Friday, July 19, 2024

New Lolo Forest plan must prioritize active management, incorporate local input

The revision of the Lolo Forest Plan by the U.S. Forest Service, a comprehensive guide for managing the 2-million-acre on National Forest in Montana, is not merely a bureaucratic exercise, it is a plan that impacts both the economy and the environment in Montana, especially for the local communities and county governments hosting this vast expanse of federal lands.

lt is essential for the Lolo National Forest to ensure multiple uses - recreation, hunting, wildlife management, public access, and timber harvest. Each of these uses represent economic and social lifelines for counties like Mineral, where over 80% of the land is federally owned. The concerns of community members about large fires, loss of timber jobs, and dwindling timber-related revenues are not just valid, they are urgent. 

The Forest Service heard those concerns recently in St. Regis during a Proposed Action Public Meeting held on Feb. 13. The current proposal by the Forest Service, however, seems to pivot away from these concerns. 

The reduction of suitable acres for timber harvest from 1.2 million (as prescribed under the 1986 plan) to 851,000 is not a positive shift. Suitable

acres for timber harvest could be increased to treat more acres and bring us closer to the sustained yield limit of 144 million board feet, as this not only supports the local forest products industry but also plays a critical role in managing wildfire risks, insects, and diseases. 

Moreover, 45% of the Lolo National Forest lies within the wildland-urban interface, or areas where the forest and communities intermix. The current proposal's approach to wildfire mitigation in these areas is inadequate. With the combination of heavy fuels and climate change intensifying the frequency and severity of wildfires, the revised plan should acknowledge and prioritize making more lands especially lands within the WUI available for active management.

This is not just about harvesting timber; it's about safeguarding homes, preserving public access, ensuring the health of the forest itself sustaining local economies, wildlife habitat and corridors, and management that benefits and acknowledges multiple uses and users.

Restrictions on active forest management are also concerning. Limiting these activities could hinder the Forest Service's ability to achieve desired conditions on the landscape, particularly in maintaining the Historical Range of Variability. Active management is essential not only for economic reasons but also for ecological health, opportunities for multiple use and public safety. lt helps in creating a diverse age structure in the forest, crucial for wildlife habitat and ecological resilience and sustainability. 

From a management standpoint, the addition of 21 new Wild and Scenic river segments on the national forest is concerning. While it is important to protect iconic rivers on public lands, it is essential to ensure that these segments meet the legal criteria of having Outstandingly Remarkable Values that are unique or rare when compared to others in the identified region. Moreover, in these areas, wildfire mitigation could become exceptionally

challenging, potentially increasing the risk to adjacent lands and communities, including both other public and private lands.

The Lolo Forest Plan must not be viewed as an isolated environmental document but as a blueprint that affects the socio-economlc fabric of Montana's rural communities. It is imperative that the revision process is inclusive, incorporating local input, expertise and Knowledge. The communities living in and around these forests possess invaluable knowledge and experience that can contribute to a more balanced, effective, efficient and sustainable forest, based on an innovative-creative plan.

In conclusion, the revision of the Lolo Forest Plan is a critical juncture for Montana. It presents an opportunity to set a precedent for how we can balance ecological integrity with economic and social needs. The Forest Service must reconsider its current proposal, aiming for a plan that supports many multiple uses, active forest management, addresses wildfire issues, and meets the socio-economic needs of the local communities.

Mineral County Commissioners Duane H. Simons, Dawn Terrill and Roman Zylawy.