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Forests of the Future: Local or National Control?

Montana, like most of the West, continues to struggle with the question of how its massive federal lands should be managed. While collaborator groups and the timber industry have been very busy suggesting management plans that primarily benefit local economies and desires, an outpouring of support for continued federal management of the 2.4 million acre Flathead National Forest from across the nation once again reminds us that these are lands and resources owned by all 323 million Americans, not just a handful of local interests or politicians.

In the recently closed public comment period on the Flathead National Forest’s draft environmental impact statement and draft revised forest plan, a rather astounding 34,409 comments were submitted by members of the Sierra Club, Wilderness Watch and WildEarth Guardians urging the management of all remaining roadless lands as wilderness to protect wildlife, water and recovery of imperiled species such as the grizzly bear, lynx, bull trout and wolverine.

To be sure, thousands of those comments were submitted as suggested by the organizations who alerted their members to the opportunity to help steer the future direction of the national forest lands. But many were also personalized statements of support for maintaining and enhancing protection for the vital – and increasingly rare – still intact ecosystems of the Northern Rockies.

The concerns of the commenters are certainly not new. Road-building for oil and gas exploration and development, logging and recreation tops the list due to the well-documented impacts of roads and the increasing number of humans pushing ever further into the remaining roadless lands.

Just as roads have been shown to increase grizzly bear mortality due to conflicts with humans, a new study coming out of the University of Alberta shows that elk – easily the most highly prized wildlife in Montana – tend to assiduously avoid roaded areas.

The study’s conclusions were that: “Elk responded to roads as they would natural predation risk. Elk selected areas farther from roads at all times of day with avoidance being greatest during twilight. In addition, elk sought cover and moved more when in the vicinity of roads. Consequently, any new road construction or increases in existing road-use intensity would have detrimental effects on migratory elk populations by restricting space-use.

Energy development is transforming landscapes in western North America with the proliferation of roads, which I show is having substantial and multifaceted negative effects on elk behavior across multiple scales.” That’s no surprise to elk hunters here, many of whom will tell you the best way to find elk is to park the rig and start walking away from the road.

Meanwhile, the Lake County Conservation District is surveying people to determine whether there is local support for turning over some 60,000 acres of national forest in the Swan Valley to state management for logging for the next 100 years.

It’s strange to see a government agency whose “funding for operations comes from a small tax levied on real property within the boundaries of the conservation district” spending funds on this exercise when, according to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), “the majority of conservation district levies generate under $25,000 in revenue. This funding is inadequate to meet the goals of conservation districts…”

It’s equally strange for a conservation district to step into the political arena rather than concentrate on its mission, which is “to carry out programs that conserve soil and water, protect streams and rivers, improve soil health, as well as improve wildlife habitat, improve the tax base, and protect the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of the state.”

Obviously there’s nothing in that mission statement to suggest taking over management of federal lands. Moreover, the many polls regarding the possible state takeover of federal lands consistently show the public far prefers the lands stay in federal management.

There’s no denying the effort by politicians at the federal, state, and local level for what they call “better management” of federal lands. Unfortunately, the inclination is to “manage” for resource extraction to fuel local economies rather than stewardship over the broad range of forest values and their long-term health.

With a Donald  Trump presidency and a Republican Congress dominated by corporate interests, we can expect to see more attempts to dish out public resources for private profit. But as the recent comments on the Flathead Forest Plan show, the public wants its lands protected, not ripped or roaded – and it’s risky business for politicians to ignore such strong public sentiment.

This column originally ran in the Missoulian.

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George Ochenski is a columnist for the Missoulian, where this essay originally appeared.

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