KALISPELL – With one deadline past and another looming, Flathead National Forest officials will be working weekends to identify the issues raised in objections filed on a proposed land-use plan.
They tallied 74 objections when the objection period ended Monday on the plan that will guide future management decisions on the 2.4 million-acre forest for the next decade or longer.
Over the next 90 days, the agency will work with different groups in an effort to resolve a variety of issues raised during a process that will be closely watched by those who care about the future of that landscape.
It’s been 30 years since the last update to the Flathead Forest land-use plan.
The process to get to this point took four years. Officials gleaned through 33,000 comments before the proposal was officially released in December.
The process includes an amendment that addresses management of grizzly bear habitat on the Flathead, Lolo, Kootenai, and Helena-Lewis and Clark forests included within the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.
Flathead Forest plan revision leader Joe Krueger said so far the objections have not contained any surprises.
In order to object, parties were required to have already submitted substantive formal comments on the draft plan or the amendments under consideration.
“We’ve seen it all before,” Krueger said.
By Thursday, Krueger’s team is required to publish a notice of all objections and identify issues. From there, people interested in taking part in the review process can file as “interested persons” by March 2.
Resolution meetings will occur in April.
F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Company’s land and resource manager Paul McKenzie said a lot can change through that resolution process.
“For us, this next step is very important,” McKenzie said. “We will be watching closely to see how these objections are addressed.”
The Columbia Falls mill’s objection focused on the plan’s proposed timber sale quantity numbers that were affected by the agency’s prediction of the amount of timber that could be harvested based on budget constraints.
McKenzie said the mill is asking the agency to also include a second higher number that allows for a larger harvest should the Flathead Forest receive additional resources or find a new way of doing business.
Overall, McKenzie said the mill’s chief concern about the plan was prescriptive and didn’t allow for much flexibility on the project level.
“Saw logs did go up just slightly,” he said. “In our opinion, that number could have gone up more. We had hoped that they would have written a plan that would address the ecological need, but they didn’t quite get there.”
On the other end of the spectrum, numerous conservation groups said the agency’s proposal doesn’t go far enough to preserve wild places and protect wildlife.
The groups said 98 percent of the comments on the draft forest plan urged the agency to recommend preserving the remaining roadless areas as wilderness and remove 500 miles of roads to protect grizzly bears and habitat important to other threatened species, including bull trout and lynx.
The groups said the final plan proposes to protect 30 percent of roadless lands as wilderness and weakens standards that will allow for 500 miles of roads to remain in place.
“It’s very disappointing to see the Flathead National Forest shirk its responsibility to the American people” said Jake Kreilick of the WildWest Institute. “They are the stewards of the most biologically diverse assemblage of native fish and wildlife in the 48 states, and they’ve produced a plan that damages this national resource.”
Wilderness Watch executive director George Nickas said proposed standards for stock use would impact the Bob Marshall Wilderness by allowing parties of up to 15 people to bring up to 35 head of stock.
Nickas said the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force had recommended the maximum number of stock be limited to 15.
“The Forest Service seems hell-bent on proving it can’t be trusted with our national treasures,” Nickas said.
Other conservation organizations urged the agency to revisit its standards that veer away from decommissioning old roads to improve grizzly bear habitat and bull trout watersheds.
“The revised Forest Plan abandons the standards necessary to measure the health of native fish watersheds and secure habitat for wildlife,” said Arlene Montgomery with Friends of the Wild Swan. “Rather than stick with the tried and true indicators the Flathead chose to negatively impact every imperiled species on the forest.”
“The Flathead is abandoning road removal, the true habitat restoration it says is helping recover grizzly bears and bull trout,” said Swan View Coalition Chair Keith Hammer. “It is replacing that with road building and logging and trying to call that restoration. We don’t buy it and the science doesn’t support it.”
Krueger said the agency did receive numerous letters of support on the final plan.
"We know we're in the conflict business...I'm super proud of the work that we put together," he said.