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Public collaboration needed on Forest Plan

| August 5, 2005 12:00 AM

By Bob Castaneda

The Forest Service has begun the second phase of public meetings for revision of the Kootenai Forest Plan. The purpose of these meetings is to show the community what a revised Forest Plan might look like and to encourage people to work together to recommend any changes to what we are calling the Starting Option.

The feedback I'm getting is that we "did not listen" to what most people told us they wanted because they believe the Starting Option does not provide for increased access, more flexible forest management, nor does it add to economic stability.

I recently talked to a local businessman and, after some explanations of the Starting Option he said, "You might have a reasonable plan but you have a terrible marketing approach." The more I thought about what he said the more I realized he was probably right. many people asked us to build a pickup and perhaps we came closer to designing a sport utility vehicle.

So, where do we go from here?

The Forest Service needs to do a better job of explaining what can be decided in the Forest Plan and what can't, with the bottom line being that the revised Forest Plan must comply with existing Federal laws and regulations.

For example, several years ago the Regional Forester issued a decision restricting off-highway vehicles (OHVs) from cross-country travel. The revised Forest Plan will not change that decision. Soon after the Forest Plan decision is final, the Forest Service will begin more detailed access and travel planning. The public needs to be involved in this effort, which will result in designation of specific routes and areas for motorized travel.

Roads are closed on the Kootenai National Forest primarily for the recovery of grizzly bears, bull trout, lynx, and protection of other key wildlife habitat. The revised Forest Plan will have these same goals and requirements, so increasing motorized access in these areas is not feasible. However, other areas of the forest may provide options for improving access such as establishing more loop routes. Those specific route decisions would be made through the travel planning process I mentioned earlier.

The Starting Option includes three levels of general forest management on approximately 65 percent of the total acres. The general forest management areas allow timber harvest and hazardous fuels reduction as the primary methods to restore the forest to healthy conditions. Based on our initial projections, the levels of timber harvest and fuels reduction in the Starting Option would be similar to current management. In the future, I believe the biggest influence on acres treated and outputs will be budget limitations, not the Forest Plan direction.

The Starting Option also includes other management areas where timber harvest and fuels reduction can be used to meet resource objectives such as maintaining scenery, water quality, and habitat. Overall, I believe the Starting Option does provide the flexibility needed for short and long term management, addressing emergency situations, and providing diverse economic opportunities for our communities.

The single biggest change and point of controversy between current management and the Starting Option is the amount of acres recommended for wilderness. Under the current Forest Plan, approximately 74,000 acres are recommended for wilderness; and in the Starting Option, 163,200 are recommended. The majority of the additional acres are in the Roderick, Saddle Mountain, Northwest Peaks, Marston, and Thompson-Seton roadless areas. I chose to include these in the Starting Option for several reasons. These roadless areas rate high for wilderness values. There is little or no need to harvest timber because fire risk to the wildland-urban interface is low and fire suppression, prescribed burning, or wildland fire use would be allowed. Another factor I've considered in the wilderness recommended above is the currently limited snowmobile use in some of these areas due to their inaccessibility.

I have been told that the Starting Option makes collaboration impossible because environmentalists got everything they asked for and they won't want to work with other groups. I'm sure the Starting Option does not give any group, organization, or individual 100 percent of what they would like. That is just about impossible in a diverse community such as ours. I know the Starting Option is not what everyone would ideally want.

But, I am ready to consider adjusting the Starting Option. If groups work together and can arrive at general agreement on how the Starting Option should be modified, we can develop a draft Forest Plan that balances resource needs with diverse public expectations, all within the national sideboards of laws and regulations.

Some collaborative discussions were occurring prior to the presentation of the Starting Option and some people have signed up to continue working as a group. I hope these efforts continue.

Although we may not all love the color, body style, or horsepower, I look forward to having a vehicle we can get into and which will meet most of our needs for many years.

Bob Castaneda is the forest supervisor for the Kootenai National Forest.