Kootenai National Forest Group Reaches Accord

 A collaborative group representing stakeholders in and around the Kootenai National Forest announced an agreement last week that will guide its input on proposed land management projects.

The Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition includes representatives from environmental, industry and recreation groups that often are at odds on forest policy. Robyn King, executive director of the Yaak Valley Forest Council, said the group was formed in 2006 to come up with a set of shared objectives to minimize litigation blamed for slowing down projects in the national forest.

“This is the guiding document that we would use, as a group, to make our comments to the U.S. Forest Service,” King said. “This is an organic document, so as we get out on the ground and see different applications being proposed by the U.S. Forest Service, we may make changes over time.”

The document includes three components: vegetative management, recreation and wilderness designation. King said that each component was years in the making, and represents a shared comfort level on each aspect of forest management.

Stoltze Land & Lumber Co., the Montana Wilderness Association, Lincoln County, Troy Snowmobile Club and the Idaho Forest Group also are members of the coalition.

The group’s announcement comes less than a month after a group of motorized recreation organizations filed suit against the forest’s proposed wilderness designations in its forest plan update, which was finalized earlier this year.

Another ongoing lawsuit over the Kootenai Forest’s 92,400-acre East Reservoir Project, recently attracted the attention of Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, who announced that the state would joining the forest as a friend of the court.

Along with Lincoln County, the Kootenai coalition had already filed as an intervening party with the forest, pitting the forest council and the coalition’s other environmental representatives against the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, which filed the lawsuit.

And while many have hailed the collaborative approach as a way to minimize the time and resources that the federal agency spends resolving lawsuits, some environmental groups object that it results in unbalanced projects that fail to represent conservation interests.

“I don’t know how they can call themselves an environmental group when they’re supporting the forest [by] clear-cutting critical lynx habitat,” said Alliance for the Wildlife Rockies Executive Director Michael Garrity, referring to one of his organization’s legal complaints about the project.

The suit also alleges that the project failed to provide requisite protections for grizzly bear and bull trout habitat. Garrity has indicated that his organization is not interested in settling the suit out of court.

Located on the east side of Lake Koocanusa, the expansive project area lies about 15 miles east of Libby and would make an estimated 39 million board-feet of timber available to logging companies.

King said the collaborative group was deeply involved in putting the project together, and the forest council fought for more protections for threatened species than had originally been proposed in the project.

“Ultimately, what the Kootenai Forest stakeholders are concerned about is that you make a bigger difference if you address your concerns on the ground rather than in a courtroom,” she said.

Despite the support of several local conservation groups, Garrity believes the collaborative process has allowed forest projects to be given a “green stamp” by organizations that fall short of representing the environmental beliefs of their memberships.

“I think a lot of these groups have decided that that’s their job now, is to help politicians get elected, but they still accept money to protect lynx habitat” and support other environmental priorities, he said.

Initial planning for the East Reservoir Project began nearly five years ago, but the lawsuit filed earlier this year is still unresolved. All parties involved in the suit are required to file their briefs by Jan. 14, after which point a federal judge will set an initial hearing date.

The forest’s planning and resources officer, Quinn Carver, said Tuesday that four timber sales totaling about 18 million board-feet have already been sold within the project area.

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