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Concerns heard on recreation, economics at forest plan meeting

| July 15, 2005 12:00 AM

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

Citizens voiced fears of reduced motorized recreation and lack of economic development options Tuesday as Kootenai National Forest officials unveiled the latest version of a new forest management plan.

Three Rivers District Ranger Mike Balboni said the document, known as the starting option, reflects public input from past meetings along with U.S. Forest Service policies and legal responsibilities. But many who spoke during the two-hour session said they felt their opinions were ignored.

One man said there was "overwhelming" support in meetings he attended for increased recreational access and more timber harvesting, although he didn't see that reflected in the tentative plan. Another man said he recalled "very little support for new wilderness," noting that the starting option recommends about 89,000 acres of additional wilderness.

Despite forest supervisor Bob Castenada's belief that some new wilderness should be included — such as Northwest Peaks in the Yaak — Balboni said there isn't much new land being recommended for wilderness.

"I understand there's a lot of opposition to any new wilderness," he said.

He acknowledged that the recommendation includes less intensive timber management on the Bull geographic area than the plan adopted in 1987.

"The key is, we don't have a lot of flexibility," Balboni said. "You're not going to see a lot more roads closed or a lot more roads opened."

Much of the Bull is grizzly bear recovery area, he said, pointing to a map showing grizzly management units in profusion.

One audience member repeated his objections, asking Balboni, "How many times do we have to tell you guys?"

"How many times do I have to show you this map?" the district ranger replied.

The informational meeting was held at Troy High School. Similar meetings were scheduled Wednesday in Yaak and Thursday in Libby.

Balboni and forest planner Kirsten Kaiser emphasized the plan is far from finished. A final draft plan is targeted for release in February 2006, followed by a final plan in fall 2006 with 30-day comment period. The document to serve Kootenai National Forest for the next 15 years should get final approval in early 2007, according to Forest Service projections.

Those attending Tuesday's meeting were given the opportunity to sign up for another round of public input meetings. Balboni said the "collaborative group" must include diverse voices, and recommendations are due by Aug. 31.

Boundaries for grizzly management units and inventoried roadless areas can't be changed through the management plan, he said. Management area allocations — whether an area is open to motorized or non-motorized use — can be changed.

Balboni said the starting option includes concessions to snowmobilers, including the north side of Scotchman Peaks. Currently designated as recommended wilderness, the location would be open to motorized use under the revision.

Also, Buckhorn Ridge has been divided into segments for snowmobile use and non-motorized recreation. The intent was to retain current snowmobiling areas there, Balboni said.

Paul Rumelhart, executive director of the Kootenai River Development Council, said he was disappointed with the opportunities to cash in on the forest's natural resources.

"I'm having a hard time seeing where this addresses the economic needs of Lincoln County," he said.

"Trying to go back to where we were 10 or 15 years ago is pretty hard," Balboni said.

In addition to the grizzly issue, watershed health has to be considered, he said. "There are all kinds of new issues since 1987."

Kaiser added that litigation against the Forest Service is another factor that limits timber harvests.

Lincoln County Commissioner Rita Windom said after the meeting that she's worried about the plan's effects on mining efforts on the Kootenai. It's not likely that the proposed Montanore Mine project south of Libby will be affected, since the permitting process is under way, she said.

But Windom is concerned that mining companies will be prevented from expanding current operations or going into new areas for exploration.

The starting option was developed with cooperation of the Kootenai and Idaho Panhandle national forests. A summary from the Forest Service called the starting option "where we would like to begin our discussions."

The summary characterizes the starting option as providing a balance to summer and winter motorized and non-motorized recreation. It also allows for active, aggressive treatment of invasive weeds; maintains and improves old growth and other habitat conditions; maintains high scenic values; and responds to local communities and their desires for timber harvesting, mining, grazing and biomass along with forest protection through proposed wilderness, according to the Forest Service.