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A 'Silent Majority' For State Management Of Federal Lands?

A map of lands in the Swan Forest Initiative
Lake County Conservation District
A map of lands in the Swan Forest Initiative

Backers ofa proposal to transfer management of 60,000 acres of Flathead National Forest land to the state are making another plea for support after getting mostly negative feedback last month.

At a public meeting last month, a crowd of 75 people needled board members of the Lake County Conservation District with exacting questions, and many voiced staunch opposition to the concept.

Seven weeks later, on Friday, the conservation district board invited reporters to hear their plea to get more public input.

"My wildest dream would be that we get 2,000 comments," said Lake County Conservation District Board Chair Jim Simpson.

So far, he’s gotten, "a hundred and forty nine. Quite honestly right now they are heavily opponent comments, opposed to the concept," Simpson said. "Primarily those are from some of the environmental groups that live in the Swan, live in the Flathead. And what we’re trying to do now is get to the silent majority."

Simpson seems convinced there’s more support for the management transfer idea out there. It would give Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation control of 60,000 acres of Flathead National forest in the Swan Lake Ranger District for the next 100 years. And it would give the Lake County Conservation District all the revenue generated by timber sales on that land.

But his seven-member board isn’t unanimously supporting the idea.

Curt Roseman is one of two board members opposed to the so-called Swan Forest Initiative.

"To separate that from the united states citizens is the wrong approach," Roseman said.

He even called the proposal a “takeover of federal lands.”

Board chairman Jim Simpson says he hadn’t thought of it that way.

"I just thought of it as a pure and simple way for us to fulfill our state mandate, reduce fuels, do water projects," he said.

Simpson says he considers the Initiative a novel way of addressing the district’s chronic lack of funding, which precludes it from fulfilling its state mandate to implement programs that conserve soil and water, protect streams and rivers, and improve soil health. The increased logging would also reduce forest fire fuel loads.

Lake County Conservation District paid for the study of the Swan Forest Initiative with two grants totaling $40,000 from the state of Montana.

Six years after initially floating the idea, Simpson says the proposed project is now at a crossroads. Because the board is split, Simpson hopes to hear from Lake County residents by June whether they support or oppose the Initiative.

"At that time we'll be able to, as a board, decide if we'll stop it, or go to that last step, which is contacting our congressional delegation."

Leaders of local conservation groups, however, hope it never gets that far. Arlene Montgomery, is program director of Friends of the Wild Swan. I took a walk with her Friday, on snow-covered and frozen Swan Lake, which is surrounded by mountains that still bear the scars of clear cutting from when the Plum Creek timber company logged here.Montgomery was at the contentious meeting in December, and says her opinion about the Swan Forest Initiative and its proposal for a local district to profit off federal property hasn’t changed.

"It's very vague, and i really think it's a flawed concept," she said, "and that is because these are federal lands, they are public lands. they belong to everybody in the united states. they don't belong to lake county just because they happen to be in lake county."

Montgomery’s also concerned the proposal doesn’t adequately address management of critical habitat for imperiled and endangered species, like lynx, grizzly bear, bull trout and wolverine, and wondered who would be responsible for fire management activities.

"It's a key habitat for lots of imperiled and wildlife that we don't find anywhere else in the country," she said.

Lake County Conservation District’s six-year old idea is resurfacing at a time when Congress is considering a few bills that would transfer management of federal lands to state or local boards. One, introduced in 2015 from Alaska, seeks to transfer two million acres of national forest land to the state. Another bill from Idaho would establish local forest demonstration areas within national forest lands. Those both cleared the House Natural Resources committee last June. A bill from Utah introduced last year proposes multiple land transfers and exchanges.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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