Blackfoot Valley Dispatch - The Blackfoot Valley's News Source Since 1980

By Roger Dey

Lincoln hosts Bob Marshall Complex LAC Meeting


April 18, 2018

Roger Dey

Lincoln Ranger District Trails Manager Forest Moulton discusses camp site impacts across the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.

The job of making sure wilderness areas still offer visitors a degree of solitude ironically takes a lot of people talking to one another.

For 30 years, Forest Service personnel from five Ranger Districts, wildlife specialist with the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, outfitters and other wilderness users have come together to discuss the impacts visitors are having across the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.

This year, Lincoln played host to the annual LAC Meeting that looks at thos impacts at the Community Hall, Saturday, April 14.

LAC, or Limits of Acceptable Change, is the process used to monitor social and resource impacts on the landscape to help ensure the recreation opportunities in the great Bear, Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness areas provide the type of experience visitors are looking for.

The LAC Meetings cover a lot of ground, from information on the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem Grizzly population to snowpack surveys to wilderness projects being planned by the districts; but at the meetings heart is the Limits of Accptable Change process. LAC evaluates visitor experiences based on four "Opportunity Classes," using data and visitor information gathered every year to evaluate how much use an area sees.

The higher the Opportunity Class rating, the more likely a person is to see someone else.

Based on an 80 percent standard, an Opportunity Class IV area, such as Heart Lake in the Scapegoat, should give a person an 80 percent or better chance of making it through a day seeing five or fewer other parties. By contrast, Opportunity Class I areas, such as remote drainages without established trails or campsites, should give a visitor an 80 percent or better chance of seeing or hearing no one else at all.

"As human beings, we have impacts and we realize that," said Mike Munoz, the Rocky Mountain District Ranger. "We want to try to find a nice balance where it still has the sense of wilderness appeal and ... doesn't get so negative that you can't tell you're in a wilderness."

Each Opportunity Class is determined by the number of trail encounters with other parties, the number of other parties camped within sight or hearing distance, the condition of campsites, the number of human impacted sites per 640 acre area, and forage and range conditions.

Those indicators allow managers to react to changes on the ground, and adjust where needed to meet or adjust Opportunity Class ratings.

This year's meeting was significant because it brought together data averaged over a five-year monitoring period.

Forest Moulton, trails manager with the Lincoln Ranger District, said trail indicators have held relatively steady across the complex over the last 10 years, but noted that the larger districts are seeing a decrease in the density indicators, such as campsite conditions. He said it seems as if people aren't pushing as far into the wilderness and they're seeing heavier use of the main travel corridors. That may be due in part to trail maintenance issues in the larger districts, or due to demographic changes, with fewer people having ready access to horses and mules.

Moulton said the area of the Scapegoat managed by the Lincoln Ranger District is doing well, in terms of both usage and in being well within opportunity class standards

"We're still seeing the use here because it's still pretty accessible compared to some of that stuff way deep in the Bob, and we're opening up all our trails every year too, so that helps."

The one area where the District may be seeing a decline is in the public horse groups using the wilderness during early rifle season, although most of his information is anecdotal at this point.

Although the data crunched in the Opportunity Class evaluations are important, one of the main benefits of the LAC Meetings lies in the face-to face conversations between wilderness user and wilderness managers.

"This is the only time for me as a ranger to really hear from the user, the people who use it the most," said Lincoln District Ranger Michael Stansberry. "And it gives us a chance to educate the people who are in the back country on the things we've been working on all year."

Jack Rich, with the Rich Ranch near Ovando, sees the meetings as a way for all wilderness users, not just outfitters, to have a voice in wilderness management.

"I believe that's the way this whole world turns. You participate, you get involved, you stay informed and you don't wait until you've done something to get you crossways and then say, 'well I didn't know,'" he said.

On Rich's view, the importance of the LAC meetings isn't just in finding out what's going on now, it's in seeing what lies ahead.

He likens the government agencies to the Titanic, a massive ship with a rudder too small to allow for easy course corrections. He said the LAC meeting allow users to spot "icebergs" far enough in advance to avoid a collision.

As an example, he said the outfitters in the NCDE operate under a food storage order that effectively prevents habituation of bears and keeps humans safe, but he said the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee is pushing to homogenize it with the more stringent order used in the Greater Yellowstone. As he sees it, the result they've achieved should be the deciding factor, rather than ease of enforcement for the agencies.

Roger Dey

Jack Rich discusses the impact fires have had on forage for stock.

Rich's belief in a result –oriented system stems from his long history with the LAC process. At the insistence of his father, C.B., he took part in the early meetings that led to the development of LAC. He said it was designed to get away from the old Forest Service policy of using static "capacity numbers" that didn't consider the dynamic, changeable nature of conditions in the wilderness areas.

By establishing a desired result – that visitors to the complex have a high probability of experiencing the solitude of wilderness - they developed standards and indicators to help measure whether that result was being met. Those measurements, averaged over a five-year period, allow the Forest Service, outfitters and other users to work together to "steer the Titanic" and improve stewardship of the wilderness.

"The better steward you are, the more use we can accommodate. That's the whole principle, in a nutshell," said Rich, "Saying we're not going to put hard and fast numbers on it, but we're gonna have indicators, and as tools evolve to be better stewards of the resource it lessens the impact and allows more people to visit the same resource."


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