by Mike Thompson
Game Range Columnist
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
June 11, 1998
Late last week, the other local paper (the Missoulian) reported the anticipated completion of a land exchange that would transfer over 700 acres of important elk security habitat from Plum Creek Timber Company to the Lolo National Forest. If consummated, this transaction will likely preserve the wild and roadless character of a key elk migration route between the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range.
Many employees of the Forest Service, Plum Creek, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Fish, Wildlife & Parks played critical roles, and deserve our heartfelt appreciation. However, I'm here to tell you that this parcel of prime elk habitat would be roaded and logged today were it not for the initiative and persistent efforts of a single interested citizen.
His name is Jim Clawson.
Jim is a long-time member of the Western Montana Fish and Game Association, one of the oldest hunter organizations in Montana. His responsibilities on the club's big game committee brought him to our Game Range Citizens' Advisory Council in 1989, where he has remained active ever since. When he is not traveling from his home in Missoula to compete in world-class shotgunning competitions, he can be found hunting or preparing for hunting. Fortunately for you and me, his family decades ago adopted the Seeley Lake area as their preferred elk hunting spot.
Back in the days when Mark Hurley and I were tracking radioed elk from summer range to the Game Range, Jim's perceptive on-the-ground observations helped round out our understanding of elk migrations and habitat preferences. So, I listened carefully when Jim called a couple years ago to ask about the engineer's stakes he discovered in his favorite hunting area.
"Looks like they're putting in a road," he reported, referring to Plum Creek.
For many years, this steep, remote, densely forested property within the National Forest boundary had escaped the attention of corporate timber managers. However, if Jim's deductions were correct, this favorable and increasingly uncommon situation for elk and elk hunting was about to change dramatically.
"If you're willing, I think I can arrange for us to meet Denny Sigars," I offered. Denny is Plum Creek's Missoula-area manager, including lands around Seeley Lake. Jim readily accepted my offer and Denny graciously agreed to a meeting.
Our first order of business was to learn the meaning of the engineer's stakes, and Denny confirmed Plum Creek's intentions to build a road and begin harvesting timber within the next few months. Respectfully, we asked if we might be granted an opportunity to provide suggestions for road placement and timber harvest prescriptions that would minimize losses of elk security, and Denny agreed. Then we advanced the discussion one step further.
"If the Forest Service is willing, would Plum Creek consider trading out of this parcel before you build a road?"
"Don't even talk about it," Denny replied, with good reason. He cited the potential for years of negotiations and long, drawn-out public review processes that would cost his company time and money. Jim and I resigned ourselves to making the best of a difficult situation, and Denny arranged for Plum Creek's wildlife biologist, Brian Gilbert, to meet us in the field. A few days later, Jim, Brian and I developed some reasonable alternatives that might or might not save habitat security values for elk on this Plum Creek property.
I was satisfied that we had done all we could. Jim was not. He began making almost daily inquiries to officials at all levels in the Lolo National Forest and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. When leads were suggested, Jim followed them, and when they proved to be dead ends, he uncovered new ones. Eventually, he found his way to the Babcock Mountain Land Exchange.
The Babcock project was an active land exchange initiative between the Lolo and Plum Creek, involving many properties across western Montana. Using perseverance and persuasion, Jim earned an opportunity to include the Seeley Lake property in this large land exchange project. This addressed Denny's concerns because the Babcock project was already well down the road to public review and a decision. I would be surprised if Jim made fewer than 50 contacts after we first met Denny, and he ultimately shepherded his proposal through a very challenging process to win protection for this important elk habitat.
No accomplishment of this type ever occurs without a champion, someone who makes sure that papers move from one desk to the next, that communication is maintained between shops, that everything possible is being done. As a private citizen, Jim Clawson took on that role, and his effectiveness set a high standard for the private sector and government specialists alike. Jim's approach was always practical and to the point, his demeanor respectful and appropriate. He understood the differing mandates of Plum Creek and the Forest Service, and the limits within which work could be accomplished.
And now I will repeat, in case you missed it before, that the lower North Fork of Cottonwood Creek would be roaded and logged today if Jim Clawson had not taken it upon himself to get involved.
He deserves our sincerest Thank You.