(CN) — Jim Miller isn’t looking forward to the next time the Bitterroot National Forest tries to revise its forest management plan. As president of the Friends of the Bitterroot, a small but dedicated group of western Montana conservationists, Miller already participated in the process once in 2005. The experience was discouraging, but this time, he'll be prepared, Miller said.
Frustrated with what's happened in the past and what they say are the Forest Service’s skewed priorities, the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Task Force, a regional conservation coalition, has published its own plan proposal in advance of Lolo and Bitterroot national forest efforts. It’s becoming a trend as more national forests are finally updating long overdue plans.
“We didn’t want to be behind the eight ball. Once (the forests) start scoping, they’ve pretty much made up their mind as to what they want it to be,” said Mike Bader, Task Force consultant.
The current management plans for the Lolo and Bitterroot forests were published in 1986 and 1987, respectively, and are now out-of-date. Forest management plans are comprehensive documents intended to guide every aspect of management on each national forest. Because science and policies change over time, management plans are supposed to be updated about every 15 years. But few national forests have been able to meet that goal.
The Bitterroot Forest tried in 2005, inviting stakeholders from extractive industries, recreational groups and conservation organizations to weekly meetings. Then, after negotiating for two months, participants received a card informing them the Forest Service needed to revise its planning rule due to a court challenge, so the forest would start over at some future date.
“It was one of the most painful experiences of my life. It was a group of people sitting at the table dividing up the forest for their own wants and needs. There was no baseline in terms of what are the ecosystem values that we need to acknowledge and start with. That information was absent,” Miller said. “So that’s what’s so important about this document — this is the good science. This identifies what is important to wildlife. The corridors. What are the waterways that are important to fish? Where are the old growth forests?”
At 25 pages, the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Task Force’s Citizen Plan doesn’t address all the issues included in a normal 400- to 500-page forest plan. But it hits the aspects that conservationists and wildlife advocates want the two national forests to preserve, specifically wildlife corridors, wilderness and roadless areas, stream habitat and old-growth forests.
“One of the things that’s pretty unique about our region is we have 99% of the fish and wildlife that were here when Lewis and Clark came through — they’re not in great numbers but they’re still there. So that’s one of the things we’re working on maintaining,” Bader said. “We think Lolo and Bitterroot need to be considered together because they’re part of the same landscape.”
Conservationists say that getting the Forest Service to preserve wildlife and wild places is getting increasingly difficult, in spite of the fact that national polls continue to show that Americans place high value on such things. But extractive industries continue to push for access as do an increasing number of recreational groups, from traditional hikers and campers to newer over-the-road drivers to e-bike riders.
“The Forest Service is under enormous pressures from all kinds of areas: recreation, logging, mining, a lot of pressures. So we’re trying to present the best available science, the most reasonable plan that could be possible. Our ultimate goal is to educate the public and to get this as one of the alternatives during the revision process,” said Task Force president Patty Ames.