Swan Crest run challenged

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A 100-mile run on the Swan Crest planned in late July has run into opposition from an environmental activist who says the U.S. Forest Service has failed to properly consider the impacts of the event.

“The overall thrust of my complaint is that the cart is way ahead of the horse,” said Keith Hammer, chairman of the Swan View Coalition, a group with a lengthy history of litigation against the Flathead National Forest.

The event’s organizers have taken entry fees for the 50-person run before they even applied for a special-use permit for the event, said Hammer, who believes that the Forest Service should have started a public review for a permit well in advance of the July 29-31 event.

The race would begin in the town of Swan Lake, take runners north along the Swan Crest and finish in Columbia Falls.

“As best as I can tell, this was greased and ready to go,” Hammer said.

But that’s not the case, according to Swan Lake District Ranger Rich Kehr.

A review of a permit application couldn’t start until it was submitted, and organizers didn’t submit their application until May 13, Kehr said.

“That part we don’t really have any control over,” Kehr said.

Hammer said he believes the impacts of the run, particularly on grizzly bears, rise to the level of requiring an environment assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act.

“Our review will determine what’s appropriate,” Kehr said. “We’ll consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service to determine whether there’s any extraordinary circumstances.”

Permits for other runs and races on the Flathead National Forest, including previous 57-kilometer races held by the Swan Crest 100 organizers, have been approved without environmental assessments.

“It was always approved,” said Brad Lamson, one of the race organizers. “The NEPA thing didn’t come up until Keith brought it up. It had never, ever been a problem before, until Keith got involved.”

Lamson considers Hammer’s claims about the impacts of 50 runners on grizzly bears to be groundless, and he rejects the characterization of the run as being “some huge commercial endeavor.”

The run is sponsored by Hammer Nutrition, a local company that specializes in endurance foods and supplements and has no connection to Keith Hammer. Lamson said entry fees will go toward supporting the event, with remaining money going to the Montana Conservation Corps for trail work on the Swan Mountain Range.

“It just seems his reasoning has no basis and no standing,” Lamson said of Hammer’s claims. “It’s not a wilderness area.”

In correspondence with the Flathead National Forest, Hammer said the run violates “numerous grizzly bear core security areas through high-intensity human uses not allowed there under the Flathead Forest Plan.”

Hammer claims the run “will displace grizzly bears” and he has urged the event’s organizers to relocate the race to “trails outside sensitive roadless areas, proposed wilderness areas and threatened grizzly bear habitat.”

Hammer added that, “while folks certainly have the right to run on Forest Service trails if they wish, group events that encourage such ill-advised activity in the habitat of forest carnivores like grizzly bears and mountain lions are another matter. The Swan Crest 100 Run sends the wrong message to the public about safe and ethical behavior in the backcountry.”

Hammer noted that Glacier National Park discourages running on park trails because of the potential for encountering bears.

“Who is he to say that walking through the forest” is acceptable but running is not, Lamson said. “What’s the difference between walking and jogging effecting the environment?”

Participants in the previous, shorter running events held on the Swan Range have never had encounters with bears or mountain lions, Lamson said.

The Swan Crest 100 participants will be spread out and on their own, with one or two people probably finishing under 24 hours and most finishing in 30 to 36 hours. He predicts that only 20 of the 50 participants will complete the 100 mile run.

Lamson questions how those impacts, occurring once a year, are worse than Hammer’s weekly outings with small groups of people under a hiking club called the Swan Rangers.

“Commercial means you are in this for a monetary gain,” Lamson said, noting that Hammer uses the Swan Rangers hikes to recruit support for the Swan View Coalition, which provides him a source of income.

Regardless of how organizers characterize the event or what they do with entry fees, it is still a commercial event, Hammer said, and that’s another reason it warrants an environmental assessment.

“We’re just saying that the race organizers and the Forest Service need to be responsible and follow the law,” said Hammer, who was the driving force in litigation that led to road-density standards to improve grizzly habitat on the Flathead National Forest in the mid-1990s.

If an environmental assessment isn’t conducted for the Swan Crest 100 Run, he added, “it may be challenged, and we very well may challenge it.”

Hammer said he also is concerned that the run could set a precedent, clearing the way for future races with more participants or similar events involving mountain bikes or motorcycles.

“We feel this sets a very bad precedent and message,” he said. “People should be very aware of where they are, and they should appreciate where they are rather than trying to go 100 miles as fast as they can.”

Lamson said about 80 percent of the event’s participants are from out of the area, contributing economic benefits to the community and generating a growing constituency for the Swan Range.

“Keith has his own agenda,” Lamson said. “If he could, I think he would shut the Swan off and save it for himself.”

Kehr said in addition to consulting with the Fish and Wildlife Service about possible environmental impacts from the run, the Swan Lake district soon will conduct a “scoping” period to collect public comment on the run.

“I really can’t tell you how this evaluation is going to turn out,” he said. “We’ll do our best to complete this process in a timely manner.”

Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by e-mail at jmann@dailyinterlake.com

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