Keith Hammer lives in the foothills of the Jewel Basin, a tract of alpine forest off the shoulder of Flathead Lake that’s set aside for backpacking, fishing and plant and wildlife viewing. His front yard and small home sit in relative solitude amid 5.5 acres of mostly wild land his father gave him and where he has lived since 1980. It’s the sylvan landscape where he grew up, after his father moved the family of four kids from central New York to the Flathead Valley in the early 1960s to accept a demotion working at the Creston Fish Hatchery just so they could be in Montana.
From this setting, Hammer, 60, has dug his heels into the ground and become one of the most well known — and some would say notorious — environmental activists in the state. Thirty years ago he helped form the Swan View Coalition, which has evolved into an outdoors advocate and lightning rod for land users and the timber industry. As president of the local group, he has frequently sued the U.S. Forest Service over land management decisions and proposed projects, all in the name of protecting public land and wildlife.
Supporters cheer Hammer’s ongoing efforts, but his critics decry his constant protest.
“It seems like every record of decision that’s coming out is getting a lawsuit filed on it for whatever reason,” Julia Altemus, executive vice president of the Montana Wood Products Association, which promotes the state’s logging industry, says of environmental groups like Hammer’s. “These groups are just cutting and pasting lawsuits.”
Hammer sees it differently and describes himself as a watchdog playing an important role.
“We’re given no choice unfortunately,” he says. “We let them know we’re going to enforce these standards and rules. The agency brings on the problem by trying to shirk their responsibility or lower the standards rather than just doing what they said they were going to do.”
As a young man, Hammer gained an intimate knowledge of the woods by being around his dad, an outdoor enthusiast who fished and hunted.
“I was the youngest of four kids and we stuck with those hobbies and pursuits. He instilled that in us kids,” he says.
Hammer also gained experience from cutting trail as a seasonal employee with the Forest Service and then spending eight years hauling a chainsaw as a full-time logger.
Fate intervened when his passion for the outdoors and varied hands-on experience collided in the early 1980s. Hammer was back in the Swan Valley helping his brother build a home when he found neighbors were up in arms about a proposed timber sale in the nearby mountainside. The Forest Service was planning a large harvest in Noisy Basin, an expansive acreage within the Flathead National Forest. The sale allowed the development of 30 miles of new logging road and a dozen 20-acre clear-cuts on the face of the Swan Range between Lake Blaine and Ferndale.
In the eyes of some residents, the proposed sale threatened a large section of land that was not only picturesque for the entire valley but also a vital water source for homes along the forest’s foothills.
“The neighborhood got ahold of me because they knew I’d worked logging and I’d worked for the Forest Service,” Hammer says, adding, “I didn’t know anything about the laws and regulations. I just knew what good logging and bad logging looked like.”
Hammer joined the fight and in 1984 he formally organized the Swan View Coalition as a nonprofit organization made up of concerned local residents. They hosted letter-writing parties to lobby support from the valley’s residents and Hammer attended every meeting held by forest managers. A year later, the group achieved a hallmark decision by successfully halting the Noisy Face timber sale after documents surfaced that showed the Forest Service was deceiving the public over its intentions for meeting established quality standards.
It was a David vs. Goliath victory and propelled the Swan View Coalition to the local forefront of the environmental movement while riling up those in the timber business who saw it as a major blow to the industry. The decision also served to set Hammer on the new course he eventually followed.
“If the science gets ignored in the public debate, and especially in the political process, that’s when fish and wildlife always come out on the bottom of the pile, because it’s people talking about what they want, and we all have our own selfish needs,” Hammer says.
At the same time, several people consider Hammer’s litigious methods as one of the fundamental examples of obstructionism when it comes to public land management.
Altemus says environmental groups suing on a regular basis are only hampering local economies and inevitably harming the forests’ health. Constant litigation can stall a project for years and cost millions in court fees, and Hammer’s group has become a poster-child catalyst, along with other organizations based throughout the West, such as Defenders of Wildlife and The Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
Just this month, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen blocked a logging project in the Kootenai National Forest over concerns that roads built for harvesting may harm a threatened population of grizzly bears. The Alliance for the Wild Rockies sued the Forest Service over the 36,600-acre Pilgrim project last year.
“The lawsuits are only increasing,” Altemus says. “This is the problem. This is what needs to be fixed. When we’re not harvesting the trees, it’s like a garden – if you don’t remove trees before they die, habitat deteriorates. Then it burns. Then you’re degrading your air quality. It’s also hurting the timber industry and it’s hurting your community. It’s hurting the school system. It’s hurting everybody who relies on timber receipts.”
According to Altemus, there are over 200 million board feet of timber currently held up in litigation in Montana, nearly twice as much as in 2012 but still below the recent high of 500 million in 2007.
Amid this ongoing tug of war it might be easy to assume Hammer would be on board with supporters who want to take federal lands away from the Forest Service. Not so.
“On one hand, the federal government is the problem but on the other hand they have to be part of the solution. The thing that’s absolutely certain is that if these federal lands were state controlled, let alone private, it would be way worse,” he says.
He points to the era in Montana’s early history when the Anaconda Copper Mining Company ran the state with a heavy hand. He believes selling off public lands that the state couldn’t manage would only harm the economy and eliminate beloved resources.
“We all have our beefs with the federal government. But let’s be reasonable about it. There are reasons that we have government,” he says. “You have to work with the federal government to move it in the right direction and reform it where you can. But my biggest concern is that government and bureaucracy move so slow that a lot of these species will wink out if we don’t act on it.”
Chip Weber, supervisor of the Flathead National Forest the last four years, says the agency does the best it can in a complex situation.
“The biggest challenge is that we work for 300 million bosses and they don’t agree on what we should do,” Weber says.
In his 28-year career working for the agency, Weber has seen the debate surface before over federal land management. He welcomes constructive criticism, he said, and described Hammer and other members of the public who provide input as important to managing public land.
“Our mission is so broad and I’m glad it’s broad. And I think we serve the American people better by having it be broad,” he says, adding, “In the best of worlds, you use conflicts to arrive at a better decision and that’s what we try to do. I believe the Forest Service is the best land management agency in the world, the best conservation entity in the world.”
As for Hammer, he remains as involved as ever. The Flathead National Forest is in the middle of revising its forest plan, a major undertaking that will set the local agency’s direction for decades to come. Of course, Hammer has leafed through almost every page and combed over every sentence. He’s already raised public concerns over the planning effort and a recent collaboration involving the Whitefish Range Partnership, alienating himself, as he says, from former allies.
Does he ever get tired of being the squeaky wheel or constantly being involved in controversy and contention?
“I’m pretty used to it. If you don’t have a pretty thick skin, you shouldn’t get into being an activist in any cause on either side of the political debate,” he says. “If you’re going to be politically active, you’re going to have to take some lumps and live with the bad stuff people say about you. At the same time, you take note of the good things that people say about you, because you get support. If we didn’t get support we wouldn’t be here 30 years later.”