Revised forest plan gets first public airing

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A good compromise, it’s been said, leaves everyone equally unhappy.

But despite some dismay among people at an open house Tuesday hosted by the Flathead National Forest to discuss its proposed forest plan revision, others said the agency had struck a reasonable balance between competing uses, particularly where wildlife is concerned.

I heard from some folks tonight that this is the best plan we’ve come up with since the ’80s,” said Joe Krueger, a forest planner with the agency and the project team leader. “But I also heard concerns that it goes too far to the wilderness side.”

The forest plan revision is designed to provide a blueprint for 15 years’ worth of management on the 2.4-million-acre Flathead Forest. The current plan dates back to 1986 and was only intended to have a lifespan of 10 to 15 years.

Long a controversial issue in Northwest Montana, grizzly bear protections could be headed for significant changes in the future, with the species’ protected status considered for a possible delisting under the Endangered Species Act. 

The proposed action includes a sizable grizzly bear management strategy that would adjust current grizzly protections while providing forest managers with more flexibility. Amendments to four other Montana national forest plans would mirror those directives.

The grizzly plan breaks a massive area in Northwest Montana into management zones, including a primary conservation area that mirrors the current core recovery area and contains the highest levels of protection. Management Zone 1 would mainly provide migration corridors. Zones 2 and 3 are located east of the Continental Divide and are designed to minimize conflicts between bears and people.

Reed Kuennen, the wildlife biologist who helped craft the grizzly plan, said the proposal would maintain the current level of protection in the primary conservation area.

“The intent is to still have grizzly bears in the primary conservation area, but with their density not as high,” she said. “[Zone 1] would still limit open roads so grizzlies can move across to the Tally Lake district and the Cabinet-Yaak.”

She added that a planning rule created in 2012 required more integration of plans, so while a sizable wildlife section could be easily found within previous plans, the current document weaves the new grizzly standards, along with other wildlife protections, throughout. She said that has left many people shocked when they see only a couple of pages dedicated to a specific species.

“My feeling is that this forest plan is a lot stronger for wildlife, because we’re looking at the health of the ecosystem. We’re not just looking at conifers, but things like burnt trees and deciduous trees, which were pretty much ignored by the previous plans,” she said.

Keith Hammer, chairman of the Swan View Coalition, was not impressed and objected in particular to the proposed grizzly management plan.

“The plan greatly reduces management standards for bear, greatly reduces standards for lynx and greatly reduces standards for riparian habitat, areas that protect bull trout. No matter how positively they try to spin it, its bad for fish and wildlife,” Hammer said.

He said the language in the management plan was weak, using words like “may” and “can” rather than “must” or “shall.”

“That makes it discretionary,” Hammer said. “It’s not adequate to allow more increases in [bear] populations and more connectivity between populations.”

Hammer’s organization has been involved in a number of high-profile lawsuits against Forest Service proposals in the past several decades, arguing, with mixed success, that the agency’s actions have broken federal laws designed to protect wildlife.

Asked whether he plans to object to the latest proposal, Hammer responded, “At this point, I imagine probably so.”

Amy Robinson, the Northwest Montana field director for the Montana Wilderness Association, was more optimistic about the Forest Service’s proposal. She was part of a collaborative group called the Whitefish Range Partnership working to pin down compromises between traditionally at-odds interest groups. She pointed to the North Fork area as strongly bearing the partnership’s fingerprints.

“The Whitefish Range has been targeted for wildlife protection for about 90 years,” she said. “It created a motivation for people who said, ‘Yes, let’s get together and see if we can actually get something done for the proposed plan.”

Representatives from environmental groups, the timber industry, the recreation industry and other interests met for 13 months, hammering out a proposal to give to the Flathead Forest.

“We worked to come up with something that would actually be realistic, not just coming out of left or right field,” Robinson said.

The Flathead Forest made itself available for professional guidance, but the collaborative group was generally left to develop its plan on their own. Ultimately, the partnership was able to agree on a proposal that would increase motorized access, wilderness area, trails for mountain biking that will link up to nearby towns and fire management in wildland-urban interfaces.

Krueger said that overall, he felt the plan was a good first step and felt encouraged by the turnout at the Kalispell meeting.

“I would say the range of interests was well-represented here.”

The proposed action for the revised forest plan can be accessed online at www.fs.usda.gov/goto/flathead/fpr. The forest is accepting public comments until May 5.

Reporter Samuel Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com

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