Forest planning process wraps up
The Flathead National Forest's experimental collaborative process for planning post-fire management in the North Fork valley came to an end Saturday with participants expressing varying degrees of satisfaction.
The process, which involved about 22 hours of meetings at the WestCoast Hotel in Kalispell, came to an end with 108 participants endorsing or rejecting "agreement statements" that had been developed in eight small work groups during the week.
Forest Supervisor Cathy Barbouletos said the process was rewarding and worthwhile, even though it was costly.
"The thing that I was so excited to see is that when you look at the community as a whole they were able to give us some very good ideas for project proposals, but they were also able to build working relationships," Barbouletos said. "I still think it will pay off in the future in ways we don't even see right now."
The process cost $185,000, including forest staff time, contracted facilitators, materials and meeting space at the Kalispell hotel.
Legislation from Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., directed the Flathead forest to pursue the collaborative process, but it didn't provide the money to do so. The cost is coming out of the forest's annual operating budget.
The Flathead and Kootenai National Forest Rehabilitation Act requires "up-front" public process for the Forest Service to shape a plan for managing federal lands burned by the Wedge Canyon and Robert fires last summer. The intent of the legislation was to expedite planning for logging burned trees, which can rapidly lose their marketable value, and rehabilitation of the burned landscape.
The Wedge Canyon Fire burned 53,000 acres, including 20,628 acres on the Flathead forest. The 57,570-acre Robert Fire burned 12,852 acres on the forest.
Barbouletos said agreements developed by the planning group will be reflected in a "proposed action" that will come out at the end of January.
The proposed action will be open for public review, and then it will be folded into a draft environmental impact statement that is expected to be released for public review in May, she said.
As directed by the Burns legislation, the draft EIS will have a single alternative for timber salvage, Barbouletos said, but it may involve two alternative approaches to road management in the burned areas. Forest planners expect to come out with a final EIS by September, which would make the entire planning process four months faster than the year-long process that produced a post-fire plan for the area burned by the 2001 Moose Fire.
Barbouletos and her staff are hopeful the collaborative process will produce a final product that is generally palatable to the public.
"There were many areas that had full agreement from most of the groups," she said.
For example, there was broad support for salvage logging, for maximizing the cost-efficiency of post-fire management activities and for avoiding timber salvage in inventoried roadless areas.
But the planning groups often used qualifying language to more clearly define those general statements.
Some said salvage logging should be pursued within the framework of legal requirements, good science and cost efficiency.
Some groups said that roadless areas should be avoided by logging equipment, except in extraordinary circumstances.
There was strong agreement that the vegetation, wildlife, water quality and other features of the burned areas should be closely monitored after post-fire management activities. There was agreement that temporary roads, constructed for timber salvage, should be obliterated once the work is complete.
Fred Hodgeboom, spokesman for Montanans for Multiple Use, said he and most other group members who participated in the process were disappointed how it developed.
He said the process was "highly managed and manipulated" in a fashion where certain perspectives were watered down to a point where the Forest Service was mostly given recommendations that it would have pursued anyway.
Hodgeboom said he was disappointed that the process didn't allow for a suggestion to suspend highly controversial road density standards in Amendment 19 to the Flathead Forest Plan. The road standards, approved in 1995, are intended to provide grizzly bears with habitat security.
"If we had taken a vote on that, we would see what the majority of people think about it," Hodgeboom said.
But the purpose of the process, Barbouletos said, was to uncover areas of agreement. And it became clear early in the process that there was sharp division over road management standards in the forest plan.
"It's going to be business as usual — we're going to obliterate these roads whether they need it or not," Hodgeboom said. "The fact that the forest plan should have been revised five years ago, that doesn't matter. The fact that (grizzly) bears are showing signs of recovery, that doesn't matter."
Rachel Potter said she was completely outnumbered by multiple use advocates in her planning group, but she still found the process as a whole to be worthwhile.
"As a whole I think the process was excellent and I think it shows that when people are civil and that when we sit down we can accomplish a lot of things," she said.
If anything, Potter said, it was the majority in her group that worked
Ron Buentemeier, the longtime logging manager at F.H. Stoltze Land & Lumber, also said the Forest Service ended up pursuing consensus, or a majority agreement process, rather than a collaborative process aimed at developing creative land management approaches. The legislation directed the forest to pursue a collaborative process, he said.
But in the end, he said he agreed with most of the final statements that were developed by the group.
"It appeared to me that probably 75 percent of the people or more pretty much were all on the same page on what they wanted done," he sad. "We'll have to see how the Forest Service uses that information."
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