A four-year-long revision of Flathead National Forest’s Land and Resource Management Plan is nearly finished.
Next month, the U.S. Forest Service hopes to release a final Environmental Impact Statement for the new plan, as well as a draft record of decision to implement it. Once that happens, the public will have 60 days to file objections before it becomes final.
With the draft plan and amendments stretching to 575 pages, and the draft impact statement taking up hundreds more, the process may seem opaque and bureaucratic. But once finished, these decisions will shape the future of 2.4 million acres’ worth of animals, plants, waters and fires.
“These are some of the most pristine forests in terms of having their full array of fish and wildlife,” Keith Hammer, chair of the environmental group Swan View Coalition, told the Daily Inter Lake, “and this [plan] is laying out the groundwork for how these will be managed over the next 15 to 20 years.”
Joe Krueger, team leader for the revision, said these plans typically have a 10- to 15-year time frame.
Even before it’s gained final approval, the plan has been caught in many of the snares posed by Montana environmental management.
It’s only crawling toward completion after multiple delays, and doubts among some involved.
The documents originally were set for release in June, then moved to October. Krueger said they had needed “to get a schedule set up so we can brief our Washington office,” including the service’s new chief, Tony Tooke. This summer’s serious fire season slowed those plans, he said.
Other complicating factors were the multiple endangered species – including grizzly bears, bull trout, and Canadian lynx – that make their homes in the forest. Per the Endangered Species Act, their presence requires the Forest Service to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the plan.
“It’s a fairly extensive biological opinion” that has to be issued, Krueger said. “We’re awaiting the final biological opinion to come back as well.”
Nonetheless, “I’m hopeful for a November release, [but] I don’t know if I can hold to a mid-November” date, he said.
That timing has Hammer worried.
“We have grave concerns about how much attention the public is going to be able to pay to these documents,” Hammer said. The Swan View Coalition had hoped for an early-fall release, so as not to conflict with summer vacations or the holidays.
Mid- to late-November, Hammer continued, is “a really lousy time of year, if you want the public to be involved in your planning.”
“Keith says that in the middle of summer, too,” Krueger said of the environmentalist’s – and longtime litigator’s – worries.
“The public will have an ample opportunity to review the information,” Krueger assured the Daily Inter Lake.
Once the 60-day objection period closes, the Forest Service will have 90 days to resolve the concerns. Asked for specific examples of steps the agency might take, Krueger said moving or changing management area boundaries could be addressed to reflect some of those concerns.”
That may not satisfy the Swan View Coalition. Hammer, who’s said he’s seen a trend towards laxer safeguards in recent years, said that, with the new plan, “we would just be expecting the worst with the current administration, that they would want more logging and less protection for fish and wildlife.”
“If we don’t get resolution through the objection process, which we doubt very much that we will, our next step would be to go to court.”
Clarence Taber, vice president of Montanans for Multiple Use, said his group would also “definitely look at” legal action if their concerns weren’t met.
But while Swan View aims to reduce humanity’s footprint, Montanans for Multiple Use seeks more logging, fire suppression and access for recreation, Taber told the Inter Lake.
“You need your wilderness, you need your timber harvesting, you need a place to relax, and there’s nothing wrong to have a place to take a trail bike in.”
He said his group began the process with “a lot more enthusiasm. Then as it went down the pike, [we] didn’t have good feelings about it.”
The charts, figures and jargon that fill the Forest Service’s proposals have soured Taber on the task. So have what he considers a bias for leave-it-alone environmentalists.
“They love the hikers, they love all the touchy-feely things,” he said. But when it comes to motorized recreationists like him, “they’re just forcing all those people out of the woods.”
As Taber looked back on this process, his frustration at the challenge of balancing the potent opinions surrounding Flathead National Forest was clear.
“You can try to satisfy everybody and meet in the middle,” he said, “but it ain’t gonna happen.”
Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 758-4407.