With the clock ticking on a 60-day objection window, people who play in the Flathead National Forest have a lot of homework to study.
U.S. Forest Service analysts made many changes to backcountry areas in their draft forest plan released this month. The proposal recommends a new wilderness area between Whitefish and Polebridge. It might increase mechanized access around the Jewel Basin by Bigfork, and could affect hunter access in popular elk country.
“The draft plan adopts a large part of the Whitefish Range Partnership agreement, including 80,000 acres of recommended wilderness that was never recommended before,” said Amy Robinson of Montana Wilderness Association. “And it looks like there’s more recommendation for high-intensity recreation area in the southern range than was in the last draft.”
The Flathead Forest Plan lays out goals and standards for managing the 2.4-million acre public estate between Seeley Lake and the Canadian border. It covers everything from firefighting tactics to timber harvest allocations and grizzly bear recovery plans affecting four neighboring national forests. It also attempts to balance the burgeoning recreation interests in the region.
“I don’t think we got everything we wanted,” Flathead Snowmobile Association vice president Mark Smolen said. “We haven’t finished reviewing it. It looks like a couple riding areas got left out, but we’re not sure if they weren’t drawn on the map or truly left out.”
Two environmental organizations, Friends of the Wild Swan and Swan View Coalition, have already warned they plan to object to the plan. Coalition Chairman Keith Hammer told the Missoulian he was particularly concerned about reductions in grizzly bear and bull trout habitat protections compared to current versions of the Flathead Forest Plan.
Most of the Flathead’s timberland lies in the Salish Mountains west and south of Whitefish. Its popular front- and backcountry recreation lands include the Whitefish Range west of Glacier National Park and the fringes of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex southeast of Kalispell. There, hikers, hunters, mountain bikers, snowmobilers, anglers and explorers of all types have laid claim to favorite areas. The Forest Service has to manage those places within limits such as the Wilderness Act, road maintenance standards, backcountry use permits and public interest.
The draft plan also reflects how people want to see parts of the Flathead Forest protected in the future. For example, Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers board member Tom Healy said he was pleased to see the Forest Service add recommendations for federal Wild and Scenic River designations to three waterways: Danaher Creek, Puzzle Creek and Spotted Bear Creek.
“We were also part of the Whitefish Range Partnership that negotiated close to an 80,000-acre increase in proposed wilderness,” Healy said. “That’s some phenomenal elk, mule deer and moose habitat, so that’s a pretty good deal there. We’re also supportive of some of the urban interface and trail development. Overall, we’re pretty encouraged by the plan. Nobody’s ever going to be 100 percent in favor, but I think most stakeholders are pretty pleased at what came around.”
The forest plan, amendments, final EIS, draft records of decision, and other documentation are available at the following links:
• Flathead National Forest’s plan revision webpage: www.fs.usda.gov/goto/flathead/fpr;
• Forest plan amendments webpage: www.fs.usda.gov/goto/flathead/gbamend; and
• USDA Forest Service Northern Region’s species of conservation concern webpage: bit.ly/NorthernRegion-SCC.