Seeing the forest AND the trees

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 Daily Inter Lake editorial

A group called the Whitefish Range Partnership should be commended for efforts to guide long-term forest planning on the Flathead National Forest north of Whitefish and Columbia Falls.

To say that the group of about 30 people representing highly diverse interests were not on the same page at the beginning would be a huge understatement. But after meeting regularly over a 13-month period, with a specific rule that all parties involved would have to sign onto a complete package of recommendations or abandon the effort entirely, the partnership came to a complete consensus on a 58-page set of recommendations.

They addressed potentially conflicting issues such as recommended wilderness, motorized summer use, mountain biking, snowmobiling, and timber harvesting. 

The group’s chairman, former state legislator and Montana Secretary of State Bob Brown, pointed out that the parties involved did not end up making concessions regarding their own interests, but rather made gains “by simply allowing each other room on the map in the places where their interests did not conflict.”

Predictably, the group’s efforts and the Flathead Forest’s reception of those efforts are already drawing fire from people who were not involved in the partnership.

Well, the bottom line is it was a privately organized, ad hoc pursuit that produced a very strong and valuable public comment on forest planning for the Whitefish Range. There is nothing to prevent neighbors from getting together to come up with recommendations for the Forest Service, even if they exclude some people who will still have opportunities to be involved with forest planning at other stages.

The Flathead Forest’s team leader for forest planning remarked that the partnership’s recommendations will be “given a lot of weight,” as they should, because forest planning rules that were adopted in 2012 put a strong emphasis on encouraging thoughtful, substantive public input through collaborative efforts. And that’s precisely what they’re getting in this case.

The partnership has worked through issues, producing recommendations that should be palatable to 80 percent of the public, and the Forest Service should be obligated to recognize broad consensus.

But one shouldn’t make the mistake of viewing this as a cure for contentious fights over forest management. To be sure, it will not stop litigation — over timber harvesting, forest roads and threatened and endangered species — from some groups who are constantly at odds with the Forest Service. But it’s a good way to settle fights, among the people who use the Whitefish Range the most, before they have a chance to start.

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