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Collaboration brings people together. Lawsuits divide them. Reaching the first without triggering the second remains the challenge for those interested in the future of forests.

Montana public lands currently have between 30,000 and 40,000 acres left in legal limbo because of litigation, participants at Montana Forest Collaboration Network conference heard Tuesday. Getting beyond that might take congressional legislation or simply better local relationships, according to panel moderator Brian Kahn.

“Blaming environmentalists for litigation is politically inflammatory,” Kahn said. “It’s said by people who don’t know that eight out of 10 environmentalists are participants in collaborative efforts. That kind of polarization is fertile ground for demagoguery.”

Collaborative forest projects occupy a special slice of work in the woods. They depend on a group of local residents, county and state officials, clubs and organizations and businesses to semi-formally advise the U.S. Forest Service on how to manage a particular part of a national forest.

Projects developed through the collaborative process should have more value than traditional agency-industry deals because they reflect local knowledge about jobs, habitat, wildlife, recreation and other on-the-ground knowledge.

That hasn’t protected them from scrutiny by critics of the Forest Service, who sue the agency over alleged violations of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Endangered Species Act, and other federal requirements. In 2013, the last year with complete data available, national forests in Montana had 13 of 29 forestry project decisions challenged in court.

“If you can’t find a NEPA violation in a document, you’re not trying hard enough,” American Forest Resource Council attorney Lawson Fite said. “These are policy matters. It’s not: Are you following the law? It’s: We want you to do different things.”

The Wilderness Society forest campaign manager Megan Birzell said making an environmental assessment “legally bombproof” was virtually impossible. She said her organization worked more to show where broad arrays of support existed for a project, in order to convince a judge that lots of different perspectives had been fairly considered.

“Collaboration is making a lot of progress in Washington, Oregon and California,” Birzell said. “That’s true across the west, except in Montana where it’s bogged down.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.