As the revised Flathead National Forest Plan enters the most recent phase of public comment, members of a diverse coalition of stakeholders who collaborated on the draft document are regrouping to weave a spirit of collaboration into the final plan.
Formed in 2012, the Whitefish Range Partnership is a coalition of longtime adversaries who banded together to help inform management of public lands on the Flathead National Forest.
After nearly three years of meetings and analysis, the Flathead National Forest released the draft version of its revised forest plan last month, unveiling a proposed blueprint for all aspects of management on the Flathead National Forest, from recreational opportunities to designated wilderness, timber production, wildlife and habitat.
But the U.S. Forest Service did not select a preferred alternative among its four proposals before opening the massive long-term steering document to public comment, which will last 120 days and close Sept. 26.
That was cause for surprise by some members of the partnership, who said none of the alternatives featured a singular measured balance of forest uses the group worked so hard to craft.
Dave Hadden, of Headwaters Montana, who was tasked with drafting the initial recommended wilderness document for the Whitefish Range Partnership, said elements of the collaborative process are scattered throughout the various alternatives, but none of them weave the tapestry of balance the group strove to achieve.
“I’m personally surprised that there was no preferred alternative, given the considerable amount of public input and comment that the Forest Service has already received,” Hadden said. “The bottom line is that you don’t see any of the collaborative elements within the document, so ultimately the partnership will work to reiterate the areas that it was able to agree on.”
The Whitefish Range Partnership represented three-dozen interest groups who historically clashed over public land use on Montana’s forests and sought to strike a balance that blended new wilderness with timber production, married non-motorized with motorized recreation, and commercial interests with wildlife protections.
Specifically, the longtime adversaries thrashed out the details of a proposal that covers the vast chunk of the Whitefish Range that lies in the Flathead National Forest, coming together on a proposed management plan for 300,000 acres – a relatively small fraction of the 2.4 million acres of federal land that make up the local national forest, but requiring a significant amount of compromise and concessions.
The Forest Service has developed four alternatives within the plan that include varying degrees of priorities.
Two of the four alternatives identify a range of between 98,000 and 506,919 acres of recommended wilderness while a fourth alternative proposes no additional recommended wilderness.
One alternative emphasizes a more active management approach through timber harvest and other mechanical means, identifying up to 22 percent of the forest as suitable for timber production.
And yet another alternative places heavy emphasis on adding more backcountry and non-motorized recreation opportunities, while all of the alternatives identify added options for so-called frontcountry recreation.
The proposals identify seven threatened or endangered species and 32 species of conservation concern, including 25 plant species, six terrestrials and one aquatic.
Members of the partnership say no single alternative is tenable on its own, at least at first blush.
Paul McKenzie, lands and resource manager for F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber, said the document as a whole captures a range of elements the group tried to come together and meet in the middle on, but the final version will likely require piecing together the varied interests.
“I think they did a reasonable job of at least capturing the points people were trying to make in the collaborative process,” McKenzie said. “There are parts and pieces of certain things like wilderness, timber and recreation uses that will have to be parsed out. I think we’ll find that there is going to be a significant amount of feedback and there will have to be another alternative that cobbles together these different pieces to create a balance. But right now we’re just scratching the surface.”
Joe Krueger, team leader for the forest plan revision, has said that the dynamics of the partnership were important in informing the plan, and that the agency is eager to receive constructive feedback through the public comment period.
Sarah Lundstrum of the National Parks Conservation Association, which helped broker the partnership, said the diverse stakeholders spent more than a year figuring out “how to speak in one voice,” and the draft plan makes clear that the group has more work ahead.
The group met with Forest Service officials on Stoltze property on June 13 to begin hashing out the finer points of the plan’s environmental impact statement.
“This will be the first in-depth opportunity for members to look at what the Forest Service has produced,” Lundstrum said. “I agree that none of these alternatives alone capture the spirit of what we recommended, so I think there is going to be a lot of picking and choosing from what the Forest Service put out and weaving back together a plan that the partnership agreed on.”