News & Features

After the Timber Wars

Diverse stakeholders band together to propose Whitefish Range forest plan, reflecting new trend of collaboration

Bob Brown, a former secretary of state and longtime Whitefish legislator, pulled into the snow-caked parking lot outside Ed and Mully’s Restaurant at the base of Big Mountain, his car bearing a bumper sticker that read, “Compromise is not a Four Letter Word.”

Ever the diplomat, Brown was there to broker a meeting organized by a coalition of longtime adversaries turned unlikely bedfellows — tree huggers and tree cutters, eco-warriors and timber sawyers, hikers, horsemen, mountain bikers, cabin owners and nearly everyone else with a stake in the management of public lands on the Flathead National Forest.

They represented three-dozen interest groups who historically clashed over public land use on Montana’s forests; who for decades pitted wilderness against timber production, non-motorized against motorized recreation, commercial interests against wildlife. They were advocates accustomed to digging in their heels, entrenched in their ideologies and not given to making concessions.

Words like “compromise” did not figure prominently into their lexicon and, crushed between opposing forces, they didn’t accomplish much. No new wilderness, no new logs for the mills.

But when Brown walked into the bar at Whitefish Mountain Resort on a recent brisk November evening, something was different. Loggers were hobnobbing with wilderness advocates. Mountain bikers were raising keg cups of local microbrew alongside backcountry horsemen. Rafters and snowmobilers and trail builders were ladling chili out of the same crockpot.

The longtime adversaries had just spent 13 months thrashing out the details of a proposal that covers the vast chunk of the Whitefish Range that lies in the Flathead National Forest, and they were gathered to celebrate an accord that represented the interests of all stakeholders who came together on a proposed management plan for 300,000 acres of Flathead National Forest.

Even the two “mayors of the North Fork,” Larry Wilson and John Frederick, who are about as far apart on the land-use spectrum as two people can be, managed to find a middle ground.

“This is a great success,” Wilson, an opponent of new wilderness whose tenure in the North Fork runs 66 years, said. “What our group discovered during this year-long process was that it did not end up being a give-and-take process. In the end, everyone gained something without losing anything of substance. We made sure everyone got something.”

Frederick, a fervent wilderness advocate, added, “What was special about this particular collaboration is that, after a period of time, the people trusted each other. Without trust you’ll get nowhere.”

The success and trust that Wilson and Frederick refer to was built by the Whitefish Range Partnership, a yearlong collaborative with the aim of reaching community consensus on future management of the Whitefish Range — the mountains that rise above Whitefish and Columbia Falls. The vast majority of the Whitefish Range is under the management of the Flathead National Forest, which is revising its forest service plan for the first time since 1986.

The draft management plan covers about one-seventh of the Flathead National Forest’s 2.4 million acres, and includes Big Mountain, the Tuchuck and Thompson-Seton inventoried roadless area, as well as a patchwork of timberlands, forest roads, old bike trails, remote campgrounds and fire lookouts.

The western boundary of the Whitefish Range tracks along the Lincoln-Flathead county line. The Canadian border and a transboundary wildlife corridor cross its northern edge. The North Fork of the Flathead River, a federal Wild and Scenic River, and Glacier National Park mark the eastern boundary.

In 2006 the Flathead Forest came out with a draft management plan that included wilderness recommendations for the Thompson-Seton and Tuchuck roadless areas overlooking the northernmost portion of the North Fork, but the draft plan was withdrawn in 2008 because of litigation. Now the forest is operating under planning rules approved in 2012, which emphasize collaboration and public engagement.

Through the Whitefish Range Partnership, its members hoped to take advantage of the new standard.

On Dec. 5, the Flathead Forest launches its own collaborative sessions on its forest plan — a document that guides all uses and activities on the national forest — and Chip Weber, Flathead National Forest Supervisor, said the Whitefish Range Partnership sets a model example and provides critical input to inform the process.

“This may be very close to, if not exactly what we end up doing,” Weber told the group at its Nov. 18 meeting, after the members presented him with a lengthy draft plan, the product of more than a year of bi-weekly meetings. “You were first out of the gate, you’ve put in an incredible amount of work and you’ve given us a lot to think about.”

“What the people did here was some yeomen’s work,” he added later. “This group helped set a good example and a model for others to look at.”

In the past, litigation was the choice tool for many environmental groups trying to force change on public lands, in Montana and across the West. But the lawsuits often blocked restoration projects and increased analysis requirements, leading to what former Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth disdainfully termed “analysis paralysis.”

The Whitefish Range Partnership is proof that the dynamic is changing. Many environmental and interest groups have engaged the decision making process from a different angle: collaboration.

Michael Jamison of the National Parks Conservation Association helped organize the planning efforts, and said the aim of the group was to see if its members could hash out a blueprint for the future of the Flathead before the federal agency launched its own planning process.

“We wanted to be the first out of the chute and take management of our public forests into our own hands,” he said. “This was organic and totally locally driven. These are people who were tired of not getting along with their neighbors, tired of shouting and suing, so they got together and talked.”

It wasn’t always easy.

It took 13 months just to strike an accord on the Whitefish Range, and more than 2 million acres of additional forest fall under the Flathead National Forest’s purview. Numerous other groups will weigh in before the Forest Service announces its final environmental impact statement and record of decision in 2016, including those that lie on the radical fringe, and they won’t necessarily reach the same consensus.

Joe Krueger, team leader for the forest plan revision, said the dynamics of the partnership were thorny at times, and some members were fundamentally opposed to others’ beliefs, particularly as they pertained to proposed designated wilderness. In the end, nobody left the table, and everybody gained something.

“I’ve seen attempts at this, but in 26 years this is the first time I’ve seen a group like this stick it out,” Krueger said.

In order to stick it out, the group established parameters. The members agreed that nothing would move forward without consensus and that no agreement on a single issue was final without unanimous approval of the entire package.

“Nothing was final until everything was final because everything is interconnected,” Jamison said. “They lock together like a puzzle.”

Maybe Brown and his tenets on compromise weren’t so far off base.

In the last decade, trends in forest management have tended more toward stakeholder engagement and community-based collaboration to provide input on the management of national forests nationwide. The 2012 National Forest Management Planning Rule codifies the trend with a requirement that national forests provide an opportunity for citizens to collaborate both with other stakeholders and forest managers on future management of national forests.

The Flathead National Forest is one of the first forests to implement the new rules, and Brown, who chaired the Whitefish Range Partnership, said the stakeholders wanted to lead at the vanguard.

Sunrise along the North Fork of the Flathead River on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013. – Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

To accomplish that, they looked at past collaborations and their bylaws.

Gordy Sanders, of Pyramid Mountain Lumber, attended the partnership’s first meeting. Sanders helped establish the Blackfoot Challenge, which mended rifts between ranchers, rafters, hunters and loggers in the Blackfoot River drainage northeast of Missoula. He was also a critical force in the Southwest Crown of the Continent collaborative, which established a large Forest Service land-use project in western Montana.

“I learned a long time ago that it’s better to talk to each other rather than about each other,” Sanders said. “When you assemble a collaborative of different interests and perspectives, what happens is that folks learn that whatever they thought in terms of a stereotype about a group, that goes away. Once they actually talk to each other there is a lot more common ground than anyone would ever have believed.”

In Montana, some of the best examples of local collaborations were born of intense infighting among polarized factions. In the Yaak Valley, the timber wars persisted for decades – environmental absolutists monkey wrenched and out-of-work loggers retaliated.

In some cases, the feuding came to blows. There were threats and violence, while other arguments were laid out in court papers and mired in plodding legal battles.

“We were still getting in fist fights in the local bars over these issues,” Robyn King, executive director of the Yaak Valley Forest Council, said. “There were lots of threats. It was the timber wars.”

By the turn of the century, the strategy still wasn’t working and King realized it would be more effective to stitch together a collaborative.

“It became clear that all of the fighting was getting us nowhere. No new wilderness, the timber production just kept going down, the access issues were heating up instead of cooling down. We realized we had been yelling at each other for years about what we don’t want. Let’s talk about what we do want,” she said.

King brought forest management in the Yaak to the neighborhood level and created coalitions around common ground. Their efforts wound up rolled into a timber-and-wilderness bill proposed by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., which designates some lands wilderness, opens some for logging, sets some aside for motorized recreation and designates others non-motorized.

The bill, which also cobbles together efforts in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and the Seeley Lake area, is called the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act and was first introduced in 2009. The product of negotiations by Montana’s timber-industry and conservation groups, it is making its way through the U.S. Senate, awaiting action in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee four years after its introduction.

Repeated polling shows that more than 70 percent of Montanans support the forest jobs bill, which was constructed by former adversaries staking out common ground. Still, it is unlikely to be passed into law any time soon.

The success of the local, bottom-up collaborations underscores the gridlock at the federal level, where partisan politics have kept public lands bills from moving forward, but it does not cut through the snarl-up.

“Some of these local collaborations have taken a hit because of the gridlock in Washington,” Robert Saldin, associate professor of political science at the University of Montana, said. “These things have broad supports and have now for years, and still they have no traction at the federal level. Tester’s forest jobs bill is not the new kid on the block that it was in 2009. It has a lot of support but it hasn’t gone anywhere. How much more organizing and rallying and getting people to write letters can you do? It seems the work at the grassroots level has paid off in all these instances, and yet it is hard to get any momentum in Washington for these big, large-scale things. It’s got to be demoralizing to these local groups.”

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus’ Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which also represents a diverse mix of interest groups, recently made headlines and prompted much handshaking when the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee unanimously approved the bill. The legislation would create a conservation management area for 208,000 acres while preserving existing motorized use and recreation, and allowing access for hunting, biking and grazing. It also adds 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.

Yet, Saldin was skeptical that the bill would find the same level of support in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“For all the excitement from the bill’s supporters about it getting through committee, it is still a huge open question of how it’s going to make it through the House of Representatives,” he said. “I have yet to hear any plausible rationale for how the thing gets through the House, even though the polling out there is very clear that Montanans support it.”

Meanwhile, at the local level, a mining company and pro-wilderness group recently teamed up on the new Kootenai National Forest Plan. On the heels of the development of that plan, Revett Minerals, Inc., and the Montana Wilderness Association came together to draft a plan designating part of the Scotchman Peaks Roadless Area as a wilderness. If approved, the wilderness boundary would fall within a mile of Revett’s Troy Mine.

Disputes over land use, timber, recreation and wilderness will continue as long as there is public land, and King is careful to acknowledge that cooperation doesn’t come easy when so much is at stake.

But a collaborative process helps avoid the pitfalls of acrimony, she said, and it’s the best strategy looking to the future.

“Most of us are more interested in moving forward, not looking back,” King wrote in a recent op-ed piece. “The Timber Wars of the late 20th century are over. Montanans fought to a draw, and we all lost. Everybody could stay sore about that, but where would that get us? For forest-dependent communities throughout Montana, perpetuating the conflict of the past is a losing proposition.”

The final Whitefish Range Partnership proposal increases the sustainable timber base from 55,000 acres to 90,000 acres while bestowing wilderness advocates with 85,000 acres of recommended federally protected land. Private property owners concerned about wilderness encroaching on their backyard proposed a buffer zone that allows for logging and fuel reduction around their lands, about a mile before the non-motorized use zone begins. Mountain bikers were recognized for their trail-building efforts in the North Fork and around Whitefish.

The proposal is tentative and the Forest Service will add to the public process through Spring of 2014. But the Whitefish Range Partnership was first out of the gate, and it’s unlikely that other groups will present so uniform and collaborative an agreement.
For Brown’s part, he’s proud that he stuck by his conviction of compromise, and while it might be surprising that such a diverse group, whose members represented so many interests, could see eye to eye, it makes perfect sense to those who gutted it out through so many meetings.

“I think everyone involved in this process still believes exactly what they believed going into it. They just learned that for their interest to gain something other interests don’t have to lose something,” Brown said. “At the end, everyone with an interest who was involved in this process feels they ended up better off than when we started.”

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