Flathead National Forest

The cliff walls above Lion Creek hide in an early fall storm as Montana Wilderness Association president-elect Lee Boman explores an area under consideration for proposed wilderness in the Flathead National Forest.

Missoula-area residents have an opportunity to check out the draft plan to guide the Flathead National Forest at an open house information session Wednesday.

The gathering with Flathead Forest staff takes place from 2 to 6 p.m., at the Hilton Garden Inn, 3720 N. Reserve St. There is no formal presentation planned, but forest planners and related experts will be on hand to answer questions and take comments from the public.

Forest plans guide the decision-making process for a huge number of issues coming before a national forest, from how to choose places for timber harvest to the width of trails in recreation areas. They have great influence on how different parts of the forest are used or change uses, including the kinds of motorized or non-motorized access allowed, what animal or plant species need special treatment, and what natural qualities must be maintained or improved.

In the Flathead National Forest’s case, that means lands on the border of Glacier National Park, the Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort, most of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and remote mountains extending to the Canadian border.

The Flathead Forest planners have developed four options that concentrate on how to divvy up the roughly 2.4 million acres according to recreation and resource needs and wants. The four options include a no-action alternative that essentially preserves the Flathead Forest’s existing 1986 forest plan. Option B was developed from a draft released in 2015, which received about 20,000 public comments. Option C leans toward more wilderness recommendations and restrictions on motorized use, while Option D provides the most active timber management and no new recommended wilderness.

The Flathead Forest has about 400,000 acres of inventoried roadless areas within its boundaries. Those roadless areas tend to be the most contentious, because they often hold both the best wildlife habitat and the most valuable timber and other resources. While federal policy currently prohibits most timber harvest in roadless areas, there’s debate about whether temporary access is possible and whether activities like snowmobiling and mountain biking have allowable impacts on the landscape.

“We’re managing the forest to be resilient in the face of lots of disturbance factors, including climate change,” Flathead Forest Supervisor Chip Weber said of the planning process. “The plan also addresses providing for commercial and economic sustainability. It analyzes the social and economic viability of the area. And an important part is including adequate regulatory mechanisms for sustaining grizzly bears.”

The 120-day comment period ends Sept. 26. After that, a final environmental impact statement on the forest plan is due by spring of 2017. That triggers an objection period of 60 days, in which parties that have been involved with the drafting process can raise concerns and have the Forest Service propose improvements or solutions. Once the objections have been resolved, the supervisor may sign the final decision.

To review the planning documents or send comments, see fs.usda.gov/goto/flathead/fpr.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.