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By Nathan Bourne
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Residents Express Concerns Over Flathead Plan

 

February 8, 2018



SWAN VALLEY – Representatives of the Flathead National Forest met with area residents at the Swan Valley Community Hall to discuss where the re-writing of the Forest Plan is in the process and the next steps. The Swan Valley Community Council arranged the Jan. 31 meeting.

Forest Plan Revision Team Leader Joe Krueger presented on the plan. Rick Connell, Fire Management officer for the Flathead National Forest, and Eric Trimble, Timber Management Office Swan Lake Ranger District, helped address audience questions and concerns.

The current Forest Plan is more than 30 years old and was only written as a 15-year plan. The re-writing of the Forest Plan has been in the works since 2013, starting with an assessment of the existing conditions. The revision team then created a proposed action that was then presented at several open houses.

From comments received they created four alternative plans. Some of the major issues considered when creating the alternatives were wildlife habitat, timber harvest, fire suppression, recommended wilderness and both motorized and non-motorized recreation.

Generally speaking, Alternative A was no action, B was the team’s proposed action, C turned all roadless areas into proposed wilderness while lessening vegetation treatment in other areas and D put all roadless and proposed wilderness areas into backcountry non-motorized use and increased vegetation treatment in other areas.

Along with the Flathead’s Forest Plan, amendments to the Helena-Lewis and Clark, Lolo and Kootenai National Forest Plans have been created for updating land management in the region in regards to grizzly bears. Krueger said the grizzly bear has met all the recovery criteria and therefore managers can look at freezing the conditions that have allowed grizzlies to thrive. Without an updated management plan, the Forest Service will have to continue decommissioning roads. Updating these plans is one step required in the process of delisting the bear as an endangered species.

After reviewing more than 33,000 comments received on the alternatives, the team modified Alternative B and created the Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

One major modification in the Swan Valley was moving the proposed wilderness boundary further up the Swan Mountain Range to the east of Condon. This allows a buffer for fire suppression between private property and the future wilderness area.

Another change in the valley was identifying areas as General Forest - Low, Moderate and High Intensity Vegetation Management instead of listing it all as General Forest.

The Draft Record of Decision for the Final EIS and Forest Plan was published in December of 2017 along with the Draft Record of Decision for the Final EIS for the amendments for grizzly bear habitat management in neighboring forests.

The next step in the process is a 60-day objection period that closes Feb. 12. Only those who have previously submitted “substantive formal comments” are eligible to object. Objections can only be made on the topics the objector previously commented on. New issues cannot be raised.

Objections must follow a very specific process to be accepted. For more on the objection process visit: https://www.fs.usda.gov/detailfull/flathead/home/?cid=stelprdb5422786

After the close of the objection period the team will take 10 days to identify all the legitimate objections. They will then publish all the issues and objectors in a legal notice.

Anyone who is interested in supporting or opposing a submitted objection will have 10 days to register as an “interested person.” Interested persons may or may not have made formal comment earlier in the process. Information on how to become an interested person will be contained in the legal notice.

An outside team will come in to review the objections and how the revision team addressed the objector’s original concerns. Recommendations to the regional forester will be made after holding meetings with objectors, interested persons and Flathead Forest personnel.

Chip Weber, Forest Supervisor of the Flathead National Forest, is the responsible official that will approve the record of decision for the Flathead’s Forest Plan while the Forest Supervisors of the neighboring forests will approve the amendments to each of their own Forest Plans.

A paper copy and CDs of the proposed Forest Plan and supporting materials were left at Swan Valley Connections in Condon for residents who lack computer access. All the materials are available on the Flathead Forest’s website, https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/flathead/home

Questions and Comments

Several residents expressed their frustrations accusing the Forest Service of not being more transparent. They felt that the community council shouldn’t have to invite the Forest Service, the Forest Service should have scheduled a meeting to inform the community on their own. There was also a lot of frustration that the Forest Service had visited Swan Valley Connections a couple weeks ago with this same information. The residents said that Swan Valley Connections does not represent the people of the Swan Valley.

“I’m not going to pick and choose, I’ve been trying to be responsive to any group that’s asked me [to come] where we’ve had the time and money,” said Krueger.

Krueger went on to explain that at this stage in the process they are not scheduling public meetings because it would be very hard to satisfy every community impacted by this plan. The meetings for taking in public comment have already happened.

Do you prefer an objection to use the template that is available online or can someone write their own? The template that is available on the website is meant to just be a guide. There are some very specific requirements to having a qualified objection. If you don’t follow all the requirements the objection may not be accepted.

Who is actually going to make this decision and is there any reason anyone would want to waste their time making an objection when you guys have already made up your mind? The public’s input has had an impact in changing the proposed plan including comments received from the Swan Valley. Every comment has been coded and grouped with other comments on similar issues. Professional resource specialists look at the issues and try to balance the full spectrum of people commenting with science and laws to make the best recommendations they can.

What does the Special Area designation mean? Usually it is botanical in nature but it may be something else that makes it unique to the area and in need of special management.

What will the change look like as far as actual management on the ground when the designated General Forest changes to High, Moderate and Low Vegetation Management designations? Based on public comment over fire concerns, they looked at the Swan Valley’s Fire Protection Plan and determined that the wildland urban interface would require higher intensity vegetation management. By labeling it as such in the plan it will facilitate projects for fuels reduction and timber production in the valley. They spent a lot of time trying to describe the difference in designations in the plan and wanted to give the public a little more of what to expect instead of simply calling it all general forest.

Is there more area in the Swan that will be used to produce more sustainable timber yield?

Yes, they expect to be able to harvest more timber with this new plan. One of the big changes is that because the grizzly bear met the recovery criteria in 2011, managers can go back to conditions that existed at that time and maintain the number of roads open in 2011. Krueger said it will still be a bone of contention but the new plan should allow vegetation work to be done inside the grizzly bear security core.

Does the Swan Valley have the timber to sustain higher intensity cutting? Trimble said the Swan Valley is an excellent area to be growing trees and that there is plenty of timber. There are also roads for access and a need for higher intensity management for fire protection.

Is delisting the grizzly bear tied to having more wilderness? No, it is not tied to wilderness. Delisting is based on having adequate regulations in the land management plans of all the public land agencies to protect the bear.

There are millions of acres of wilderness, why do we need more? Krueger said there is a lot of people that value wilderness just as much as other people value timber production. Only areas that are currently inventoried roadless areas have been proposed wilderness and they have been designated as such since the 1986 plan.

If the proposed wilderness areas are acting as buffers to the wilderness, won’t they have to take another strip out of the valley for a buffer when the proposed wilderness areas turn into wilderness? There are not buffers required next to wilderness areas.

 

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