There’s a lot of bad news about divisiveness in America. Here’s a local good-news story: Folks with very diverse interests in the Flathead Valley met over a 13-month period, got way past “No!” and achieved a unanimous agreement on national forest management.
Sound impossible? No, not really. The Flathead Forest has formally adopted most of the Whitefish Range Partnership’s recommendations in their recently released revised forest plan, proving that local input matters, and that people who work together in good faith can have a positive impact.
The partnership focused exclusively on the Whitefish Range, located north of Whitefish and west of Glacier Park. Our group is composed of nearly 30 members, from landowners, business owners, wilderness advocates, motorized recreationists, horsemen, fishermen and -women, mountain bikers, timber interests, and wildlife and trails advocates, among others.
The partnership came together early in the Flathead Forest plan revision process. This was the first time that many historically divergent interests in the Flathead sat in the same room together to try and talk it out. In the beginning no one was sure what we were doing or what would come of it. But, after the first few meetings, we were able to define our collective vision for the Whitefish Range and began putting our results on paper.
We worked in sub-committees on 10 subjects ranging from wildland and prescribed fire to fisheries, weed management, recreation and more. Experts came and shared information about each topic to inform our work, and keep us within the Forest Service laws and guidelines. Committees reported back to the larger group for further debate and a vote. By our own rules, we had to reach 100 percent consensus on each topic before we could proceed to the next.
So, what’s resulted from this hard work?
In the end, we agreed unanimously to submit our recommendations on 10 subjects to the Forest Service. Everyone felt that by supporting one another, each of our values could be elevated in the planning process for the Whitefish Range. Where and how was timber harvest best? Where are the areas that snowmobiling is important and desired? Where should there be more trails? What special areas should be protected as wilderness? These are examples of the elements of our agreement.
Ultimately, for our partnership to succeed, we need to see a signed forest plan. It’s important that officials in Washington, D.C., allow the Flathead Forest plan to proceed and conclude without top-down interference. The final plan should be signed following the official “objection period” that is currently underway.
Collaborative groups and processes represent the best available opportunities for resolving socially complex, natural resource decision-making. Other Montana-based collaboratives, like the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project and the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition, can only succeed if our elected officials and our local decision-makers consider and act on citizen recommendations.
In this period of American history where many people — and many elected officials — seem to think that their point of view is the only point of view, we recommend talking and listening, and coming up with forest plans, community plans, even state and national legislation, that reflects the consensus of the community served.
We wish to thank the Flathead Forest planning staff for taking time, providing resources, and listening to citizens. While the Flathead staff clearly considered other points of view and suggestions for the North Fork Geographic Unit (the Whitefish Range), as reflected in the final plan, the plan also reflects the consensus of the Whitefish Range Partnership.