New forest plan reflects economic, ecological changes

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The view from Thoma Lookout up the North Fork.

The passage of 30 years likely means little to a towering red cedar or an ancient larch.

But approaches to managing multiple-use national forests can change significantly over the course of three decades, with changes influenced by science, economics and politics.

The Flathead National Forest’s last forest management plan was completed in 1986. On Feb. 1, the forest announced the release of a signed Record of Decision for its new forest management plan, one designed to manage the sometimes competing interests of outdoor recreation, range, timber, watershed, wildlife, fish and wilderness.

The Record of Decision is a legal record intended to provide a concise depiction of the decisions made during the drafting of the forest management plan and related environmental impact statement.

The Forest Service noted that “since the 1986 forest plan was completed, there have been changes in ecological, social and economic conditions in the area, as well as changes in resource demands and availability of new scientific information and new policy.”

The new plan took more than five years to craft during a process described by the Forest Service and others as collaborative and informed by public input. The Flathead National Forest includes about 2.4 million acres of public land in portions of Flathead, Lake, Lewis and Clark, Lincoln, Missoula and Powell counties.

The Record of Decision observes that the question of which areas, if any, to recommend for wilderness “was the most significant issue in this planning process, generating the most comment and interest.”

Some people favored recommendations for new wilderness designations; some opposed such nominations, the agency reported.

In the end, the new plan recommends to Congress adding about 190,403 acres of the Flathead National Forest to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Of those, about 80,000 acres of the new wilderness would be in the northern Whitefish Range.

In a news release, Amy Robinson, conservation director for the Montana Wilderness Association, applauded that recommendation.

“This recommendation will help secure and enhance critical habitat for grizzly bears, lynx and other wildlife that make this corner of Montana so unique,” Robinson said.

The plan also estimates the annual commercial timber harvest will be about 27.3 million board feet.

The Forest Service’s news release quoted Paul McKenzie, lands and resource manager for F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber Co., who said the plan demonstrates that working together yields better results than working in opposition.

“We were glad to be part of a robust collaborative process that included a wide range of stakeholders willing to work hard to find space for everyone in our national forests,” McKenzie said.

Not everyone celebrated the final Forest Land Management Plan.

Both Keith Hammer, chairman of the Swan View Coalition, and Arlene Montgomery, program director of Friends of the Wild Swan, objected to the plan’s abandonment of an earlier commitment to remove hundreds of miles of forest roads, along with related culverts, to help provide secure habitat for grizzly bears and improve and protect water quality for bull trout.

On Wednesday, Chip Weber, forest supervisor, said science, observation and conservation measures in place demonstrate that the road closures are not necessary to protect grizzly habitat or conserve bull trout.

He said the new plan updates grizzly bear habitat management strategies to maintain conditions contributing to the recovery of the bear population in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

Estimates suggest there are about 1,000 grizzlies in this ecosystem and wildlife agencies are preparing for the possible delisting of the bear as a threatened species.

In the Record of Decision, Weber wrote, “Given the improved condition of the NCDE grizzly bear population and its habitat, I find that it is not necessary to further reduce public access by about 518 miles.”

He noted “there is always a trade-off when you close roads.”

Hammer said the Forest Service is “terminating the very programs they claim have helped increase the grizzly bear population and are necessary to conserve bull trout.”

The Record of Decision reports the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that although the new forest management plan might have adverse effects on individual grizzly bears, those impacts would not negatively impact the recovery of the species in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

Meanwhile, Weber said the new land management plan for the Flathead National Forest is intended to be the blueprint for forest management for 15 to 20 years.

He noted, however, the plan is designed to be flexible and adaptable as the forest moves forward with its multiple-use mission.

For more information about the Record of Decision or the Flathead Forest Land Management Plan go to

https://www.fs.usda.gov/detailfull/flathead/home/?cid=stelprdb5422786&width=full

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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