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Holland Lake in Autumn by Chuck Haney

Looking down onto Holland Lake and the Mission Mountains in autumn in the Flathead National Forest.

The U.S. Forest Service has released a signed Record of Decision for the new Flathead National Forest plan.

Under the plan, more than half of the Flathead — over a million acres — will be managed as wilderness, 13 percent will be managed for research and  recreation, and 28 percent will be managed as “General Forest” with some degree of vegetation management.

It also includes plans for managing endangered and threatened species such as Canada lynx, bull trout and grizzly bears.

This step, completed Monday and announced in a press release Friday, caps a four-year effort to craft a new management plan for the Flathead National Forest, which spans 2.4 million acres in northwest Montana, and whose previous management plan dated to 1986.

The recent government shutdown marred completion of this process. While the Record of Decision detailing the rationale for the plan and final changes was completed in late December, it wasn’t made public until last week.

The Forest Service published a Notice of Plan Approval Dec. 27, a step that Forest Supervisor Chip Weber said was automatic, announcing the plans would take effect 30 days later, even though the record of decision wasn't visible.

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“That’s what that grace period is for, so that the public can be on the same page” as the government, said Keith Hammer, chair of the Swan View Coalition.

Hammer said that, while he saw few surprises in the delayed Record of Decision, “procedurally, we’re disappointed in that. Substantively, we’re very disappointed in the plan.”

He took particular issue with the level of wildlife protections offered in the final plan and the area available for logging. While the Forest Service’s press release included supportive words from both the Montana Wilderness Association and F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Company, Hammer dismissed these statements as “political cover” for the Forest Service, and not in keeping with the vast majority of public comments.

While the plan has been completed, the Forest Service and other stakeholders might soon hear more of these concerns. A frequent critic of — and litigator against — the service, Hammer said that “we’re definitely considering” a lawsuit. “We’re having discussions with attorneys about it.”

He predicted future litigation would focus on the agency’s road- and culvert-related decisions under the plan, and their impacts on grizzly bears and bull trout.

To view the Record of Decision, visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/detailfull/flathead/home/ and follow the link under “Forest Plan Revision.”

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Higher education reporter for the Missoulian