KALISPELL – More than 20,000 public comments have boiled down to four main issues for revising the Flathead National Forest’s management plan.
A similar four issues will be the main research topics for a Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem grizzly bear conservation strategy affecting five western Montana national forests.
All are expected to be presented as alternatives for the public to consider when the Flathead Forest releases its draft environmental impact statements early next year.
“The public response has been excellent,” Flathead Forest Supervisor Chip Weber said in an email. “We received a lot of constructive comments that we are giving serious consideration to in order to improve our initial proposal, as well as to develop some alternatives that will be able to display the range of issues expressed throughout the comment period.”
Forest planner Joe Krueger said a large proportion of the comments came as form letters or duplicated responses. But about 370 specific issues came from individuals or commercial interests. Seven public agencies and about 30 nonprofit groups sent letters.
For the Flathead Forest land and resource plan revision, those fell into four major areas: vegetation management, fish and wildlife habitat, recreation and access, and recommended wilderness.
• Vegetation management covers the forest’s suitable timber harvest areas, and how that might change in balance with recreation or wildlife needs.
• Fish and wildlife habitat issues included what to do about endangered species protection, enhancing hunting and fishing opportunities, and how things like road use might affect water quality.
• Recreation and access touched on the amount of motorized and non-motorized use allowed on the forest, or the seasons motorized use would be open.
• Recommended wilderness looked at the Flathead Forest’s proposal to expand protection for about 188,000 of the 670,000 inventoried roadless acres and other significant places in the national forest.
Krueger said the commenters tended to support larger amounts of wilderness or none at all, with few suggestions for alternative use designations like conservation or hiking areas.
Some wilderness advocates argued that the designation would also increase wildlife habitat, although Krueger said it could just as well preclude habitat restoration projects.
Because a federal effort to recover threatened grizzly bears covers a huge portion of the Northern Rocky Mountains, the Flathead Forest has taken the job of drafting a strategy for all five national forests affected.
More than 1,000 grizzly bears inhabit the area between Missoula and Glacier National Park. The other national forests are the Helena, Kootenai, Lewis and Clark, and Lolo.
“The grizzly conservation strategy must have adequate regulatory mechanisms in all forest plans of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem,” Krueger said. “Volume 2 of this effort is all about the effects on grizzly direction.”
The main topics for grizzly planning were oil and gas development, grazing, recreation and access, and vegetation management. While some of those sound similar to the forest plan issues, Krueger said the bears’ needs prompt different questions.
For example, recreation and access in potential grizzly bear habitat affects how the U.S. Forest Service maintains front-country campgrounds and more dispersed resources like trails and remote campsites.
Vegetation management looks at how timber harvest might affect core grizzly habitat.
“Now that we’ve finished the scoping period, we need to get on with the work of analyzing environmental consequences,” Krueger said. “We expect to have the draft environmental impact statement ready by January. At that point, there will be plenty of opportunity for the public to provide feedback. We’ll have a 90-day comment period after we release the draft EIS.”