Doug Soehren didn’t see the story in the B section of the Missoulian on Wednesday, Jan. 24, so he didn’t know the Bitterroot National Forest was going to hold an open house in Hamilton that very day to talk about the agency’s long-term plan to scale back recreation sites and increase user fees. Despite the fact that he signed up for Bitterroot National Forest’s e-mail list specifically to get notification of such meetings, Soehren says he found out about the open house only 15 minutes prior to its noon start on Wednesday.
“A friend called me after he saw it on a website,” Soehren says. “I didn’t even have lunch but I rushed over and got there just in time.”
Soehren was one of four people who made it to the meeting, he says.
Since 2002 the Forest Service has been working, largely without public scrutiny, on an internal policy initiative called Recreation Site Facility Master Planning (RSFMP). The purpose of RSFMP is to develop a “Five-Year Proposed Program of Work” that will help managers at the nation’s 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands decide which recreation facilities to cut from its ever-shrinking recreation budget.
Montana’s RSFMPs moved forward below the public’s radar until late 2006 when news reports began unearthing the plans’ existence. In November, Montana Sen. Max Baucus vowed to shed light on the process.
“I’m not going to let the Forest Service make decisions about our campgrounds without full public input and scrutiny,” Baucus said last fall.
Last week’s meeting was billed as an open house where forest officials would discuss their plans and seek public comment. According to a Bitterroot National Forest press release, dated Jan. 11 and posted on the agency’s website, public comment was due by Jan. 31, even though the agency has yet to unveil the plan to the public.
“That certainly isn’t enough time for the public to comment on this,” says Soehren, who sits on the steering committee for Friends of the Bitterroot, a Hamilton-based conservation group. “I haven’t seen the complete plan yet. What was handed out was a summary.”
The Independent’s attempts to obtain a copy of the RSFMP plans for Montana’s forests were rebuffed, though Region 1 spokesperson Terry Knupp said the full documents would be made available later in the week. Knupp also said public comments would be accepted at all Region 1 forests past the Bitterroot’s stated Jan. 31 deadline. She didn’t say how long after the deadline comments would be accepted.
But critics say it’s ridiculous for the Forest Service to seek public comment on a plan that hasn’t even been made publicly available.
“If they are holding open houses in Montana we’d expect that copies of these plans should have been sitting on a table for everyone to review,” says Kitty Benzar, co-founder of the Colorado-based Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, the watchdog group that first blew the whistle on the RSFMP process in 2005.
Benzar says the new Demo- cratically controlled Congress should hold oversight hearings to draw specifics of the RSFMP process into the open.
Montana Sen. Jon Tester sits on the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee, which has oversight authority for the Forest Service. In 2005, Tester, then president of the Montana Senate, co-sponsored a joint resolution calling on Congress to repeal the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, the 2004 law that gives federal land managers the authority to increase fees on public lands. Tester’s measure passed overwhelmingly in both houses and was signed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a symbolic step indicating Montana’s unanimous disapproval of increased recreation fees.
Tester hasn’t said if he’ll call for oversight hearings, but he did indicate through his spokesman that he supports greater access and services on public lands, not less.
“He does not support restricting access to or raising fees on public lands and waters in Montana. He will use his position on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to ensure that Montanans will always be able to hunt and fish on the public lands, rivers, lakes and streams that are such an important part of our heritage,” Tester spokesman Matt McKenna stated in a Jan. 29 e-mail.On Jan. 26, in response to criticism by conservation organizations and growing public outrage over the virtually secret RSFMP process, outgoing Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, in one of his last acts as the agency’s top official, tapped a national review team to gauge the effectiveness of citizen participation in the RSFMP process.
“Our aim is to raise the standard for participation and strengthen our work with the public so we can collectively determine the needs for forest recreation facilities and meet future demands,” Bosworth said in a letter to regional foresters. “The ultimate goal is to improve recreation opportunities and experiences on national forests.”
But Robert Funkhouser, president of the Western Slope No-Fee Coalition, isn’t convinced an internal review will go far enough to fix all that’s wrong with the RSFMP process.
“Even if they revamp the public process, these management actions and five-year plans have already been implemented on 50 forests, and will be implemented on all forests by the end of the year. It has already been decided,” Funkhouser warns. “The only thing they can do to fix it is to go back and shred the five-year plans.”