Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) After a year of ranger chats and public meetings, the Lolo National Forest has released its preliminary draft forest management plan to give people the opportunity to comment on where the plan needs more work.

On Wednesday, the Lolo National Forest released a 236-page draft management plan that deals with everything from timber and recreation to wilderness and wildlife across the 2 million acres of national forest surrounding Missoula. The proposed plan was developed after listening to tribal, county, state and federal partners, diverse interest groups, and hundreds of individuals throughout 2023.

Forest management plans can be onerous to read. But citizen engagement and input is important, because management plans contain guidance for how the forest is to manage resources and projects in the various ranger districts for 15 to 20 years, sometimes longer. Once this plan becomes final - the anticipated date is in 2026 - it will replace the previous plan published in 1986.

Starting Feb. 1, the public will have 60 days to comment on the plan and provide input for the environmental impact statement that will analyze various aspects of the plan.

“This revision milestone is a tremendous step forward for the Lolo National Forest. The effort invested by the public developing these documents was invaluable, and I’m grateful for the engagement we’ve experienced so far,” said Lolo Forest Supervisor Carolyn Upton in a release. “This proposed action is a reflection of our collective best efforts, and I look forward to hearing what we got right and what issues need to be further addressed in our work to come.”

Upton has already heard some issues that the public thinks might have been missed. In June, she held a public meeting to get feedback on an assessment of conditions and trends on the Lolo Forest and heard three hours of public concerns, ranging from desires for more recreation and logging to the need for more consideration for wildlife and fewer roads. Science was a big topic, especially as it relates to timber and carbon storage vs. wildfire mitigation. Some requested an independent review of relevant research.

On Wednesday, few people had been able to digest the entire draft plan, but some were already advocating for what they’d like to see in the final plan.

Sportsmen want good conservation practices across the forest to preserve habitat and streams for trout and big game. Scott Laird, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership Montana field representative, said habitat for elk, deer, bighorn sheep, and moose, and native fish like bull trout and Westslope cutthroat is under increasing pressure from a growing human population in western Montana and hotter, drier conditions.

“Thousands of people recreate, hunt, fish, and work on the lands managed by the Lolo National Forest, all of whom have a vested interest in the outcome of this revision,” Laird said. “TRCP is committed to working with our supporters, partners, state and local governments, and other key stakeholders to see a successful planning outcome that conserves important big game and fisheries habitats and maintains special places for outdoor recreation.”

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Wilderness is also a topic of public interest. For this draft proposal, in addition to the four existing wilderness areas, the forest plan team retained the four recommended wilderness areas listed in the 1986 plan: the Great Burn, Bob Marshall Wilderness additions, additions on the northern end of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness near Lolo Peak, and Quigg/Sliderock near Rock Creek.

Addrien Marx, Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act steering committee member, Steve Seninger, Friends of Lolo Peak steering committee chair, and Hayley Newman, Great Burn Conservation Alliance executive director, praised the proposed plan for keeping the potential wilderness areas that were recommended in 1986.

The draft proposal also said the wilderness recommendation process is not finished and that comments received during the scoping process - over the next 60 days - could possibly get more areas on the list.

During a previous attempt to revise the Lolo Forest plan in 2003-2006, the plan revision team had identified other possible areas that had been designated as roadless under the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule. Those other areas include more than 11,000 acres around the South Fork of Lolo Creek; almost 34,000 acres around Stoney Mountain east of Rock Creek; and more than 15,000 acres along Reservation Divide north of Ninemile.

One area that has yet to receive a wilderness recommendation is the rugged Cube Iron-Cataract area north of Thompson Falls. The 1986 forest plan characterized it as nonmotorized backcountry, but the Cube Iron-Cataract Coalition wants more protection in this forest plan.

“The Cube Iron-Cataract area serves as a vital wildlife corridor connecting the Cabinet, Bitterroot, and Mission Mountains. This non-motorized roadless complex is a large and almost continuous stretch of wild country, essential for wildlife, water quality, and quiet recreation. The Cube Iron-Cataract Coalition encourages the Forest Service to recommend Wilderness designation for this area so that people and wildlife can continue to benefit from its wildness,” said Mark Sheets, Cube Iron-Cataract Coalition co-chair and former Thompson Falls mayor.

An informational webinar will be offered Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. Public information meetings are also scheduled in St. Regis on Feb. 13 and Missoula on Feb. 15. Please visit www.fs.usda.gov/goto/lolo/planrevision for more information and how to attend.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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