Collaboration is Now The Key to Our Forests

Lincoln County continues to have a stubbornly high jobless rate, hurting families and our entire community. One thing seems clear: We have to work together as a community to find ways to get work done and get people to work. Refighting old battles will not move us forward.

From Troy to Deer Lodge to Choteau and points beyond, growing numbers of Montanans are doing just that — working diligently, constructively and successfully to carve out common ground in our national forests.

People representing diverse interests — loggers, outfitters, hunters and anglers, off-road vehicle enthusiasts, wilderness advocates, snowmobilers and Main Street businesses, to name a few — are making more progress by talking than anyone ever did by fighting. We’re each finding ways to get more of what we need from the forest in addition to accommodating more of the needs of others.

But ask anyone involved in these community-based collaborative efforts, and they’ll tell you it’s darned hard work. It’s difficult getting people to set aside old grudges.

Too many people remain reluctant to trust people from other camps. Some factions may even benefit financially or politically from conflict that hurts progress. So, even as the forest-collaboration movement gains steam, these efforts continue to draw fire.

Down near Seeley Lake, for example, several groups of environmental absolutists who see compromise as capitulation sued to block the Colt Summit forest-restoration project that leading conservation groups helped design in cooperation with the timber industry, snowmobilers and the U.S. Forest Service.  The Yaak Valley Forest Council joined with the Colt Summit partners in defending the project against the lawsuit and supporting the Forest Service to get the project implemented as soon as possible. We’re proud to be extending our commitment to collaboration all the way to the courtroom.

Despite these new and promising collaborative efforts, some people seem to want to refight old battles. While we should be proud of Lincoln County’s past and traditions, we also need to be actively creating our future. Most of us are more interested in moving forward, not looking back. Collaboration is not perfect, but there are opportunities along the way to adjust. By being reasonable, realistic and creative, we move efforts forward because we’re not interested in forcing some people to win and some to lose where our forests and our communities are concerned.

In the past, we all got so focused on the fight that we forgot the goal was to make room for the forests to work for everyone.

Everybody’s entitled to an opinion. And it’s OK to disagree when debating how best to manage the land, but it’s another thing to be entirely disagreeable.  Montanans must decide: Support forward-looking folks working on solutions aimed at getting the most benefit from our forests for the most people. Or grant veto power to the critics, dwindling in number but strident as ever, who continue to re-enact yesteryear’s battles and sustain yesteryear’s gridlock while offering no alternative solutions.

In the past few years, local folks sat down to talk, instead of debate. Once-competing neighbors and groups — from timber industry advocates like Wayne Hirst to conservation advocates like myself — discovered that our interests often overlap. We found common cause in our local economy, healthy forest, clean water, abundant wildlife and ample places and ways to recreate.

Working together, our partners made real progress once the focus shifted to what we want from the forest, rather than what we didn’t want other people to have. The result is the ground-breaking Three Rivers Challenge, a balanced forest-management plan for one Kootenai National Forest district that will put people to work, reduce fire danger, maintain places for all sorts of recreation, and protect some of the forest’s wildest places.

Another successful example of neighbors working with neighbors is the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition. KFSC is an essential part of present and future forest solutions. The Coalition is a broad partnership of groups, including timber, mining, motorized recreation, conservationists, elected officials and more. We work on various projects and plans for the Kootenai National Forest to ensure the projects are beneficial for everyone, and we serve as a sounding board for the USFS.

The mission of this stakeholder group is to demonstrate the ability of a diverse group of stakeholders to define common ground by implementing projects on natural resource issues, forest and watershed restoration, public safety, forest health, and community economic vitality. Our specific objectives are to focus on timber, restoration, wilderness, recreation, and economic and ecosystem sustainability.

We are committed to using our best creative thinking in a collaborative process, to support resource management projects that meet social, economic and environmental objectives.

Some of the most recent successes of this collaborative include:

Sparring Bulls Project

• 1,035 acres will be mechanically treated

• 9 million board feet

• Grizzly bear forage restoration / treatments designed to increase huckleberry crop

• Improve big-game habitat

• Members of the KFSC worked together on this project to find common ground solutions that would meet the wildlife needs and produce fiber for mills. After multiple field trips and discussion of diverse stakeholders values, we were able to give 100 percent support to the USFS for this project.

South Fork

Fuels Reduction Project

• 927 acres mechanically treated

• 4-6  million board feet

• Reduced fuels to protect Yaak community in event of wildfire

• Incorporated wildlife corridors into project

• This project is another successful KFSC collaboration.  Our team was able to find a solution that would protect private property from wildfire and provide ingress and egress for fire fighters and residents while protecting critical wildlife corridors.  We were able to give this project 100 percent of our support.

Rocky Pine Project

• 939 acres mechanically treated

• 4-6 million board feet

• Reduced fuels/community protection project

• And yet, another success story of collaboration leading to the protection of communities, old growth forests and wildlife corridors-while providing a product to timber mills.

Stakeholders are talking and listening to each other, respecting the values and resource needs of each other. This is the solution for successful long-term land management and we plan to do better with each new project we collaborate on.

Of course, not everybody’s on board. The same is true with popular forest-management collaborations in other communities and legislation based on collaborative efforts. We should continue reaching out to the critics and continue trying to draw people into constructive dialogue. But what a shame it will be if relatively few people stuck in the past keep the rest of us from making the most of the future.

The Timber Wars of the late 20th century are over. Montanans fought to a draw, and we all lost. Everybody could stay sore about that, but where would that get us? For forest-dependent communities throughout Montana, perpetuating the conflict of the past is a losing proposition.

It is time to act as good neighbors. Through cooperation, we can continue building trust and respect and solidarity. Working together, we’re leaving the unproductive conflicts of the past behind and marching forward to better forest management – and a better future for families and communities to ensure that the “good ol’ days” are yet to come.

(Robyn King is executive director of the Yaak Valley Forest Council.)

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