It wouldn't be right to allow the final weeks of 2014 to pass without heaping praise upon the passage of Montana's first new wilderness in more than three decades. This was, after all, the year our state joined with others throughout the nation to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.
But it's also important to point out that it took years of dedicated work from many diverse interests to bring us to this point. Twenty years ago, these interests took the first tentative steps using a new collaborative model. The goal was to bring opposing sides together to get past the gridlock and acrimony that had long characterized land management decisions in Montana, and take action on the points of agreement.
The seeds of those early efforts have borne fruit in more ways than one. However, never before now has Montana's attention been so strongly drawn to the possibilities of collaboration.
In a collaborative move of their own, Montana's three congressional delegates worked together to identify eight Montana measures to include with the National Defense Authorization Act, which ultimately took on a total of 70 public land management bills before it was approved by Congress this month.
The Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, the result of the Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front's collaborative efforts, was among them. The North Fork Watersed Protection Act was another notable collaborative effort.
But even apart from the success of these particular examples, collaborative projects have been scoring measurable results in recent years – and many of those results are described in a useful new report from the Wilderness Society also released this month.
“Collaboration at a Crossroads,” as the report is titled, takes an in-depth look at 15 active efforts relying on collaboration. All of them are located in the western half of Montana, however, the report notes that an additional 22 roundtables operating in the state were not studied.
The report concludes that, from the Blackfoot Challenge to the Whitefish Range Partnership, collaborative efforts have been doing the hard work of whittling away points of contention to focus on getting big things done. The Blackfoot Challenge, as just one example, resulted in the treatment of more than 15,000 acres of noxious weeks, 400 acres treated for forest fuels, 18 livestock fencing systems installed and 32 million gallons of water conserved, among other things. And that was just last year.
Despite the tangible successes of this effort and others like it, even the most ardent supporters of the collaborative approach have to agree that collaboration alone isn't enough. In a meeting with the Missoulian editorial board last week, U.S. Sen.-elect Steve Daines cited the Colt Summit project as an ongoing illustration of the need to support collaborative efforts with other reforms, specifically with regard to litigation.
The Colt Summit Forest Restoration and Fuels Reduction Project in the Lolo National Forest, the product of a collaborative effort, has been held up in court for several years now. It would thin forests around the Seeley Lake area to reduce the risk of wildfire, allow timber sales and provide for enhanced conservation. Last week, a large group including "two former Forest Service chiefs, three Montana counties, conservation organizations, the hunting and angling communities, timber industry officials, wildlife biologists, and Montana’s Departments of Natural Resources and Conservation and Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks," as described by the Bozeman-based Wilderness Society, filed a a “friend of the court” brief in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last week. Gov. Steve Bullock also offered his support for the project.
Such widespread support from all walks of life is critical to the future success of Montana's collaborative efforts. If Montana is going to make meaningful land use decisions in the new year and for the next 50 years, we all must learn about and participate in collaborative efforts. We all must push these efforts to hold open, public meetings so that all interests can be heard. We must urge the U.S. Forest Service to participate in and support collaborative meetings as well.
This month, Montanans were provided indisputable proof that collaboration works. Now, it's up to us to keep it working.