The end of the election season and the beginning of the year offer a welcome opportunity to put politics aside and work across the aisle on what matters most to Montanans. While we may not always agree on the details, Montanans believe in sharing the responsibility for developing strong, vibrant communities while protecting what sets our state apart from so many others — a wealth of public lands and wild places.
For nearly 10 years, members of the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition — a partnership of recreationists, business owners, mill operators and conservationists — have remained dedicated to finding common-ground solutions to our most difficult public land management challenges. Our work together hasn’t always been easy, but it has been valuable. People who once sat on opposite sides of a courtroom now find themselves sharing a table at the local diner.
Last year, the coalition reached consensus on nearly the entire 2.2 million-acre Kootenai National Forest. Building on the Three Rivers Challenge in the Yaak, this agreement sets aside backcountry for future generations, designates recreation areas for both winter and summer uses, and lays out principles that keep a steady flow of logs to local mills. Just as important, our agreement serves as a framework for how we will work together into the future.
We know each election brings change. But what hasn’t changed over time is how we work together on our public lands.
A recent, bipartisan Colorado College poll found seven out of 10 respondents preferred protecting water, air and wildlife while providing recreational opportunities. Eighty-two percent support improving access for hunters, hikers and other recreationists. Here in Montana, that same poll found six out of 10 people oppose transferring national public lands to the states.
Last fall while candidates were debating, we were busy holding open houses in Noxon, Troy, Libby and Eureka. We spoke to dozens of people about what matters most to them on our public lands. At one point, a local business owner in Libby commended the group for the years of hard work, saying, “It’s exciting to see the diversity of participants and their unity in moving the proposal forward in this polarizing political climate.”
In that spirit, we have worked tirelessly to boost local economies by maintaining forest jobs and supporting forest service projects. We also agreed on the importance of safeguarding snowmobile access as it exists today in areas like Northwest Peaks, Drift Peak and Saddle Mountain. We also believe it’s essential to secure wildlife habitat and ensure our wilderness heritage for future generations in Roderick and Saddle Mountain, Scotchmans Peaks and areas adjacent to the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness.
In the coming year, we will continue to sit down with our neighbors in search of ways to move forward together. After another long election season, we look forward to getting back to the work of setting our differences aside to protect our public lands legacy.
If you have questions or would like to participate, please visit our website at kootenaifuture.org.
This opinion is signed by the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition executive board: Ed Levert, Lincoln County forester; Robyn King, Yaak Valley Forest Council; Amy Robinson, Montana Wilderness Association; Tim Dougherty, Idaho Forest Group; and Paul McKenzie, F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber.