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USFS proposed plan nixes wilderness

| October 19, 2005 12:00 AM

By STEVE KADEL Western News Reporter

Kootenai National Forest supervisor Bob Castaneda unveiled changes to the proposed forest management plan Monday that delighted motorized recreation users but angered environmentalists.

The hot button issue centers around 89,000 acres that a previous version of the plan would have added to the stock of proposed wilderness across the Kootenai. Castaneda wiped that away in the revision, designating it as "wild lands" instead.

Rick Bass of the Yaak Valley Forest Council called the move "a recipe for polarization," and other wilderness proponents predicted a national backlash.

Meanwhile, the president of the Lincoln County Sno-Kats snowmobiling club applauded the revision. It allows snowmobilers to keep traditional riding areas such as Northwest Peaks, which is designed a special use area under the revised plan, Donna O'Neil said.

"We were really pleased with what he did," she said. "It was a wonderful decision, some ground-breaking stuff. I applaud his courage."

She noted that many Lincoln County residents are uncomfortable with the word "wilderness." The wild lands designation gives the same protection as designated wilderness, O'Neil said, but allows flexibility in decades to come as needs or forest conditions change.

Lincoln County Commissioner Rita Windom cheered the revision.

"We are in agreement with that," she said of herself and commissioners John Konzen and Marianne Roose. "Proposed wilderness means it will be treated as de facto wilderness. It precludes management.

"Wild lands still protects the land and gives it much of the status of wilderness. It does allow some management if needed, but gives it a chance to be reviewed from time to time."

Those who want more recommended wilderness disagree that the two management types are similar. They say the wild lands designation doesn't carry standards that can be enforced in court.

"Calling these wild lands does nothing to protect them," said Cesar Hernandez. "It's not worth the paper it's written on."

Hernandez added that the revision runs counter to a recommendation published by the U.S. Forest Service in its 2004 Region One Wilderness Needs Assessment. That document says the Flathead quadrant, which includes the Kootenai, is wilderness deficient, Hernandez said.

Environmentalists are particularly upset that Castaneda's designation puts Montana's section of Scotchman Peaks into the wild lands category while Idaho manages its adjacent portion of the Scotchman as recommended wilderness. They say it violates the stated goal of coordinating management plans for neighboring national forests.

"This disempowers the message of consensus building that the (Yaak Valley Forest) Council has been working on for eight years," Bass said. "It's a wholehearted embrace of the old way of doing business which has done nothing for Lincoln County."

He emphasized that the forest council supports the work done by collaborative groups and the Forest Service planning team. It is only criticizing the decision, he said.

Bill Martin, who attended many of the collaborative sessions aimed at finding consensus among citizens, called Castaneda's revision "stunning" and said input from wilderness advocates was ignored.

"Local environmentalists are rendered virtually irrelevant in brokering a deal," he said.

Castaneda rejects the contention that wild lands designation provides less protection to the land than a recommended wilderness designation.

"The only difference is the name," he said. "There is absolutely no difference between wild lands and recommended wilderness."

The wild lands designation mirrors congressionally designated wilderness in many ways. Both prohibit motorized use, road building as well as timber harvesting and grazing. Both allow prescribed burning.

Castaneda said he decided to rework the proposed plan because there was such a large amount of land recommended as wilderness, and it would have reduced the number of acres for approved snowmobiling. He noted that his draft plan includes more acres managed for wilderness values than the current plan adopted in 1987 — 252,000 acres to 202,000 acres.

The draft also contains more backcountry designation, including roadless areas, than the current plan or the previous version of the management plan update.

He said the collaborative groups found topics to agree on, but rarely did so when discussing proposed wilderness.

Maps showing the new management areas are available at the supervisor's office. Castaneda said there will be more opportunity to shape the plan, which will guide forest management for the next 15 years. A 90-day comment period on the draft plan will begin in February 2006.

"By far it's not a done deal," he said.