Earlier this month, the Flathead National Forest received a flurry of objections to a proposed plan that would guide forest management for at least the next decade. The letters came from more than a dozen conservation nonprofits, and unanimously criticized forest officials for failing to recommend adequate protections for grizzly bears and bull trout. One “citizen objection” letter from WildEarth Guardians included the signatures of more than 4,000 individuals nationwide.
None of the nonprofits’ arguments are new. Since the forest plan revision process began in 2013, conservationists have repeatedly urged the Flathead to preserve remaining roadless areas as designated wilderness and dramatically reduce its existing road network, all in the interest of improving habitat for grizzlies and other species. The Flathead’s initial response to the objections reflected how long these wires have been live, with plan revision leader Joe Krueger telling the Missoulian recently, “We’ve seen it all before.”
Swan View Coalition Chair Keith Hammer isn’t confident that the latest salvo will result in substantive changes before the plan is finalized. Still, he says, this fight is of particular importance to the conservation community, and it’s bigger than the Flathead National Forest. This forest plan revision includes amended plans on three other national forests in western Montana — the Kootenai, Lolo and Helena-Lewis and Clark — to bring grizzly habitat management into harmony. That means any changes on the Flathead will be replicated across the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.
“The situation we have that’s unique right now, compared to earlier forest plans, is this is all geared to delist the grizzly bear in the Northern Continental Divide,” Hammer says.
Concern about the broad impacts beyond the Flathead National Forest was echoed by WildEarth Guardians, which, in a statement announcing its objection, accused the Forest Service of reneging on earlier promises to decommission 500 miles of road in the new plan. WildEarth spokesperson Marla Fox says provisions addressing the Flathead’s infrastructure constitute a “weakening” of habitat protections compared to the current plan. She finds that especially troubling, since this is one of the first forest plan revisions in the country since the Forest Service adopted new planning rules in 2012, placing stronger emphasis on climate change and the recovery of threatened and endangered species.
“With our changing climate and everything that goes with that — species viability, connectivity with increased development — it’s a struggle,” Fox says. “This is kind of setting the stage for future forest plans, and that’s why it’s such a big deal.”
Though climate change wasn’t specifically cited in all of this month’s objections, Hammer casts the issue as the thread connecting the various points of opposition. Road density, motorized use, timber harvest — all these, he says, are indicative of greater consternation over carbon output. It’s a point the Swan View Coalition articulated in its own forest plan alternative, dubbed Citizen reVision, first drafted in 2006 and
updated in 2014. That document outlines numerous conservation principles aimed at preserving and improving wildlife habitat. Combined, Citizen reVision states, they reduce carbon emissions and promote human health.
Expanding roadless areas and designating more wilderness “prevents cutting the trees, which releases carbon,” Hammer says. “It prevents road building, which consumes a bunch of carbon and literally paves the way for more carbon consumption and carbon emissions. And it bans motorized vehicles, which puts people in the position to pursue a healthier lifestyle, go out and get some exercise instead of spewing carbon emissions into the air.”
Once finalized, the Flathead’s new forest plan will dictate management of the forest for the next 10 to 15 years. But Fox cautions that the plan could be in place even longer, noting that the Flathead’s current plan was adopted more than 30 years ago. And if conservationists don’t fight to the bitter end this time around, Hammer fears what might come out of the revision process next time.
“This is a plan that allows an unlimited number of roads and an unlimited trails for mountain biking and human impacts to go right into the heart of the ecosystem,” he says. “What would the next plan look like if people didn’t stand up against this one?”