Flathead National Forest Proposes Updated Management Blueprint

Revised forest plan identifies possible increases to wilderness, timber production and recreation opportunities

By Dillon Tabish
Beacon File Photos

Setting the stage for more than 2,000 pages of scientific research, new guidelines and contentious proposals, the cover of the modified management plan for the Flathead National Forest cites a symbolic quote.

“Where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question shall always be answered from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.”

Indeed, the well-known saying by Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, remains as relevant as the day it was written in 1905, and its merits are being put to the test as the agency unrolls the historic makeover of its sweeping management plan for the 2.4 million acre tract of federal land in Northwest Montana, where a rapidly growing population is placing increasing pressure on the wild interior.

After nearly three years of public meetings and analysis, the agency released the draft version of its revised forest plan on May 27, unveiling a proposed blueprint for everything within the Flathead National Forest, from recreational opportunities to designated wilderness, timber production, wildlife and habitat.

»»» Click here to read the draft forest plan revision.

The agency has developed four alternatives within the plan that include varying degrees of priorities.

For example, two of the four alternatives identify 98,000 to 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.

Another alternative puts a 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.

Forest Service officials have not selected a preferred alternative and are opening the massive long-term steering document to public comment. The public scoping period will last 120 days and close Oct. 3.

»»» Click here for a comparison of alternatives.

“We very much see value in each of the alternatives stated. That’s really true. We’re in a listening mode,” Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber said in an interview this week.

Unique to this forest plan, the agency has included a management strategy for grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, a 9,600-square-mile area spanning Northwest Montana and including the Helena, Lewis and Clark, Lolo and Kootenai national forests. The strategy would guide habitat management for grizzlies in the event they are removed from the list of threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, a proposal that is likely to emerge in the coming years.

Forest officials will host an informational meeting at the Flathead National Forest Office, 650 Wolfpack Way, in Kalispell on June 20 from 2-6 p.m.

Joe Krueger, project leader and forest planner, led a core team of 10 people with a wide range of backgrounds, including an economist and a social scientist, to craft the revised forest plan, which is being fully updated for the first time since 1986. The process of updating the plan and developing the grizzly bear management amendment has cost $2.4 million to date, according to the Forest Service.

The plan’s importance cannot be understated — it lays out the long-term guidelines for supervising the 10th largest national forest in the U.S.

“The Crown of the Continent is one of the most intact ecosystems in the world. Our plan is designed to sustain that ecologic function,” Weber said.

Weber said the plan is designed to allow the agency to manage the forest to be resilient in the face of several factors, including a growing population and climate change, while also providing for social and economic sustainability.

Weber said the plan is designed to be flexible and allow the agency to respond to social and ecological changes, while also “reflecting the best available science.”

A year ago, the agency released the initial draft revision and received over 20,000 comments. The forest plan team reviewed the comments and tweaked several aspects of the plan and designated the four alternatives, Krueger said.

“Some of those comments really helped us make that proposed action better,” Krueger said.

Krueger emphasized that the comment period is not a voting process; instead the agency wants constructive input.

“We want to have some informed comments so we can narrow that choice,” Krueger said. “This has been a complex effort. It’s taken a regional effort to get the analysis completed. I’ve done a lot of environmental impact statements in my 28-year career and this has challenged me more than any of them.”

During last year’s scoping period, a large portion of people expressed support for frontcountry recreation opportunities, such as mountain biking and hiking trails relatively close to the valley floor. Each of the alternatives includes varying degrees of new frontcountry opportunities and propose a range of “focused recreation areas” from roughly 30,000 acres up to 61,000 acres.

“We’re trying to have a balanced plan that provides on this landscape opportunities for all of those uses in a way that is sustainable both economically and ecologically,” Weber said.

If grizzlies are delisted, the Forest Service could allow new uses, such as logging, in previously protected areas but would have to maintain standards that were in place around 2011, when a baseline for the “healthy” grizzly population was established, Krueger said.

“If people think it’s a dramatic relaxation of grizzly bear standards, that’s not true,” he said.

The alternatives identify a range of timber suitability, from 13 percent to 22 percent of the forest, and approximately 22 million to 29 million board feet projected to be available annually.

In preparing for a complex issue such as climate change, the agency is seeking to “build resiliency” in the forest, whether it’s helping protect cold water habitat that is vital for bull trout or adding buffer zones to protect sensitive areas.

The plan is designed to have a robust monitoring strategy that allows the agency to respond if certain ecological standards dwindle, Weber said.

“We have the most intact ecosystem you’re going to find anywhere,” he said. “We have to continue to protect that.”

The Forest Service plans to have a final plan with a record of decision published next spring.

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