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Forest management

Mired in a fog of controversy and litigation for more than 25 years, issues of forest management in Montana and the causes of troubles in the timber industry remain a topic of discussion and disagreement among the state's citizens. 

A pair of stakeholder forums about the future of the Lolo and Bitterroot national forests raised complaints from groups wondering why they weren’t invited.

National Forest Foundation facilitator Ben Irey described the meetings in Lolo and St. Regis as informal opportunities to get people talking about the coming forest plans that will guide each national forest’s staff in long-term decision-making.

Critics questioned why the Forest Federation and Forest Service leaders didn’t publicize the meetings beyond direct invitations to some groups who’d participated in a policy review a year ago. They also wondered what would happen to a survey of goals and concerns taken at the meetings, and how those results might shape future Forest Service planning directions.

“It was obviously an attempt to control who was there,” said George Nickas of Wilderness Watch, an environmental group frequently critical of Forest Service land management. “It was a way to set up a Forest Service/National Forest Foundation-directed collaborative to supplant the public process in developing forest plans.”

Nickas said he was not notified of the meetings despite being involved in Lolo and Bitterroot national forest issues for 30 years. He and other groups learned about them through others who’d participated in an Environmental Analysis and Decision-Making Roundtable in 2018.

Willy Peck of Idaho Timber Group attended both the Lolo and St. Regis meetings. He agreed there was confusion over how the sessions were publicized.

“It was never intended to be a collaborative meeting,” Peck said. “It was supposed to be bringing people together who may be interested in doing the forest planning process revision.”

Every national forest in the nation is updating its forest plan, which details how supervisors design timber sales, protect wildlife habitat, manage recreation activity and make other decisions on federal public lands. The Flathead National Forest completed its forest plan update in January. The Lolo and Bitterroot forests have not started their update process. Those are expected to get underway in a year or two.

“We think there (are) some potential good outcomes for people working together well in advance to forest planning, to build those relationships so people aren’t at loggerheads so much,” Irey said. “This was really just targeted to stakeholders we knew would be interested, and we asked them to spread the word to others they thought would be interested.”

No future stakeholder forums are planned, Irey said. Last weeks’ sessions were intended for interested people to form their own groups to study the forest plan proposals and contribute to the process.

The meetings included staff from Forest Service Region 1’s social science office who were exploring ways of learning what topics people were interested in, according to Region 1 spokesman Dan Hottle. He said given the meeting agenda’s statement that the Forest Service “is taking seriously its obligation to provide opportunities for public engagement,” any future sessions would be better advertised.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.