Highlighting a lot of work in Montana, U.S. Forest Service officials are touting the success of their Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program for 2012.

Projects with the CFLRP seal underwrote 156 full- and part-time jobs in the Lolo, Flathead and Lewis and Clark national forests, along with 52 miles of stream restoration, 7,598 acres of wildlife habitat restored or enhanced, and 814,000 board feet of timber cut.

Known as the Southwest Crown of the Continent, the project landed a $4 million annual allocation from Congress this year.

But the accomplishments have left some wondering when the Forest Service will get to other tasks that haven’t won a slot in the experimental program. With a nationwide budget of $40 million, CFLRP was one of the few line items in the Forest Service budget that’s grown in the past few years.

It’s also barely 4 percent of what the Forest Service spent fighting fires this year.

“We think it’s an exciting new way of doing business,” said Scott Brennan of the Wilderness Society, who co-chairs the Southwest Crown Collaborative advisory board. “These are very challenging fiscal times, so you have to go where there’s the greatest likelihood for success. This model is likely to succeed.”

CFLRP projects like Southwest Crown of the Continent had to compete for funding after the Healthy Forest Restoration Act was passed in 2009. It was one of 10 out of 73 applicants accepted in the program in its first year.

This year, 23 projects made the program. The Southwest Crown was one of just four to receive the top $4 million allocation.

Nationally, Forest Service officials credited CFLRP with creating or maintaining 4,574 jobs and $320 million in labor income. They claimed a reduction of wildfire risk on 612,000 acres and improved water supplies by the remediation of 6,000 miles of eroding roads.

“The Forest Service seems fully behind and gung-ho on forest lands restoration projects,” said Jake Kreilick of the Wild West Institute, who sits on the Lolo Restoration Committee that reviews similar projects to the Southwest Crown effort. “The other side of the coin is the agency hasn’t found a way to fund the projects we’ve worked on. The Lolo group just met last week, and people are frustrated that we haven’t had more results. We’ve been working on this for years, and there are certain people questioning whether it’s worthwhile.”

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Lolo National Forest Supervisor Debbie Austin acknowledged the vexation some committee members felt waiting their turn to see dirt moved and trees cut. But she defended the concept as a viable way to manage big country.

“We’re trying to really make a difference in landscapes where we have the ecological and social stars aligning,” Austin said. “By focusing on a project at a time, that allows us to make a big enough difference and then move on to another landscape.”

To land CFLRP funding, supporters have to show they’ve worked at the community level to build support for a big mix of different kinds of work. That includes logging, trail maintenance, road removal or repair, wildlife habitat improvement, hazardous fuels reduction and water quality upgrades. One of the overarching goals of working this way is to avoid lawsuits that stall forest activity.

Ironically, the Southwest Crown of the Continent appears to be the only project in the nation to face a lawsuit. Its Colt-Summit program north of Seeley Lake won raves for its combination of logging and habitat work for threatened grizzly bears and lynx. But opponents claimed the design violated the very principles it intended to promote.

That argument must work its way through U.S. District Court in Missoula. Other parts of the Southwest Crown have been going forward, much to Seeley Lake District Ranger Tim Love’s relief. The CFLRP money got eight stream culverts improved in 2012 where just one might have been done through regular budgeting. Likewise with weed control work.

Part of the reason for that is CFLRP’s insistence on matching dollars through in-kind contributions and partnerships. An arrangement with the Ponderosa Snow Warriors snowmobile club in Lincoln helped the Lincoln Ranger District treat 6,227 acres of noxious weeds in 2012, with the club contributing chemicals, equipment and labor.

“Every dollar we get becomes $2,” Austin said. “That helps us leverage the money we have.”

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However, the Lolo National Forest’s whole budget for 2012 was about $20 million. While the Southwest Crown of the Continent project added $4 million (plus the matching funds), its results were concentrated in the 1.5 million-acre territory around Seeley Lake.

Austin had to find other funds for work in Fish Creek, the Missoula area and the Lower Clark Fork regions.

Montana State Forester Bob Harrington has been a partner in several of the Lolo National Forest’s collaborative landscape projects. He saw hope that the model can produce big changes, if the money keeps coming.

“We’re exploring the methods where we can find forest multipliers, and with adequate investment, take these techniques and really get at the accelerated restoration program the Forest Service is pursuing right now,” Harrington said. “And it’s a case where we have to spend more up front and spend less on the back end with fire suppression costs. That maintains more green forest landscapes and protects communities. The big question is where does the money come from? We’re going to have really high fire suppression costs because of the growing severity of fire seasons. With Congress wrestling with the fiscal cliff, new money is hard to come by.”

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