In the Bible’s First Book of Kings, Solomon nearly has to chop a baby in half before two women claiming to be its mother can resolve their dispute.
No swords were pulled at the table where the Whitefish Range Partnership found a way to let loggers, wilderness advocates, snowmobilers, mountain bikers, river rafters and cabin owners share 300,000 acres of the Flathead National Forest. But the roomful of longtime adversaries agreed having a Solomonic deadline actually helped them build the trust to share the land.
Last Monday, partnership members shared chili and champagne as they presented Flathead Forest Supervisor Chip Weber with their final agreement. Thirteen months in the making, the deal could help the U.S. Forest Service settle even bigger debates across the Rocky Mountains.
“We were concerned the thing might leave the tracks and never get on again,” said Bob Brown, a retired Whitefish legislator and Montana secretary of state who chaired the partnership. “But people recognized the area was large enough to accommodate everyone’s use and avoid those baby-splitting situations. If they gave up something in one place, they gained even more in another. When people put aside those ideologies, when they can get past that, they’re surprised how many things they can agree on.”
The proposal covers the Flathead National Forest’s portion of the Whitefish Range – the mountains above Columbia Falls and Whitefish. The western boundary follows the Lincoln-Flathead county line. The Canadian border caps the north. The North Fork of the Flathead River and Glacier National Park mark the eastern edge.
That’s one-seventh of the Flathead’s 2.4 million-acre federal territory. It includes the Whitefish Mountain Resort, the Tuchuck inventoried roadless area, uncut timberlands, old forest roads, bike trails, isolated campgrounds and mountaintop lookouts. It has a federal Wild and Scenic River on one side and transboundary wildlife corridors across its northern edge.
On Dec. 5, the Flathead Forest starts its own collaborative sessions on its forest plan – a document that guides all uses and activities on the national forest.
“Any time a diverse group of folks can get together and come to agreement – if they can resolve all those differences – we’re obviously going to give that a lot of consideration when we develop our plan,” said Joe Krueger, the Flathead’s forest plan revision leader. “What I liked about it was the win-win approach, the solution where everybody benefited. Everybody got something out of this process.”
Brown said at the start, he invited Gordy Sanders of Pyramid Mountain Lumber to tell the group about how other collaboratives have worked. Sanders has been a principle in the Blackfoot Challenge, which knit together ranchers, rafters, hunters and loggers in the Blackfoot River drainage northeast of Missoula. He’s also been instrumental in the Southwest Crown of the Continent collaborative, which guides a major Forest Service land-use project in western Montana.
“He’s a thinker with balanced judgment who can think outside the box,” Brown said of Sanders’ input. “We realized what had to be established was a trust relationship, and it took several meetings to do that. We also decided to have several meetings without the Forest Service present.”
Michael Jamison of the National Parks Conservation Association was one of the partnership participants. He said the group agreed they wanted to see what they could produce as neighbors before the federal agency got involved.
“The old way was to wait for the Forest Service to start a planning process, then go in and ask for the world and argue against others getting anything,” Jamison said of past planning efforts. “The Forest Service is doomed in that situation. They will create a map that no one likes.”
In fact, the Forest Service did have a 2005 map of the Whitefish Range that showed the claw marks of past lawsuits between wilderness supporters and snowmobile clubs, challenged timber sales and ski area expansion plans. It also showed road densities, grizzly bear habitat, trails, private property and state land.
“We went at it more like a zoning process,” Jamison said. “Our agreement doesn’t say put a trail here to here, or logging unit here and snowmobiles there. It’s more like in a city where you say here is for residential, there is for light industrial use. We’re saying this should be wilderness, or special interest area, or general forest timber base or roadless backcountry.”
The group had several ground rules. The first was that nothing got done without consensus. That way, no one felt outnumbered at the table, since anyone could block progress.
To counter that, anyone giving a thumbs-down had to put up a counterproposal to what they didn’t like. And no agreement on a small issue was final until the whole package got approved.
“If people have the option to just say no and write a minority report, you’re offering them an easy out they’ll take every time,” Jamison said. “There’s no incentive to get consensus. And if you got what you wanted in week one, it would be easy to not stick around for the rest of it. But all this stuff is interconnected. To pin down timber later, we might have to re-jigger something we did in snowmobiling. As it was, snowmobiling was both the first and last thing we voted on.”
Snowmobile representative Robbie Holman said another crucial factor was dropping the philosophy discussion. After a brief discussion of what people thought about wilderness and the taxpayer and similar beliefs, the group decided to focus on maps.
“When we switched horses to how we divvied up the land, that’s how it ended up working,” Holman said. “Nobody changed minds. But even if you didn’t agree with the uses the land was divvied up for, as long as the group you represented got something of value, it ended up being a compromise.”
For example, snowmobilers have a history of riding in the hills south of Big Creek Road and north of Whitefish. Wilderness advocates have wanted federal protection of the Tuchuck and Mount Thompson-Seton areas near the Canadian border. Neither had established interests on the other end of the map, so they agreed to back each other’s use proposals in the final document.
The process started to wobble a couple of times, and nearly derailed toward the end, according to Brown.
“The backcountry bicyclists were pretty assertive,” Brown recalled. “Part of the problem was they don’t like to use the same trails as backcountry horsemen. There was some friction there.
“And bicyclists took a firm position against wilderness, until they realized they’re likely never going to use that anyway,” Brown added. “So it became, as a practical matter, if we can get wilderness people to cooperate with us outside the wilderness, we can get off their backs on wilderness.”
King Solomon nearly had to get out his sword on those occasions. But as in the Bible story, the idea of seeing a whole child grow up was more important than owning half a baby.
“Toward the end, there was a concern it wasn’t going to come together right up to the point it was signed,” said Noah Bodman of the Flathead Fat Tires mountain biking group. “Some wilderness advocates were trying to get more wilderness, and that’s a concern to mountain bikers because we aren’t allowed in wilderness.”
Compounding the problem, Bodman said mountain bikers are relative newcomers to a debate where horse riders, motorcyclists, loggers and hikers have been roughhousing for decades. While the senior players could show legal precedents and scientific research to back their cases, the bicyclists had to spend time introducing themselves.
“There’s a tendency to lump us in with dirt-bikers and other motorized guys,” Bodman said. “There was a lot of gut reaction and feelings from all sides. That makes it a little difficult when nobody’s pointing to concrete evidence.”
In the final agreement, the bikers gained recognition for their trail-building efforts around Whitefish, as well as their interest in using mountain roads and trails elsewhere. Loggers saw their suitable timber base go from about 55,000 acres to 90,000 acres. Wilderness advocates outlined 85,000 acres they want federally protected. Forest homeowners concerned about having federal wilderness bordering their property borrowed an idea from the Flathead Indian Reservation and proposed a buffer zone that would allow reduced logging or hazardous fuels management around their land before the nonmotorized territory began.
All of this remains tentative, as the Forest Service adds it to the public process for its forest plan. The radical fringe of all camps will likely object. But few will have put in the 13 months of Monday nights to present a case as convincing as the Whitefish Range Partnership.
“Reaching that final thumbs-up became pretty important all around the room,” Brown said. “I wish the members of Congress would understand that. You can always go along with your most ardent supporters – that’s easy to do. But statesmanship requires courage. It’s understanding what needs to happen in the long term and saying ‘I’ll take the chance and explain that to the people who go along with me. They may not understand this now, but they will eventually.’ That’s statesmanship.”