Objection period begins for Flathead Forest plan

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Late autumn color highlights a view of Flathead National Forest along Highway 35 near Creston on Wednesday, Nov. 15.

The U.S. Forest Service has released the draft record of decision and final environmental impact statement for the Flathead National Forest revised land and resource management plan for a 60-day objection period.

These documents mark the final steps in completing the plan, which the Forest Service expects to guide management for 10 to 15 years. As the Daily Inter Lake reported in October, it’s inching towards completion after four years and considerable controversy.

The draft environmental impact statement set out multiple courses of action for managers to pursue. Of these, Forest Supervisor Chip Weber selected alternative B. In the draft record of decision, he claimed that it “has the best mix of management areas that reflects what I heard the public wanted.”

This course of action includes: treating 3,140 acres per year with commercial timber harvest; producing 27.3 million board feet per year over the next decade; building more trails and access for mountain bikes, snowmobiles, and off-road vehicles; recommending over 190,000 acres for inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System.

The Forest Service’s press release described this plan as “the result of engagement with State and local governments, other Federal agencies, and Indian tribes, as well as robust and unique public engagement efforts” – including 33,000 comments submitted on the draft impact statement – “since 2013.”

But some local conservation groups seek more.

“The revised Forest Plan removes key habitat parameters for streams and riparian areas,” said Arlene Montgomery of Friends of the Wild Swan. She also claimed that “The Flathead is proposing less wilderness than it found wilderness-suitable and it is reducing protections for roadless areas.”

These and other concerns will likely be aired during the objection process. In October, Swan View Coalition chair Keith Hammer said that “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.”

Already, Swan View, Friends of the Wild Swan, and WildEarth Guardians have filed a notice of intent to sue the Forest Service over its alleged neglect of culverts beneath the Flathead’s logging roads.

Without resolution in the objection process, these groups’ concerns may extend the plan-preparation process even further.

Separately, the Forest Service has also released the draft record of decision and final environmental impact statement for forest plan amendments to the Helena-Lewis and Clark, Kootenai, and Lolo National Forests. These changes primarily focus on managing grizzly bear habitat, and also entered a 60-day objection period Thursday.

Individuals or groups who participated in the planning process may file an objection about specific remaining concerns. Instructions for filing one, along with the forest plan, amendments, final environmental impact statements, draft records of decision, and other documents, are available at https://www.fs.usda.gov/detailfull/flathead/home/?cid=stelprdb5422786.

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.

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