Deadline Approaching for Flathead Forest Plan Comments

Agency accepting comments on four alternative approaches to managing national forest

By Dillon Tabish
A hiker enjoys views from the summit of Mt. Aeneas in the Jewel Basin. Beacon File Photo

The U.S. Forest Service has proposed four alternative management plans for the Flathead National Forest, pitching different strategies for recreational opportunities, timber production, wildlife and habitat.

The sweeping proposals are up for public comment through Oct. 3. Comments can be submitted online or via mail to Flathead National Forest Supervisor’s Office, Attn: Forest Plan Revision, 650 Wolfpack Way, Kalispell, Montana 59901.

For the first time since 1986, the Forest Service is crafting an update of its so-called forest plan, which lays out the long-term guidelines for managing the Flathead National Forest, the 10th largest national forest in the U.S.

The Forest Service unveiled the four alternative plans in May and began collecting input on the various proposals, which feature a wide range of options 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. Instead of selecting a preferred alternative, the agency listed four approaches that place different emphasis on different strategies.

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 focuses heavily on adding more backcountry and non-motorized recreation opportunities, while all of the alternatives identify added options for so-called frontcountry recreation, which could increase mountain biking trails.

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

After the comment period closes, the Forest Service will review public input and is expected to release a draft record of decision in April 2017, which will outline the agency’s preferred forest plan. At that point, the agency will collect public comment once again before issuing a final record of decision, which is expected to occur in winter 2017.

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.

As the deadline to comment closes in, various groups across the region have been encouraging input, from conservation groups to recreation organizations.

A collective of local groups and businesses, including the Flathead Fat Tires, F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber, Headwaters Montana, the Montana Wilderness Association and the Flathead Snowmobile Association, formed in 2012 as the Whitefish Range Partnership with the goal of finding common ground on future management of the Whitefish Range, a 300,000-acre section of the Flathead National Forest. Over a 13-month period, the group’s members crafted a partnership agreement outlining more than a dozen recommendations to the Forest Service that sought to strike a balance between new wilderness, timber production, non-motorized and motorized recreation, commercial interests and wildlife protections.

The Forest Service did not adopt the Whitefish Range Partnership’s recommendations in full but did incorporate parts throughout the four alternatives.

The group is in the process of submitting comments to the agency seeking the full collaborative recommendation, according to group leaders.

While comments continue to stream in, some have criticized the Forest Service for asking the public to try and decipher a 2,000-page document that is overly complex.

“There’s just a real lack of simple reference charts — and I find that this is a complex issue — and yet they wrote this in a way that doesn’t anticipate what the layperson’s next questions are likely going to be after they read it,” said Keith Hammer, a long-standing critic of the Forest Service who chairs the Swan View Coalition, a local environmental group.

“I think they’re making it a lot more complex than they need to,” Hammer added. “They need to make sure what they’re doing is based on the best available science and say what the best available science is. But I don’t think they want people to understand how crucial parts of this are.”

Hammer says the agency’s four alternatives are “light years” behind the 1986 plan and would hurt wildlife and habitat in the forest through diminished standards and practices.

The nature of the plan, as well as the public process, has forced the agency to develop a voluminous document, according to others.

“It does feel like it’s an amazingly complex, wide-ranging document. And to be fair, it is,” said Michael Jamison, a member of the Whitefish Range Partnership and senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association in Whitefish.

“What they did was make room for that wide-ranging conversation, which I think was super important for the community to have that conversation.”

Jamison said the Whitefish Range Partnership is an example of various sides hoping to work together and share something as valuable as the national forest.

“I think there is always value in getting to know your neighbors and to not just pigeonhole them as ‘loggers’ or ‘environmentalists’ or ‘mountain bikers’ or ‘snowmobilers,’” Jamison said.

Once the comment deadline arrives, it will then be up to the agency to step in with its decision in the coming year. This final selection, once it’s identified, should most likely provide the clearest picture of the future of the Flathead National Forest.

“With the Forest Service, now they have to figure out what makes the most sense that is also in alignment with federal law and regulation and leaves as many opportunities open as possible for future flexibility. That’s what they’re going to do. And that’s a lot less complicated than that document we’re all commenting on,” Jamison said.

“If you’re going to strike a middle ground and try to meet the interests of as many people as possible while maintaining the integrity of the landscape for the future, there’s only so many ways to skin that cat.”

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