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Diverse group offers unique package for forest

| February 2, 2006 11:00 PM

BY ROGER MORRIS Western News Publisher

Following a collaborative script that has worked in Idaho, New Mexico and Utah, a diverse group of Lincoln County interests are working toward an economic development package that addresses snowmobile, ATV trails, community infrastructure needs, fuels reduction in the urban interface and some land protection that includes wilderness.

The county group of citizens includes elected representatives, including all three county commissioners, working with people from the local snowmobile and ATV organizations, economic development, resource development and environmental groups. They met Monday at Libby Dam to present the proposal to representatives from the Montana congressional delegation.

"I've been involved in these discussions (on recreation and wilderness) for two years and I'd like to commend all of you for working on this," said Commissioner John Konzen. "At times it had to have been stressful."

At this point, the package includes 8 points that the groups want to submit for federal legislation. Those points are:

* A significant multi-million dollar economic development grant is needed to be distributed equally among the underserved communities of Libby, Troy and Eureka with the money distributed by the commissioners;

* A 10-year stewardship forest project aimed a reducing fuels and restoring fire-tolerant species and conditions in areas of the wildland-urban interface with revenues used to restoration activities on public land;

* Purchase of private timberlands to be placed under local management as a community forest to be managed by a RAC-style committee with revenues used to acquire more forestlands and to provide supplemental funding for local schools;

* Provide supplemental funding to local schools through stewardship and community forestry projects;

* Provide funding for an ORV route study and area snowmobile clubs and support the "good-faith" pursuit of a non-controversial ATV route somewhere in the county;

* Designate a significant portion of the Roderick Peak area as wilderness;

* Designate the Northwest Peaks Special Interest Area as a scenic area enlarging the boundaries to match the existing inventoried roadless area with the different user groups — wilderness, snowmobilers and cross country skier — collaborating on an plan for management of a variety of recreational activities, some motorized and some non-motorized. Establish a Mt. Henry Backcountry Primitive Area with the inventoried roadless area on the Three Rivers Ranger District side managed for non-motorized and the Libby District side for motorized recreation.

* Reauthorize the Secure Rural Schools and Communities Self-Determination Act of 2000, which provides monies for education and restoration as well as creating the Resource Advisory Committee.

"We can't get hurt worse in Lincoln County any worse than we have," Konzen told the aides to the state's congressional delegation.

"How could it get any worse?" asked Wayne Hirst, a CPA who represents many of the surviving loggers. "We don't have any mills. It's all going to go away if nothing is done here."

Keith Glover, representing the timber group in Eureka, a 10-year stewardship project would not support a mill. He said at least 35 million board-feet a year is needed to support a small, efficient mill.

The 10-million board feet comes from a proposal made by the Vaagen Brothers Lumber company who say they can develop a small diameter log mill in Libby with the guarantee for 10 million board-feet a year.

Ron Pierce, a city councilman from Troy, said they are looking into biomass as a future source of electrical power production and 10 million board feet would not be enough. He said 20, 30 or 50 years of timber would be needed to make biomass worth pursuing.

Hirst noted that the existing federal law on stewardship projects only allows a maximum of 10 years.

"We're asking the delegation to bundle these issues and move it forward," said Robin King of the Yaak Valley Forest Council.

Delegation representatives said they need more specifics and regretted they didn't have more to take back to their bosses.

"We need to move forward with this," Konzen said. "Or we're the next hurricane victims."

In Idaho, a diverse group put together complex package for a wilderness, economic development and motorized recreation center on Custer County and the two Central Idaho mountain ranges. In addition to 250,000 to 300,000 acres of wilderness, the Idaho plan included the transfer of federal land to Custer County to be sold for development.