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June 03, 2010

Imperial Oil has been the subject of considerable pooh-poohing around Missoula this spring. Just this week, Northern Rockies Rising Tide—that growing voice of opposition to climate injustice—scheduled a string of events culminating in a Thursday rally outside the Montana Department of Transportation's West Broadway office. Approving the proposal will establish, they say, a hazardous high-and-wide corridor through our state.

But Highway 200 isn't the only trail in the state attracting activists with the promise of an environmental standoff. The Swan View Coalition, a grassroots conservation group out of Kalispell, threatened last week to sue the U.S. Forest Service if the agency doesn't put a stop to a 100-mile, 50-runner footrace along the Swan Mountain Range planned for late July. At the very least, the group wants an Environmental Assessment before anyone says, "On your mark."

Apparently Adidas and Lycra short-shorts are as much a cause for ecological concern as high-and-wide loads near the Blackfoot, even if they aren't worn by Richard Simmons.

Keith Hammer, chair of the Swan View Coalition, says the concerns are simple: By allowing the organizers of the Swan Crest Run a special use permit for backcountry trails in the Flathead National Forest, the Forest Service is opening up a precedent for commercial use of the Swan Range. That use could manifest itself in intrusive, even destructive, ways—mountain bike races, motorcycle competitions, a fly-over sequence on CBS's "The Amazing Race." Think of the grizzlies, Hammer says, and think of the lynx.

Run organizer Brad Lamson isn't buying it. The group behind the Swan Crest Run has been operating small-scale endurance events in the area for nearly a decade. The Forest Service has seemingly never had a problem, granting special use permits for each race. This is the longest and most crowded run so far, Lamson admits, but 50 runners staggered over 100 miles hardly constitutes a major threat to local wildlife habitat—and certainly not enough to warrant an all-out assault on an event that raises money partly for backcountry trail work.

The critics droning on about precedents—Imperial Oil and the Swan Crest Run alike—have a good point. Give one guy an inch and the next will strip-mine the shirt off your back. But does a grassroots endurance test really set a precedent for large-scale commercialization of the Swan?

Unlike the threat of future high-and-wide projects—like that requested recently by ConocoPhilips—we feel the comparison is kind of apples and oranges or, more appropriately, Nikes and Goodyears.

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