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Wilderness issue continues as forest plan meetings begin

| May 19, 2006 12:00 AM

By ROGER MORRIS Western News Publisher

Environmentalists continued to question the decision to drop all recommendations for wilderness in the Kootenai National Forest as public meetings on the proposed forest plan began Tuesday night in Troy.

About a dozen people attended the first of four public informational meetings. The Forest Service is taking public comments of the proposed plan through Aug. 10.

During the scoping meetings last year, forest supervisor Bob Castaneda changed the "starting option" of the plan from being what was perceived as wilderness heavy to having no recommended lands for wilderness designation. Instead, the forest plan designated those lands as "wildlands."

"We came out with a starting option which was a basis to get people thinking about what a forest plan should look like," Castaneda said Tuesday night in Troy. "Before we began having meetings, I began hearing dissatisfaction of the starting option."

Castaneda said he was told the Forest Service wasn't listening to what people were saying.

"The starting option we presented was not a good way to begin the plan," he said. "Some people liked it because it increased wilderness but it decreased snowmobile use."

He continued, "The idea of wildlands started to make sense. Those are areas with the highest values we should protect. It has the same kind of on-the-ground use as wilderness and it was a solution that could take a lot of controversy out of the starting option."

Cesar Hernandez of the Mountain Wilderness Association noted that timber harvesting has been controversial on the Kootenai National Forest for the past 30 years but there was no suggestion to take harvest areas off the forest plan map.

"The decision to remove wilderness from the map was wrong," he said.

Robyn King of the Yaak Valley Forest Council said she was very concerned about losing designated proposed wilderness in the forest plan. She said she's not sure how to address that since it's not in the plan.

"I couldn't disagree with you more," said Greg Larson, former director of the Northwest Montana Resource and Conservation District. "I don't people are against wilderness. I think they're against those people who have made the forest a tinder box."

Lincoln County Commissioner Marianne Roose said the commissioners heard from constituents that the amount of wilderness in the starting option was not right. They also felt like the weren't heard by the Forest Service, she said.

"Now it the time, if you desire more wilderness," Roose continued. "Now is the time to start the input."

Castaneda noted that the reaction to wilderness in Sanders County was different. He said two of the three commissioners supported more wilderness designation as did two legislators.

Larry Coryell of Troy, a retired Forest Service employee, asked what percentage of annual timber growth was the 56-65 million board feet of harvest identified in the proposed forest plan.

Castaneda said he didn't have those figures available. Someone in the audience said it said at last year's scoping meeting that it was 400 million board feet a year of growth.

"We're growing more fiber than we are harvesting," Castaneda said. "It's not bumping up timber harvest but there is some flexibility."

Forest planner Kirsten Kaiser said at the beginning of the meeting that 40 percent of the national forest was in the wildlands urban interface where some fuel reduction work is being proposed.

"I think the economic and social impacts are very understated in the plan, Larson said.

He said it doesn't address how the reduction in timber harvest increases poverty and creates funding problems for local schools.

In response to a question, Kaiser said there is a significant increase in acreage identified as a special interest, such as Ross Creek Cedars. The majority of the increase is from requests from the Salish-Kootenai Tribe, she said. The overall plan includes 59,300 acres for special interest areas or 3 percent of the 2.2 million acres in the KNF.

The next public informational meeting will be 7-9 p.m. on Wednesday, May 24, at Lincoln County High School in Eureka; and 6:30-8:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 25, at the Lincoln County Campus of Flathead Valley Community College in Libby.

Written comments on the Kootenai Plan should be sent to: KIPZ Forest Plan Revision Team, Kootenai National Forest, 1101 Highway 2 West, Libby, Montana 59923.