After four years of meetings, field trips and more than 33,000 public comments, Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber Thursday released the draft record of decision and final environmental impact statement for the Flathead National Forest plan.
The new plan will replace a plan that was last written and conceived in 1986, but has been amended more than two dozen times over the years.
The new plan, a modified version of alternative B that was set in the draft environmental impact statement, sets the direction for land management of the 2.4 million acre Forest for the next 10 to 15 years, Weber said during an interview with members of the press on Thursday.
“This is a highly cherished land,” he said. “...One of the best functioning ecosystems in the world.”
The Forest Service and its planning team, led by Joe Krueger, held a host of field trips, collaborative public meetings and took comments from people across the U.S. in crafting the plan the last several years.
Having said that, Weber said there was distinction between collaboration and consensus.
“There will be controversy no matter how we made the decision,” he said.
Two hot topics in the plan promise to be the annual yield of timber from the Forest and the amount of recommended wilderness. All told, the Forest expects the annual yield to remain what it has been for the past several years — about 27 million board feet of sawlogs. That number is based on what’s sustainable and budget constraints, Weber noted. If the Forest had more funding, that number could rise to as high as 52 million board feet, Weber noted. Nationwide, the Forest Service budget has been drained in recent years to fight fires. This year, about 60 percent of its budget was used to fight forest fires, Weber noted.
The new plan also calls for about 190,000 acres of recommended wilderness — notable additions are in the upper end of the North Fork of the Flathead in the Mount Hefty-Tuchuk area and another coveted addition is in a portion of the Bunker Creek drainage. There’s also recommended wilderness along the Swan Front, in the Jewel Basin and in the Spotted Bear drainage.
Weber admitted there was some debate about the Bunker Creek addition — both pro and con, but in the end, he made the decision to add some of the drainage to recommended wilderness after having personally made two trips into the area himself.
He noted that all the recommended wilderness in the final plan was already inventoried roadless area, and as such, already has some protection. Recommended wilderness is just that — recommended — it doesn’t become wilderness until it’s codified into law by Congress.
But, in general, the Forest manages recommended wilderness as wilderness.
The plan also calls for 24 new Wild and Scenic river designations for streams in the Flathead. Many are headwater streams in the North, Middle and South Forks of the Flathead. Some are already in wilderness, but a portion of the Swan River in the Forest boundaries down near Swan Lake is one notable recommendation, as are both Trail and Whale Creeks in the North Fork.
Like wilderness, Wild and Scenic River designations have to be codified by Congressional action.
The plan also calls for flexibility is managing timber in the wildland urban interface, where wildfires are a concern near towns and houses.
The plan also looks to expand recreational opportunities in the Flathead — the most notable local areas are just to the north of Columbia Falls, where there’s demand for more motorized and mountain bike trails.
The plan also allows for more snowmobiling in some regions of the North and Middle Forks, though it does trim some use that was along the border of the Badger-Two Medicine region, where no snowmobiling is allowed.
In addition, also released was the draft record of decision and final environmental impact statement for grizzly bear habitat management for the Flathead, Helena-Lewis and Clark, Kootenai and Lolo National forests.
The idea, Weber said, was to protect habitat and allow for connectivity between of grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
The plans itself is about 100 pages long, but the supporting documents tally up into volumes — about 3,000 pages total.
It’s all available online at https://www.fs.usda.gov/detailfull/flathead/home/?cid=stelprdb5422786&width=full.
The public has 60 days to comment on the plan and raise objections, starting Dec. 14. Individuals who commented on the previous drafts have that time to file an objection and raise remaining concerns. Once objections are resolved, Weber will sign the final record of decision.