Outdoors

New Leader Appointed to Flathead National Forest

Kurt Steele tapped to replace longtime Forest Supervisor Chip Weber following his retirement last month

There’s a new supervisor at the helm of the Flathead National Forest.

On Jan. 10, following on the heels of longtime Forest Supervisor Chip Weber’s retirement, Kurt Steele was named as the top brass overseeing 2.4 million forested acres in Northwest Montana.

Steele has served as deputy forest supervisor for the Nez-Perce Clearwater National Forests in Idaho for the past three years, and is slated to begin work in his new role in mid-February.

“I am very pleased to welcome Kurt to the Flathead National Forest,” Regional Forester Leanne Marten said. “Kurt is a proven leader who welcomes new voices and diverse perspectives, and has dedicated his career to public service.”

The Flathead National Forest’s sprawling footprint spans 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.

According to forest officials, Steele is well equipped to oversee the Flathead’s many competing interests and lead the region into the future.

In addition to his current service as deputy forest supervisor, Steele has completed three recent temporary forest supervisor assignments on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests in Idaho, the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana, and the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois. Prior to his current position on the Nez Perce-Clearwater, Steele served as a district ranger on the Superior National Forest in Minnesota.

Steele began his U.S. Forest Service career as a firefighter on the Umatilla National Forest and the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forests, serving on engine crews, rappel teams, and was able to fill in with the Rogue River Hotshots. He then became a certified silviculturist and held forestry and planning roles on both the Willamette and Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests, prior to becoming a line officer.

Steele was raised in Oregon and holds a B.S. in Natural Resources from Oregon State University with a focus on forest ecosystems, and a double minor in forest management and fisheries and wildlife. He enjoys most outdoor activities, and often finds himself on public lands where he likes to go hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, camping, hiking, rafting, snowboarding/skiing, ATVing and boating.

Steele will be joined in Northwest Montana by his wife, Melissa, a middle school teacher, and 5-year-old son, Jack, at the end of the school year.

In succeeding Weber, who retired at the end of 2019 after serving as Flathead National Forest supervisor for nearly a decade, Steele inherits a complex suite of management challenges he says he’s eager to tackle.

What served as a capstone for Weber’s career serves up a substantial entrée to Steele as he gains footing in the Flathead National Forest, which last year implemented its new Forest Plan, unveiling a blueprint for everything within the forest boundaries, from recreational opportunities to designated wilderness, timber production, wildlife, and habitat.

The 2018 Forest Plan replaces the 1986 plan, updating the 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.

Among its many proposals, the 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.

“I am tremendously honored to serve the public and forest employees as Flathead National Forest’s new supervisor,” Steele said. “I look forward to engaging with our partners, local businesses, and surrounding communities as we write the forest’s next chapter together. The Flathead Valley is an incredibly special place, and my family and I are excited about the opportunity to be able to settle in here and raise our family in this welcoming, community-oriented area.”

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