A sweeping update to national forest management throughout northwestern Montana was approved at the end of 2018, but the public can’t see its final updates due to the federal government shutdown.
Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber published the final record of decision of the Forest Land Management Plan and a four-forest amendment governing grizzly bear recovery in the Federal Register on Dec. 27. While the plans and amendments are available on the Forest Service website, the record of decision (ROD) was not released.
Reached by cell phone on Friday, Weber said the publication of the Federal Registry was essentially automatic but additional work hadn't been authorized during the shutdown.
"We'd gladly be putting the thing up and putting out press releases, but they're pretty strict about not obligating federal dollars without funding in place," Weber said. Weber was among a handful of Forest Service employees working without pay last week while the rest of the Flathead National Forest's roughly 160 full-time staff is on furlough.
“The ROD is supposed to show how the forest supervisor implemented the directions based on objections, and where (Region 1 Forester Leanne Marten) told him to make specific changes,” said Swan View Coalition Director Keith Hammer, who has filed numerous objections to the plan and amendments. “The Flathead Forest Plan must wait 30 days before it becomes effective. We don’t have a copy of the record of decision, and he (Weber) is under order to not give us the record of decision. That does put us in a real weird spot.”
Weber said he needed legal advice about whether the clock started with the federal publication date or would be reset after the government shutdown ends.
F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber lands manager Paul McKenzie said he didn’t expect big changes in the plan due to the objection resolutions.
“We’re hopeful there’s some things in there that encourage more active management,” McKenzie said. “I think it will allow them more flexibility with on-the-ground management.”
The 180-page plan (not including appendices) generally guides how specific future decisions will be made in the Flathead National Forest. The Forestwide Direction chapter records the current characteristics of its watersheds, plants and wildlife, fire and fuels, geology and invasive species. It lists the ways people use the forest, including recreation, hunting, trails and campgrounds, and historic sites. It catalogs the timber, energy and livestock potential. And it describes the academic, tribal, social and business communities invested in the forest.
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The Management Area Direction chapter discusses recommended wilderness and wild and scenic river issues, research activities, and backcountry rules. The Geographic Area Direction chapter breaks down specific concerns in the Hungry Horse, Middle Fork, North Fork, Salish Mountains, South Fork and Swan Valley regions of the national forest. The Monitoring Program chapter covers the biological, human use, resource production and economic measurements that forest staff will track.
“There’s an apparent emphasis on higher levels of recreation in places where wildlife values are really high,” said Dave Hadden of Headwaters Montana, a Whitefish-based conservation organization. “Everybody loves the Flathead National Forest, but there’s a need to protect the resources as well. This seems to signal there’s going to be a big shift in how forests managed, when we were trying to maintain the status quo. We don’t want to create a major social split in the valley when people have got accustomed to how things are going.”
The Flathead Forest also got the job of writing grizzly bear management policies that apply to three other national forests with oversight of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem (NCDE). About 1,000 grizzly bears inhabit the mountains between Glacier National Park and Missoula. The Kootenai, Lolo and Lewis and Clark/Helena national forests all touch on that recovery area.
The Habitat Management Directions for the Northern Continental Divide grizzlies run 364 pages. It directs forest managers how to balance the needs of grizzly bears with activities like logging, recreation, road-building, and other endangered or threatened species on the national forests.
The amendments were drafted in anticipation of NCDE grizzlies being delisted from the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intended to have a delisting rule ready by the end of 2018. But a court failure of grizzly delisting in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem last September stalled plans to move grizzlies in both areas to state oversight.
Hammer and Missoula-based grizzly protection advocate Mike Bader had raised many objections to the grizzly amendments before they became final. Bader said he thought the new plan and amendments failed to uphold past commitments to grizzly survival.
“It’s just a free-for-all of motorized trail use and logging and everything else,” Bader said. “You can’t squeeze all those resources out of a piece of land and have female grizzly bears and cubs able to live there.”
According to the Federal Register, the grizzly amendments have already become permanent and the Flathead Plan takes effect on Jan. 27.
“I imagine this is open for challenge for the foreseeable future,” Bader said. “But the thing about forest plans is you can’t challenge them on their face. You have to wait for a project authorized under the plan.”