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SWAN LAKE – A never-before-tried idea to let a county conservation district manage 60,000 acres of federal forest got a vigorous review on Wednesday evening.

About 75 people came to hear Lake County Conservation District Chairman Jim Simpson pitch the Swan Forest Initiative: a proposal giving local control over logging and hazardous fuels on a portion of the Flathead National Forest. While the plan has been under study for more than six years, Simpson said it still had a long way to go.

"We are not talking about privatizing lands," Simpson said early in the two-hour presentation. "We're only talking about changing out the manager and changing out the laws of managing that land. All existing legal uses can still occur."

What would also occur would be a stepped-up level of timber harvest. Simpson cited an economic analysis of the Flathead Forest lands in Lake County that aren't designated wilderness or otherwise off-limits to logging, which estimated revenues between $500,000 and $1.6 million a year depending on saw-log prices.

The adjacent 56,000-acre Swan State Forest currently earns about $600,000 annually from logging, which goes to various state programs through the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Simpson said the conservation district would contract with DNRC for similar management of the federal land, with the profits going to local conservation work.

"It's national forest," Salmon Prairie resident Neil Meyer said. "It belongs to everybody. How do we take a piece of that and give it to Lake County?"

Those details remain unresolved, Simpson said. While the conservation district board has kept Forest Service, state and county officials informed of the project, no other agency has given an OK or even participated in the debate yet. On the other hand, Simpson said, no one has told him to stop.

Meanwhile, lack of Forest Service management has led to dangerous levels of dead wood in the forest that puts residents at risk for wildfire, Simpson said. However, he could not cite specific levels of fuels buildup or end-goals of what the landscape would look like after treatment.

Asked if the concept was related to proposals by the American Lands Council to privatize federal lands, Simpson strongly countered.

"If ALC tries to co-opt this concept, we're out of here," Simpson said. "Our conservation district does not support privatizing federal lands."

Nevertheless, many in the room remained skeptical that a small division of local government could manage something as complex as a federal forest, with its multiple duties to wildlife habitat, recreation, boundary management, firefighting, and commercial use. Others asked how the national public would benefit from Lake County residents taking all the local profits from the cut trees.

One particular division in the room straddled the question of what laws would govern management of the conservation forest. Simpson said a major plank of the idea was that Montana state law and courts would be the venue for overseeing timber sales and disputes. That meant federal laws like the Equal Access to Justice Act would not be available to pay the expenses of litigants in federal courts.

Keith Hammer of the environmental group Swan View Coalition pointed out those laws were in place to ensure the national public maintained its right to participate in decisions on federal land.

Simpson replied that laws protecting the land, such as the Endangered Species Act or Clean Water Act, could not be lifted by local control. He also pledged that Montana state laws requiring user permits on state land couldn't be part of the deal either, because that would impose state limits on people's right to access their federal lands.

The proposal would probably have to win congressional approval, Simpson said, which would also give the national audience a vote through their elected representatives.

Trout Unlimited senior policy director Corey Fisher doubted that would work.

"Cutting out the Forest Service and transferring management authority to DNRC would effectively silence every American who doesn't happen to be a constituent of Lake County or the State of Montana," Fisher wrote in a statement. "Enough time and money has been spent on this dead-end proposal. It's time to let it die and concentrate on our current responsibilities."

Simpson acknowledge the study and analyses have been paid for through a $25,000 grant from the state Legislature.

"We know from the emails we've received at the office that there are very strong opinions on this issue right now," Lake County Commissioner Bill Barron said. "Whether you agree with this or not, I think it's important to listen to it. Lake County has no opinion on this at this point."

Simpson noted that the Lake County Conservation District's seven members have split on the concept, 5-2. Once it has received all the public feedback it can get by March, it plans to decide how to go forward.

"A lot of people are saying this is crazy - it's not going to go anywhere," Simpson said. "We just want to find out from you if this goes forward or if it stops."

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