To borrow the words of a good friend, our National Forests are like a big sandbox and we all need to figure out how to play together in it.
Finding a balance between protecting the ecological functions of our forests and the ever growing demands placed on them by a burgeoning human population requires hard work and hard decisions. That is the difficult role of the conservationist. That is the challenging work that local collaboratives in Montana and many other states are not shying away from.
I truly believe it is not the ownership of the land that is the problem, but rather the quagmire of conflicting bureaucratic processes we have established over the last 100 years that is to blame for the condition of benign neglect we see on so many of our public lands today. The process problem likely has no local solution.
However, I choose to work locally on solutions that get good work done on the ground. I’m involved in two northwest Montana partnerships, the Whitefish Range Partnership and the Kootenai Forest Stakeholder Coalition. In both of those groups, I work with folks from different backgrounds and with varying interests. We work through the public process in a way that is solution orientated rather than divisive. We rarely share all the same perspectives, but we do share mutual respect. When we look past the old paradigms, we find plenty of common ground.
It is important to remember that the work done by these collaboratives does not replace the public process, but serves to enhance it. When the critics of collaboration choose to stray from factual and productive criticism and fall to the level of name-calling, making statements of untruths and false accusations, they marginalize their usefulness in the dialogue.
In Lincoln County, for example, the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition has worked hard to help the Kootenai National Forest and surrounding communities build a better future. The group includes the timber industry, conservation and wilderness advocates, snowmobilers and local elected officials, among others. The Montana Wilderness Association and other conservation groups are involved in both of these local efforts. In these collaborative groups, I am supportive of more wilderness where wilderness makes sense and that realization does not preclude working towards goals of more active management where that tool is appropriate.
The Kootenai Stakeholders can point to many projects that through its involvement ended up having more recreational opportunities, more resilient wildlife habitat, more watershed restoration and more timber produced than in the original proposals developed solely by the agency.
Some are good at throwing rocks and disagreeing. Doing nothing may be easy and in some minds the “safe” option, but it is not improving our forests or communities. Forest collaboratives are focusing on the future. They are tackling the challenges of how can we provide fiber to meet the needs of society while generating jobs in the community, protect wilderness, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities and clean water. It’s not an either/or world out there.
The trees are growing every day and so is our population. That makes the challenge of the conservationist all the more difficult and more critical. Let’s work together as neighbors in order to address the complex challenges and try to put the personal attacks, frustration and stereotypes aside. We encourage the Montana delegation to take notice of these cooperative solutions for public lands management and follow the example of working together towards common goals.
Paul R. McKenzie is the lands and resource manager at F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Co. in Columbia Falls