Getting Along in the Kootenai

Collaborative group makes its case for wilderness, timber harvest and small business to coincide in the Kootenai National Forest

By Tristan Scott
The Cabinet Mountains in the Kootenai National Forest. Beacon file photo

A mere two miles from the timber town of Libby, a wilderness area spans 94,000 acres, a safe haven for dense groves of Douglas fir and cedar, elk and bears, soaring peaks and glacial lakes. The nearby Kootenai River features class IV rapids and a world-class fishery, while downtown’s craft brewery bustles with activity.

It’s the latest evidence of the changing landscape swaddling Libby, a timber town that once stood out among the largest sawmill complexes in the world.

Today, there isn’t a single mill producing timber in Lincoln County, yet local stakeholders are optimistic about the future of forest management.

For decades, the Kootenai National Forest, which comprises 80 percent of land in Lincoln County, has been caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between warring factions eager to set the agenda for management on the national forest, pitting wilderness against timber production, non-motorized against motorized recreation, commercial interests against wildlife.

Entrenched special interests on either side of the stump have ignored the notion of balance when fighting for their positions, but today, those former adversaries — tree huggers and tree cutters, hikers, horsemen, mountain bikers, snowmobilers, property owners, government officials, small business owners, and nearly everyone else with a stake in the management of public lands on the Kootenai — have accepted that they can accomplish more when they pull together.

A prime example of that pulling together is the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition, a partnership of recreationists, business owners, mill operators, and conservationists who believe there’s room for competing and complementary interests to coincide across their vast forest.

The coalition is the product of more than a decade of work, and now includes some of the fiercest opponents from a bygone era — a range of timber interests, the Montana Wilderness Association, the Yaak Valley Forest Council, the Troy Snowmobile Club, and community members from Eureka, Troy, Libby, Columbia Falls, and Thompson Falls.

It has evolved from a focus on fuel reduction in the wildland-urban interface to include collaboration on economic and ecosystem sustainability. Today, the coalition is working to build consensus toward responsible land management and forward-thinking solutions.

Kristin Smith, co-owner of Cabinet Mountain Brewing in Libby, recognizes the impact that protected lands have had on her business success.

“The map of northwestern Montana is surrounded by the green of public forests that I cherish for all they symbolize,” Smith said. “Opening a business in Libby has inspired life-altering decisions, and being surrounded by people with similarly adventurous spirits has been a terrific opportunity.”

Recently, a collection of stakeholders had the opportunity to view the mountainous landscape from an altitude of 1,000 feet, courtesy of pilot Bruce Gordon, who runs a nonprofit outfit called EcoFlight, in an effort to raise awareness about the importance of public land and wilderness.

After landing in Libby, they stopped in at Smith’s brewery and chatted with Robyn King, executive director of the Yaak Valley Forest Council, who said she realized around the turn of the century that the old divisive model of forest management wasn’t working and figured it would be more effective to stitch together a collaborative.

“It’s no secret that the Kootenai National Forest has been a tough place to find agreement, but we’ve worked through the toughest times, and our public lands don’t have to be a place of winners and losers,” King says. “We don’t have to choose between harvesting trees and harvesting elk. It’s not a choice to have wilderness areas or snowmobile trails. Instead, we agree that the 2.2-million-acre Kootenai Forest is big enough for each of us — where others see impossibility, we see potential.”

Working within the established parameters of the 2015 revised Kootenai National Forest Plan, which estimated that the forest could sustainably produce around 40 million board-feet of timber per year, the coalition put together an alternative plan that could draw between 70 and 90 million board-feet while increasing wilderness and recreation by accessing the forest from different areas and using innovative methods.

“We think we can harvest more acres, but with a lighter touch,” according to the coalition’s website, adding that its goal of sustainably harvesting such a volume of timber would provide needed certainty for the timber industry.

“Our collective and careful evaluation of natural resources and management in the Kootenai National Forest will safeguard our area for generations and support diverse aspirations,” said Tina Oliphant of the Kootenai River Development Authority.

Paul McKenzie, land and resources manager at F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. in Columbia Falls and a member of the coalition, likened national forests to a “big sandbox.”

“We all need to figure out how to play together in it,” he said.