he only knew.”
“That’s all right,” Contrell replied. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.”