Becker Lake

Becker Lake in the Beartooth Mountains is within the High Lakes Wilderness Study Area.

Soon the Beartooth Highway will open for the summer season. This annual event is eagerly anticipated by skiers who flock to the Beartooth Pass to ride the poma lift at Beartooth Basin, ski road-accessible laps off of the Rock Creek and Gardner Lakes headwalls, and launch longer trips into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness where there is no shortage of snowy places to explore.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Split between Wyoming and Montana, the Absaroka-Beartooth contains Montana’s highest peak; wild critters including grizzly bears, elk, and bighorn sheep; and, is a world-class recreation destination that brings visitors from across the globe and helps to fuel our region’s economy. As we celebrate this anniversary, it’s time to look at how we can build off of the amazing legacy given to us by the people with the foresight to protect the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Before us right now are two ways we can carry this torch in 2018. In Montana, you can weigh in this year as the Custer Gallatin National Forest makes its next 30-year plan for the forest. And in Wyoming, a local collaborative is working towards deciding the future of the High Lakes Wilderness Study Area.

Collaborative plan

Located between the Beartooth Highway and Montana, the High Lakes WSA includes Twin Lakes, Emerald Lake, Heart Lake, and Becker Lake among many others. It is a treasured landscape for many people who enjoy visiting it in all seasons to hike, fish, and snowmobile. It also includes many of the steep, snowy chutes that draw skiers to the Beartooth Pass each spring. For the past 34 years the High Lakes area has been managed to retain its wilderness character, ensuring that the fragile tundra and pristine lakes within it have remained protected even as recreational use has increased.

Over the past two years a collaborative group of locals in Park County, Wyoming, have been working to come up with a plan for the future of the High Lakes, with an eye to putting their proposal in a bill that would be sponsored by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming. The goal is to resolve the uncertainty around WSA management by releasing the WSA and designating the collaborative’s proposal in its place. Unfortunately, just as stakeholders were discussing possible compromises that would protect the High Lakes while supporting appropriate recreational uses, two things happened.

Cheney's 2 bills

First, Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney announced that she’d be sponsoring two of her own bills that would impact WSAs in Wyoming. In response to this announcement, the Park County commissioners imposed a March 30 deadline on the local collaborative. Under this arbitrary deadline, the collaborative was not able to reach consensus and the commissioners drafted their own proposal, going against the initial idea of figuring out a plan everybody supported.

The Park County proposal would eliminate existing protections within the High Lakes and provide no certainty for the future.

We have the opportunity to build off of the conservation legacy established in the Beartooths 40 years ago. Unfortunately, politics have gotten in the way of collaboration and the Park County commissioners’ proposal for the High Lakes is likely to be yet another example of politicians cutting away at our wild places.

We don’t think the entire High Lakes WSA should be designated wilderness. But it’s too special of a place to drop all of the protections that have existed for the past 30 years. With more than 14,000 acres in the High Lakes, there’s room for both snowmobiling to continue and to designate additional wilderness. This sort of compromise would meet the interests of all who have a stake in the High Lakes and be a fitting tribute to acknowledge 40 years of wilderness in the Beartooths.

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Austin Hart owns and operates Beartooth Mountain Guides and Beartooth Basin Summer Ski Area, based in Red Lodge and is winter caretaker for his family ranch near the High Lakes WSA. Beau Fredlund, of Cooke City, owns and operates Yellowstone Ski Tours and guides for Beartooth Mountain Guides. Hilary Eisen, of Bozeman, is policy director at Winter Wildlands Alliance.