Lincoln County Group Looks to Move Past ‘Timber Wars’

By Beacon Staff

There was much evidence last week that the infamous era of “Timber Wars” in northwest Montana seems to have gone out with, not so much a bang, as a whimper. That isn’t to say that disputes over land use, timber, recreation and wilderness won’t continue as long as there is public land. But the interests involved in such disputes seem to be looking toward processes that might get them some of what they want, if not everything, while avoiding some of the deep acrimony that arises from such disagreements.

Take, for example, the “Three Rivers Challenge,” a plan assembled by the Lincoln County Coalition, a diverse group of residents that includes everyone from fishing guides to mill operators, from motorized vehicle lovers to conservationists. The group’s plan to participate in the management of the Kootenai National Forest’s Three Rivers Ranger District was borne out of a collective feeling of exhaustion and frustration that so many land use issues end up being decided in the courts, and too often divide communities in the process.

“All the fighting has caused the timber side of the argument to continually lose,” Wayne Hirst, a Libby logger and accountant, said in an interview last week. “We’ve done nothing for 20 years – look where it’s gotten us.”

“In Lincoln County, forest management has been broken,” he added. “Somehow, we have to make compromises and move ahead.”

Hirst was joined by Robyn King, executive director of the Yaak Valley Forest Council, who were in Kalispell last week to spread the word about the Three Rivers Challenge at a “Working Forests” conference hosted by Gov. Brian Schweitzer. The Lincoln County Coalition has spent years hammering out a management plant for Three Rivers with a little bit for everyone: setting aside some protected Wilderness, like Roderick Mountain, preserving trails for ATV and snowmobiles, and allowing for logging in other areas to keep the forest healthy and preserve timber jobs.

“We believe that on 2.5 million acres of land, we should be able to find, at the local level, some common ground,” King said. “In Lincoln County, we don’t want to lose our wood processing industry and we almost have.”

The group has drafted a proposal and forwarded it to Montana’s federal delegation in hopes that it could eventually become law, thus establishing a kind of prototype for other management areas elsewhere in the region. King and Hirst said their coalition understands the U.S. Forest Service retains jurisdiction over the Kootenai Forest, but hopes a plan can be put into place allowing more input into local decisions.

“We’re asking that a resource advisory council be created for the special project area,” King said, adding that this council would, “make sure if we have appeals, that we work very closely together to settle appeals on the ground, not in the court.”

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