If you spent time outside in the woods in Northwest Montana in 2019, chances are you dipped a hiking boot into the 2.4 million-acre sylvan sea that encompasses the Flathead National Forest.
What you might not have realized, however, is the dizzying array of resource management issues swirling above the forest canopy, including the implementation of a complex agency plan designed to guide forest use for the next several decades, including municipal watersheds, wildlife habitat, protected lands, outdoor recreation, and more.
The Flathead National Forest’s sprawling footprint includes the Whitefish Range, the Swan Range and the Mission Mountains, and agency officials are engaged in a constant juggling act to balance priorities like recreation, timber, fire, resource conservation, safety, and education.
The 2018 Forest Plan (implemented in 2019) replaced the 1986 plan, updating the U.S. Forest Service’s long-term strategic vision for managing the network of lands in Northwest Montana. The Flathead Forest Plan is the second in the nation to use the Forest Service’s 2012 Land Management Planning Rule, which facilitates goals of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in promoting sound land stewardship in partnership with communities.
The cohesion of those community partnerships was a defining element in the Flathead Forest Plan, which Forest Supervisor Chip Weber said was crafted to consider the needs of all stakeholders — hikers, horsemen, mountain bikers, snowmobilers, cabin owners, boaters, anglers, grizzlies, and nearly everyone else with a stake in the management of public lands on the Flathead National Forest.
Among its many proposals, the forest plan recommended new land for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System, including the Jewel Basin, the Tuchuck-Whale areas and additions to the Mission Mountain, Great Bear and Bob Marshall wilderness areas.
It provided for timber output of approximately 28 million board feet annually on 637,419 acres of “suitable timber base.” In comparison, the 2006 proposed revision plan identified 529,000 acres of “suitable timber base” and the 1986 plan identified 707,000 acres.
It identified 22 rivers and streams — stretching a total of 276 miles — that are eligible for protection under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
Because the Flathead National Forest spans a large chunk of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, home to the largest population of grizzly bears in the Lower 48, the plan also included a separate document that will be instrumental in guiding management of the bears when grizzlies are delisted from the Endangered Species Act.
“This was a tremendous year for public involvement on all fronts,” said Weber, who retired Jan. 1 after a 30-year career with the Forest Service, including nine years at the helm of the Flathead.
“Between initial implementation of our new forest plan, participation in development of a Comprehensive River Management Plan for the Flathead River, contributions from local youth crews and area nonprofits partners on the ground, and so many members of our community engaged in management and use of the national forest, we continue to see increased levels of care, stewardship, and pride in our forest,” he added.
Here are a few highlights from a busy year:
The Flathead National Forest is home to the second-largest recreation program in the Forest Service’s Northern Region, spanning 33 campgrounds, 92 developed recreation sites and 2,260 hiking, biking, and horseback trail miles. It also hosts winter outdoor activities including multiple Nordic and downhill ski areas operated and maintained by nonprofit and private partners, and 157 miles of designated snowmobile trails, some of which are maintained by local nonprofit snowmobile groups.
In 2019, trail crews were able to maintain more trail miles than average due to light blowdown from dead-standing trees. This meant that some trails that hadn’t received maintenance in recent years were cleared and repaired by Forest Service crews, youth crews, volunteers, and nonprofit partners funded through philanthropy.
The forest’s 14 cabin rentals continued to be in high demand, with most bookings near 100 percent occupancy. Cabin rental fees are returned to the program for investment. This year, Zips Cabin, Anna Creek Cabin, and Owl Packer Cabin were all upgraded with improvements like new exterior stain, heater replacement, and foundation repairs using cabin rental fees.
Flathead National Forest sold 50.6 million board feet of timber volume in fiscal year 2019, a figure that includes 41 active sales. Flathead Forest officials also assisted with administration of some sales on the Rexford and Fortine Districts of the Kootenai National Forest. The sales were largely dominated by Douglas fir and lodgepole pine, species that are abundant in the region. The total sale value was $3.2 million.
This year, the forest also began a new partnership with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) under the Good Neighbor Authority. The authority, which was part of the 2018 Farm Bill, allows the Forest Service to partner with state agencies to achieve forest management objectives and restoration. The first sale sold and administered by the DNRC on Forest Service lands under GNA was the Liger Timber Sale currently underway near Hungry Horse Reservoir.
The public also harvested a variety of forest products available under free or low-cost permits, including Christmas trees, firewood, mushrooms, and greenery like ferns. Huckleberry picking is also allowed without a permit for noncommercial use, up to 10 gallons. For the first year, the forest served as a pilot for the new Open Forest online Christmas Tree permit system, which allows people to purchase tree permits at their convenience from home.
The Flathead Valley had a relatively quiet fire season in 2019. The forest had 41 fires, the largest of which was the 1,815-acre Snow Creek Fire in the Bob Marshall Wilderness south of Black Bear Cabin. Four fires in September were not staffed due to cooler and wet weather. The largest of those grew to 10 acres. Crews, engines and individuals went on assignments to nine states and Alberta, Canada. Typically, though fire crews may be stationed at a designated forest, they are available for nationwide assignment if conditions allow.
Flathead National Forest employees completed a variety of hazardous fuel reduction work to promote healthy vegetation, change the way wildfire moves through the forest, and reintroduce fire as part of a natural ecosystem. Key projects in 2019 included 64 acres of hand-cutting and pile-burning near Coram, as well as hand-cutting and burning 100 acres near Pinnacle Creek.
In total, fuels management actions contributed to: 1,250 acres burned through prescribed fire; 1,080 acres of piles burned; 4,384 acres thinning/slashing; 640 acres of piling completed; 4,955 acres of treatment contributed through timber harvest.
According to Flathead National Forest Spokesperson Lauren Alley, the forest will usher in 2020 by welcoming a new forest supervisor who will help steer planning for the Wild and Scenic River Corridor, as well as other upcoming restoration and forest management projects.
“The forest will continue to pursue and enhance private and nonprofit partnerships that connect the forest with its community, create capacity, and better serve the public,” Alley said.