The Helena - Lewis and Clark National Forest released its new draft forest plan last week. It's a significant milestone. Montanans can now weigh-in on the master plan that will guide the forest's land use decisions for the next 15 years.
The Helena - Lewis and Clark is currently governed by a pair of 32-year-old forest plans.
"And, as you're aware, a lot's changed," says Helena - Lewis and Clark National Forest Supervisor Bill Avey.
"We certainly hear about the need for a timber program, and fuels management, grazing, minerals and all those other things. But, we really hear people talking about these lands and the value of recreation on local economies in a way that, certainly in my recollection in '86, we didn't hear," Avey says.
And he says that's not all that's changed.
"The ecological conditions have changed. I mean, we have the mountain pine beetle epidemic, the tail end stages of that, affected our forest and the condition, that from my perspective, the scale of which seems to be somewhat unforeseen by the '86 plan. And so we need to have the measures to deal with that.
"Additionally we see longer more intensive fire seasons than we saw in 1986. We need to be able to address that.
"Finally we have a lot more development in the wildland-urban interface than we had in 1986. That's a social issue that we need to take into account as we think about fuels reduction work, for example, and how we need to do fuels reduction work to ensure that we have a resilient forest for the future in light of all these other conditions."
Edward O'Brien: You mentioned recreation and environment. What about conservation priorities? have those changed.?
Bill Avey: No. We're guided by the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.
EO: These options that we'll be discussing; who came together to hash them out? Was it a set of handpicked stakeholders, was it the general public, or did it come on-high, from D.C.?
BA: This came up through the ground. Basically it was the general public. We've had over the past three years we've been working on this, 40 different public meetings across at least 10 communities adjacent to or within the forest. So these five alternatives we've developed have been as a result of what we've heard from the public.
EO: So there are, as you've mentioned, five alternatives total on the table, no preferred alternative at this point, correct?
BA: That is correct. We're treating all the alternatives equally.
EO: Four are actionable, meaning these options actually call for measurable changes. Alternative A: No action. Does that mean nothing at all would change, absolute status quo?
BA: What that would mean is — we're required by law to always have a "no action" alternative with an environmental impact statement. So what that alternative means is that we would retain the direction in the '86 forest plans for the Helena - Lewis and Clark.
EO: Ok. Alternative B: how would you characterize that? Options, priorities?
BA: The big items there are nine recommended wilderness areas. We're required under the planning rule to make those wilderness area recommendations. Only Congress can determine what Wilderness is or not. We also in that said that we would not allow mechanized or motorized use.
EO: Mechanized and motorized. What's the difference there?
BA: The difference there is motorized is something powered by an engine, right. Mechanized is like a bicycle. Alternative C is essentially a very similar alternative. But under that alternative we would allow mechanized and motorized use in those recommended wilderness areas.
EO: Silly question, but you use the phrase "recommended wilderness areas." For those not exactly tied into that world, what does that mean?
BA: So, the forest planning rule requires us to take a look at whether or not you recommend wilderness areas. There's some criteria of what you look at — size, setting and those types of things. We're required to look and recommend or not areas forward for potential designation by Congress. So that's what we mean with recommended wilderness areas.
I would point out that our Alternative E moves forward with no recommended wilderness areas. And what we're trying to do there is show across the spectrum of what we heard from the public.
EO: Yeah, Alternative D, that sounds like the one that really emphasizes natural conditions, wildlife, I guess limiting human influences, if that's a correct summary. How so?
BA: It is. Again, the whole idea of this draft environmental impact statement is we have provided a range of alternative scenarios for the public to consider how we would manage their forests. Speaking to it from a general perspective, Alternative D is kind of the high end recommended wilderness perspective. Alternative is the low end, there are no recommended wilderness as an alternative. So we're trying to show that spectrum of management scenarios.
EO: No in [Alternative] E, versus 16 recommended wilderness areas in [Alternative D], right.?
BA: Right. And only 9 and C and B.
EO: And what about timber production?
BA: Our timber production in [Alternative] E we show a slight increase in the amount of timber suitability acres and an increase in volume. Just because of the ecological conditions of the land, none of our recommended wilderness areas are in our timber suitability areas or vice versa. Our good growing sites for trees just aren't in areas that meet the criteria for recommended wilderness.
EO: You know, maybe this is as good a time as any to discuss grizzly bears. Will the final plan — whichever alternative is eventually selected — contain a strategy for managing grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem?
BA: That's an unrelated question and that really, that issue would be tied to the delisting or continued listing of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem bears. We already are in the process of amending our existing forest plan, and that was done in conjunction with the release of the Flathead plan — because they were ahead of the schedule of us — to basically meet the criteria that we heard from Fish & Wildlife Service to move forward with potential delisting of those bears.
EO: So in a sense is the Flathead Forest kind of taking point on that issue?
BA: Well they did because they were in the process of doing the analysis for their plan. What we did was we lumped the Lolo the Flathead and the Helena - Lewis and Clark. Their decision also had really two decision documents; one was on the Flathead Forest, the other one had forest plan amendments for each of the other forests so we could move forward and get those amendments in place so that would provide a commitment for us to manage bears and the associated resources, in a way, not so much the bear but the resources, in a way that the potential to move forward with delisting could exist and then that amendment would be incorporated into our forest plan.
EO: So then bears of course are a big topic of conversation just not necessarily specific to this planning process.
BA: That's correct.
EO: Okay. So the menu then is out there. Again what's the process from here on out?
BA: So again, that's out for a 90 day comment period. We will have some meetings toward the end of July. Again on our Web site you can find the schedule for each of our communities. The only schedule that hasn't been set yet is up in Browning. They're in the process of electing a new tribal business council. Once that tribal business council is back, which I think is first part of July, we'll communicate with them and find when they would like to see it. We just owe them that respect.
What's really helpful to us is folks providing a comment like, "I don't want to see this area in a recommended wilderness," for example, "because I mountain bike on the trail." That is a substantive comment as opposed to, "I want to see everything wilderness," or "I want to see no more recommended wilderness."
EO: The final EIS, and then record of decision?
BA: There will be a record of decision. People can object to that record of decision. We'll have an objection meeting, listen to those objections, see what we can do to adjust the decision based on that objection and then release the final decision. We're expecting that final decision probably spring 2019 right now.
EO: My guest has been Bill Avy supervisor of the Helena - Lewis and Clark National Forest. There is a lot to unpack there. Thank you very much for your time.