Heated discussion marks first post-fire meeting - consensus process under fire
Montana - Skepticism and disagreement marked the beginning of an experimental "consensus" process for planning post-fire management projects in the Flathead's North Fork Valley.
The crowd included some of the most vocal environmental and multiple-use activists in the Flathead Valley, creating a charged atmosphere for the start of a process that will continue with a series of meetings over the next 10 days.
Flathead Forest Supervisor Cathy Barbouletos urged the group to take advantage of the opportunity to find common ground on post-fire planning wherever possible.
"This proposal that we're going to work on over the next week is yours to develop," she said. "We put as few sideboards on it as possible."
"This is your meeting," added Sherry Munther, a facilitator hired by the Forest Service. "It's not the Forest Service's. It's up to you to make the magic occur between now and the time when you are done."
But the lack of direction and definition for the process caused concern for some in the group. Some participants questioned the definition of "consensus" that is being used and whether participants are being adequately informed of the legal requirements involved with developing massive land management projects.
Others wondered how a coherent plan could possibly emerge from a process in which participants are being split into eight groups that can pick-and-choose from three topics that the post-fire plan will eventually address: restoration, timber salvage and road management.
"It's ludicrous," said one man. "It's like four families planning a wedding."
Barbouletos and the facilitators explained that at the end of the small-group process, the entire group will meet to shape recommendations that will be included in a post-fire plan.
Barbouletos said the intent is to find and focus on any areas of agreement, rather than rehash long-running disagreements.
"I commit to you that where there is consensus you will see it in a proposed action," she said.
The unorthodox process was developed by the Flathead National Forest under the direction of legislation from Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.
The Flathead and Kootenai National Forest Rehabilitation Act requires an "up-front" collaborative planning process for the Forest Service to shape a plan for managing federal lands burned by the Wedge Canyon and Robert fires last summer. An underlying purpose of the legislation was to expedite planning for logging burned trees, which can rapidly lose their marketable value, and to expedite 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 Flathead.
The Flathead Forest required those interested in participating in the planning process to register by Dec. 5. The forest was criticized for developing a process that limits public involvement, but Barbouletos and her staff were faced with the challenge of garnering meaningful public input at the start of the planning process, and doing so in an expeditious manner.
The Burns legislation sets up an interesting race, of sorts: Will the "expedited" post-fire planning on the Robert and Wedge Canyon burned areas be finished before the standard post-fire planning that will be developed for the Blackfoot Fire Complex, which burned nearly 30,000 acres west of Hungry Horse Reservoir?
While Barbouletos is hopeful the collaborative planning approach will produce a degree of consensus, the Forest Service will have to fill in the blanks where consensus could not be reached.
A group of local conservationists sent Barbouletos a letter prior to this week's meeting, questioning several aspects of the process.
The group objects to the definition of "consensus" that is being used by the Flathead Forest, a definition developed by the National Center for Collaborative Planning and Community Services.
"The basic feature of consensus is not that a decision has been agreed to by all members, but that all members have complete understanding of the reasoning leading to the decision, and that each member is willing to support that decision at varying levels of commitment," the definition states, in part.
The group contends the definition amounts to a "majority wins, minority loses, winner-takes-all" approach that is suited to produce a speedy decision, but not a "lasting consensus" that would take much longer to develop.
"We want the Flathead to understand that if we do not agree with the proposal (developed by the group) we will not stand by that decision, support that decision, nor will we agree to have our name attached to the proposal as though we do support it."
To address that concern, facilitators at the meeting said there will be an option for minority opinions to be part of the official planning record.
Citing the title and specific language in the Burns legislation, the letter also contends that the primary purpose of the legislation is "to conduct projects ... that rehabilitate and restore" forests, and that timber salvage is actually a secondary purpose in the act.
Barbouletos maintains that the Flathead Forest staff will develop portions of a management proposal that the working group chooses to avoid or is unable to agree on. If there is no consensus on road management, for instance, then that portion of the plan will be developed by forest staffers.
Multiple-use advocates also expressed skepticism about the process.
Fred Hodgeboom, spokesman for Montanans for Multiple Use, questioned how compromise and consensus can be expected from environmentalists who — in his view — are paid to obstruct timber harvest from federal forests.
Gary Hall of Olney questioned the background of Munther, the contracted facilitator, asking if she was an environmentalist.
Munther said she is a neutral facilitator. But when pressed, she said her husband is a board member for the Missoula-based environmental group, the Wildlands Center for Preventing Roads.
"I am a neutral facilitator," she said. "All I can say is my husband and I don't agree on a lot of things."
Road management promises to be the most contentious aspect of post-fire planning on the Flathead Forest.
While local environmentalists have been flexible on timber salvage, they have sued to force the Flathead Forest to enforce road densities in the Flathead Forest Plan that are aimed at providing secure grizzly bear habitat.
Montanans for Multiple Use, on the other hand, has long objected to road closures and reclamation that have been carried out to meet those standards, which were implemented through an amendment to the forest plan in 1995. The organization has a lawsuit pending against the Flathead Forest, which in part challenges the validity of Amendment 19, as it is known.
Amendment 19's road density standards will be part of post-fire management in the Robert and Wedge Canyon burned areas, said Hungry Horse District Ranger Jimmy DeHerrera.
Road densities in both burned areas exceed forest plan standards, he said.
And if the collaborative process does not address the issue, then the Forest Service will have to, Herrera said.
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