Lolo Forest seeks public engagement prior to forest plan process
(Missoula Current) The Lolo National Forest will be revising its forest management plan starting in January, but first, it wants to know how the public would like to participate.
Before they begin the multi-year process of rewriting and finalizing Lolo's forest management plan, the Forest Service revision team that will be doing the work is asking the public to comment on their Public Engagement and Participation Strategy.
The 11-page document addresses how various public meetings would be conducted and what the overall goals should be, taking into account federal planning and public participation requirements. On Wednesday, Lolo Forest Supervisor Carolyn Upton said it also lists all the ways the Forest Service team might the public inform and interact with the public. Some of those options have popped up only during the past couple years.
“A lot of the (previous forest plan revisions) happened before the pandemic. What have we learned about doing virtual meetings, electronic platforms and our web portal?” Upton said. “I’ve been involved with forest plan revisions earlier in my career, and we didn’t have any of this technology. So, let’s take a minute to ask the public, 'Do you like these technological platforms? Can we use them effectively?' And how are we also going to engage folks in person? Field trips, workshop meetings. This is what we’re asking right now. Tell us how we can utilize this range of tools we have now.”
Forest management plans are comprehensive documents that guide each national forest on how to make decisions about timber management projects and how to manage lands of various categories, such as wilderness or recreational areas. Because science and policies change over time, management plans are supposed to be updated about every 15 years.
However, the existing Lolo Forest Management Plan was published 36 years ago. An effort was begun in 2005 to rewrite the plan but it was drafted under a 2005 Forest Service planning rule that gave forest managers more discretion to approve mining, logging, and other commercial projects without environmental review.
Two years later, that 2005 rule was struck down in the courts so the Lolo revision was halted. The Public Engagement Strategy says the Lolo Forest team will review public input from the 2005 effort, but this new management plan will look different because of planning rules written after the court ruling.
Upton said one of the first differences is this document guiding public engagement.
“We took an extra step now to give folks an opportunity to know that this is coming and learn a little bit about the process,” Upton said. “(To) ask the public and groups questions about how are we going to engage, whenare we going to engage, what platforms, what venues? It’s an opportunity for us to get started on the right foot.”
Getting started on the right foot is beneficial when engaging in a process already slated to last two to three years. The Public Engagement Strategy outlines the timing of each step in the process and when the Forest Service revision team will take public comment. By the time the final draft is published in Summer 2025, there will have been at least 10 comment periods. A final round of comments would consist of objections to the final draft.
Upton knows that people get busy and can’t always attend meetings that cover issues they’re interested in. For example, the first four months of 2023 are dominated by Montana’s Legislative session. That’s where some newer technology comes in handy.
“We’ll provide opportunities through recorded webinars that people can watch when they can,” Upton said. “We’ll try to do that throughout the whole thing, knowing that sometimes we’ll have more flexibility than others. That is the kind of thing that we’d like to hear about from the public.”
A regional team of Forest Service employees led by Amanda Milburn will be responsible for most of the management plan writing and analysis. Milburn helped draft the management plan for the Lewis and Clark Forest, while another team member helped with the Custer Gallatin Forest plan. They’ve gained experience working on those other plans, so Milburn feels confident that they’ll be effective and efficient.
“When the first forest started doing revision, we were building the bike as we were learning to ride it,” Milburn said. “Now, we have enough experience, being the fifth in the region to start revision, and a lot of the public has become more sophisticated. But there are people interested in the Lolo who haven’t been involved before, and they’re starting from square one. So, we’re trying to bridge that gap.”
The other two national forests with recently revised plans are the Flathead and Nez-Perce Clearwater forests. However, the Flathead Forest Plan has run into trouble since it was finalized in 2017. In the new plan, the Flathead Forest deleted limits on road density that were intended to protect grizzly bear secure habitat.
In 2021, a Missoula federal judge ruled in favor of environmental groups challenging the Forest Plan. This shows why it’s in the interest of national forests to get as much quality public input while writing forest plans: it could avoid subsequent litigation.
“There's very high public interest in this, and we’re going to be very interested in working with a variety of individuals and groups throughout this process,” Upton said.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.