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Vision quest

Seeking a frame for the forest and the trees

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The future is now, at least for nearby national forests. The planning process to shape how the Lolo, Bitterroot and Flathead National Forests will be managed over the next decade launches Thursday night with the first public meeting of many in coming months. And while Western Montanans at large will be asked over the summer to weigh in on how to manage the area’s forests, officials and the public both know that the burning issue on everyone’s mind can be seen from town, looming taller than any high-rise and capped with snow. Lolo Peak, the site of a mammoth proposed ski resort, will doubtless be the elephant in the room—and no one will even attempt to ignore its presence. What forest officials will attempt to do is steer the debate in a collaborative, evenhanded way, trying to ensure that planning for Lolo Peak—and thousands of less disputed public forest acres—remains civil and productive.

That said, the process about to begin is untested; a new planning rule was enacted in early 2005 and officials have decided to abide by its method.

Thursday’s meeting, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Doubletree Hotel in Missoula, will be strictly informational, says Maggie Pittman, Missoula District Ranger. With months of decisions and debate on the horizon, she says it’s important to first establish a timeline and plan for how the process of forest plan revision will play out. Pittman adds that the planning team has divided its work into three areas: Rock Creek, Lolo Creek and the greater Missoula area. What hasn’t been decided is how to approach discussions for each of the areas. For instance, one of the topics up for consideration Thursday is whether to lump talks about Lolo Peak into other meetings or have them stand alone.

Pittman says eight meetings will be held before fall, likely every other Thursday night. She sees the process as “an open dialogue, a chance to mark up the maps, suggest some wording changes, give us an idea of how they want the forest to be managed for the next 10 to 15 years.”

Lee Kramer, team leader for forest plan revision on the Bitterroot, Flathead and Lolo forests, says it’s important that people realize these meetings are about the big picture, not details.

“It’s gonna be less about how to get there than where we want to go,” he says.

In other words, discussion will focus on a vision for how our forests should be managed. When it comes to Lolo Peak, then, the goal will be to decide whether the mountain now reserved for primitive recreation should remain as such or be opened to developed recreation, not whether the proposed Bitterroot Resort is a good or bad idea and why. Once a broad vision is established, subsequent decisions will be guided by those lights. Says Kramer of Lolo Peak, “What the plan does is it either paves the way, saying the project is compatible with the vision, or it shows that [the forest] is not really headed that way.”

The matter of how to form such a vision, and of how to mesh distinct views into one cohesive plan, is not so clear. In recent weeks, forest officials decided to use the new planning rule to govern the process instead of a 1982 rule that’s been used in developing prior forest plans. The main difference, says Kramer, is the way that “alternatives”—competing recommendations about how to run things—are developed. Under the old rule, officials developed six distinct alternatives that covered the spectrum of management options and picked one as their preferred alternative. Then the agency would open itself to public comment and use the input to guide its final choice. Under the new rule, managers develop one “preferred option” and a series of public meetings is held to gauge what about that option people want to see changed. Then the option is tweaked and a 90-day comment period begins, after which more changes to the plan may be made. Lastly, a 30-day objection period is observed before a final decision is made.

Kramer thinks the new process will better serve the public interest. “One of the things that’s attractive about the new rule is in the past people would gravitate to the one alternative that maximized their values and we’d have to break the tie,” he says. “Basically what we’ve done is we have taken bits and pieces of these six alternatives and created the preferred alternative. It’s a compromise—no doubt about that. We’re starting off with the middle of the road instead of the extremes.”

Pittman and Kramer agree there’s a massive amount of work to be done. They acknowledge, too, that upcoming discussions aren’t going to be easy, that middle ground on some issues—e.g. Lolo Peak—may prove beyond reach. “It’s gonna be messy. It’s gonna be difficult,” Kramer says. “There may be places where we simply cannot get people to agree on a decision.” In that event, he says, “We’ll make the decision because that’s what we get paid to do.”

Those against and those in favor of Bitterroot Resort, which would utilize both Tom Maclay’s private land and adjacent public land, sound both curious and cautious about the upcoming meetings. Both sides say they don’t know what the meetings will look like or how the two sides can bridge the yawning gap between them. Hilary Wood, with Friends of Lolo Peak, says, “We’re starting from a challenging situation. I don’t think [Tom Maclay] can give much and I don’t think we can give much either.”

David Blair, spokesman for the resort, says he fears “that it will be very difficult for good discussions to occur in an atmosphere where one side is adamant that [no development of Lolo Peak] may occur, period. I believe at some point over time we’ll be able to have constructive, truly collaborative discussions about this opportunity. But I’m not sure we’re there yet.”

Backing up, though, the purpose of this summer’s meetings is to establish whether any development at all is warranted. Collaboration on any details of development would come only after—and if—the initial idea is found to be consistent with the yet-to-be-determined vision for the forest. And at this point, that’s anyone’s guess.

Find continuing information about the times, locations and details of upcoming Forest Service plan revision meetings online at www.fs.fed.us/r1/wmpz/.

jmcquillan@missoulanews.com

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