Monday, February 26, 2024

Public takes part in revision of Lolo Forest plan

Mineral Independent | November 22, 2023 12:00 AM

The Wildland Urban Interface is the lands that are in proximity to structures as mapped by County Wildfire Protection Plans. It is the culmination point where state, federal and local land management plans and programs must merge in an equitable and functional manner. 

An area where resource management activities on agency lands including timber, recreation, fish and wildlife, roads and access, and most importantly forest health and public safety is compatible with management activities by private property owners, businesses, farmers, ranchers, law enforcement and local government bodies. 

All of Mineral County communities are located in, or near, the Wildland Urban Interface so fire hazards pose a significant threat to life and property. Add to the equation that the Lolo National Forest Land Management Plan Revision has begun and one might think years and years of studies, meetings, and possible litigation is on the horizon. 

However, everyone who is involved understands the rules and feels optimistic about the process. First, a Land Management Plan, commonly known as a Forest Plan, is the comprehensive overarching document that guides the management of a National Forest for approximately 15 years. 

As they proceed through their methodical timeline of this massive project, which is the first revision since 1986, several key players with the Forest Service and Mineral County held their first public meeting recently.

Amanda Milburn, USFS Region 1 Plan Revision Team Leader, explained the CliffsNotes version of how the forest plan revision would take place with the agencies and organizations involved in creating the plan. Public engagements have been open to all. Other agencies and governments may request cooperating agency status for the revision process; entities that have requested this status thus far include the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes, DNRC, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and Mineral County. The planning rules have a few stipulations to provide for elements which are all equally weighted in priorities: ecological integrity and social and economic sustainability. 

“This process gives cooperating agencies the opportunity to work more directly with the interdisciplinary team ahead of the general public. Merging our staff together as 1 team as a co-development relationship,” she said. David Brink, MSU Extension Agent for Mineral County, boiled the description down a little more. “Proactive management as opposed to reactive as more input has been put into it by all who participate.”

This doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree but all participating have the same opportunities afforded in terms of objecting and commenting. Even litigation, which everyone will do their best to avoid. 

Ken Verly, former owner of Tricon Timber asked, “So, just for my benefit, we go through the comment period and the general public makes their comments and then the final decision is made by this cooperative group?” 

Where Milburn explained, “The final decision still rests with the responsible official within the Forest Service, which in this case is the forest supervisor [Carol Upton]. Each agency retains its authorities but there isn’t a co-signing at the end.”

The legwork, research and representation of Mineral County is with Willy Peck, Mineral County Natural Resource Advisor, who has eons of experience in forestry management, timber excavation, environmental rehabilitation, lumber processing along with his negotiating skills. 

“We don’t expect that every request we make is going to be adopted, although we’d like it to,” he chuckled. “This planning is not new to us, and when I say us, I mean the commissioners. But this is on a different level and we are starting to at least get the information out to you guys [Forest Service] where if we sat down at the table and you asked us, what we see here as far as what the county needs, and what we expect to see in the plan.” 

Peck went onto say that he will be looking to the Forest Service to give guidance in some areas. 

“If there is anything out there that you have and can tell us, ‘Don’t waste your time’, that will be beneficial. Because we want the proposals we discuss and submit to be completely understood, knowing that we are putting an awful lot of work into each of them.”  

Deputy County Attorney, Wally Congdon added, “On the consistency review, the question is ‘How does their forest plan accommodate the local land use plans of the towns in the county?’ There’s a required consistency review to determine where and how the forest plan conflicts with local land use plans. Efforts to minimize or accommodate those differences will be made before the final re-draft,” he explained. 

Also attending this public meeting were County Commisioner Duane Simons, and Superior District Ranger Abby Lane.

Recreational opportunities abound in Mineral County. There are five developed campgrounds, over 700 dispersed recreation sites, five drive-to upper elevation lakes, 40 fishable lakes in addition to miles of streams and rivers, over 400 miles of trails, Lookout Pass Ski Area, the Route-of-the Hiawatha  mountain bike trail, rafting and floating including the Alberton Gorge, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, all sorts of hunting, and wildlife viewing. 

Maps were rolled out displaying the Lolo National Forest and Mineral County so areas could be discussed, primarily for their history of recreation and forest harvest. But this demonstrated the massive area that this revision will affect which, after the discussion, was evidence that this was an important project and was not going to be a quick and easy process. 

Any delay in review and implementation of the revised plan will occur if parties choose litigation rather than participation. Before release of the final plan, public comments will be reviewed and efforts to incorporate that input will occur when appropriate and possible.

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