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A watchdog takes in Missoula's new Forest Service museum

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With Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl at his elbow, former U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth did his best to sum up the agency's 112-year history on July 20. There was lots to cover: the early Gifford Pinchot years, the heavy logging post-World War II, the rise of the environmental movement. It's a fantastic legacy, Bosworth told those gathered for the grand opening of the National Museum of Forest Service History west of the Missoula airport. It's a legacy that goes hand-in-hand with the history of conservation in America.

"There's a lot of things that we've taken from our national forests over the past century," Bosworth said. "And when you look at them today, they're in pretty darn good shape, considering all we've taken from these lands."

As the speechifying concluded and the crowd began walking the museum's interpretive trail for the first time, Jake Kreilick hung back for a beat, contemplating his own checkered past with the Forest Service. "What a long, strange road it's been," he said. He could have been referring to the agency's long history, or to his decades playing wildland watchdog via a host of organizations: the Native Forest Network, the WildWest Institute, the Lolo Restoration Committee, the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizens Task Force. Judging by his waggish grin, it was probably the latter.

Kreilick got his start at the University of Montana's environmental studies program in the mid-1980s, when the Forest Service's annual timber harvests were approaching historic highs of 12 billion board feet or more a year. Then came the direct-action campaigns of the '90s, which Kreilick referred to as his "getting arrested on national forests" days. Finally making his way toward the trail, he acknowledged just how much has changed since then. Take the 2015 skirmish over commercial thinning in the Rattlesnake, he said. He and fellow Missoula-based watchdogs including Mike Bader and Cass Chinske fought that one not with chains and locks, but with open, measured, science-based discussion, and they won.

"It's a lot better than it was compared to my activist days," Kreilick said. "I can now talk to the forest supervisor face-to-face and have a conversation."

Kreilick took his time soaking in the interpretive signs along the trail. One featured a short write-up on Arthur Carhart, an early Forest Service official credited with driving the agency's focus on recreation. Another had several paragraphs dedicated to conservationist and Silent Spring author Rachel Carson, whose inclusion prompted an approving nod from Kreilick.

"It's nice they have that," he said. "It's a reflection of science becoming more a part of the agency's mission."

For now, the museum is little more than a visitors center and the trail. As the nonprofit behind it continues to raise money for a larger Smithsonian-affiliated building at the site, Kreilick said he and his ilk will continue to hold the agency it celebrates accountable.

There are bound to be political differences and policy disputes, he said. "But it's still a great legacy."

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