Recent news coverage concerning the revised Flathead National Forest Plan likely left readers with the impression that all is well on the forest — one of our national forest system’s crown jewels. As an admirer of Bob Marshall’s storied legacy fighting to protect these places, and a veteran of many public wildlands campaigns, I can say that the Flathead’s new plan significantly decreases protections for its remaining roadless lands.
This is a major setback for the native birds, fish and wildlife on the Flathead. While grizzly bears have received more attention of late, rarer species like the bull trout, Canada lynx and wolverine are just as dependent on these intact lands for their survival.
All planning is a compromise but this process shows the huge disconnect between how the U.S. Forest Service weights public comment versus collaboration. The former generated close to 34,000 comments from across the country recommending the conservation alternative that protected 98 percent of the roadless lands on the Flathead and yet the final decision was tilted to the wishes of a local collaborative — the Whitefish Range Partnership.
The revised forest plan releases 70 percent of the roadless lands suitable for wilderness designation (established in the original plan), allowing a host of wilderness-degrading activities. This means more roads, more logging, more trails for ORVs, snowmobiles and mountain bikes. All this in exchange for 80,000 acres of recommended wilderness in the Whitefish Range. What gives?
There is something seriously wrong with our democratic system when the Forest Service public process favors certain interests — like commercial or local or collaborative — over the considerations of all Montanans and all Americans. The National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air and Clean Water acts and the National Forest Management Act gave all Americans a say in how our public lands are both protected and managed.
Less than two generations removed from the enactment of these laws, our country is going backwards on environmental protection. The Flathead plan revision is a microcosm of this trend. The fact that the views of 34,000 Americans (a clear supermajority) who asked for the Flathead’s remaining wildlands to be protected were ignored to appease local and commercial interests demonstrates the undermining of our fundamental democratic rights. Science has also been tossed aside, an academic nuisance and legal headache to those in charge.
Longtime conservationists who value the purity and serenity of our unprotected wildlands will be particularly dismayed by the actions and comments from the Montana Wilderness Association (MWA). Crowing about 80,000 acres of “recommended” wilderness while deliberately writing off 500,000 acres across the rest of the forest is a slap in the face to Bob Marshall and the generations of Montanans and other Americans who have worked to protect them.
Unfortunately, the Flathead National Forest has missed a golden opportunity to look forward and tackle the real challenges it faces: new social and recreational demands brought on by a growing population, changing climatic conditions, further fragmentation of wildlife habitat and the recognition that wilderness is a finite resource and will only get more valuable.
Environmental groups, citizens and scientists will not be silent while MWA gives away the last wild places for a pittance. Nor will we stand idly by while the Forest Service increases the Suitable Timber Base, allowing more logging inside the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem Grizzly Bear Core Security Area or abandons their commitment to Amendment 19 road closures and road decommissioning — hard-fought protections earned during the height of the logging program in the 1980s and 90s by Friends of the Wild Swan and Swan View Coalition. I, along with many other groups in the environmental and conservation community, will fight these concessions until we win.
Art Sedlack Lives!