Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) After the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest had to schedule three days to hear all the public objections to its new Forest Plan, conservationists aren’t optimistic that much will change before the forest supervisor issues her final decision.

Last week, the Nez Perce Clearwater National Forest held a three-day meeting with interested parties who had submitted objections to the final Nez Perce-Clearwater Land Management or Forest Plan. During the 60-day objection period, which lasted through the end of January, the Forest Service received 275 objections to the forest plan.

“It’s unprecedented to see 275 objections to a forest plan,” said Adam Rissien, ReWilding Manager with WildEarth Guardians. “Granted, those represent a variety of viewpoints, but it just shows you the controversy that surrounds this particular plan and the approach that the forest service took with its analysis.”

Conservationists attending the meeting were disappointed that the Nez Perce-Clearwater Forest hadn’t chosen to modify the final Forest Plan with numerous suggestions that would preserve wildlife and habitat. Regional Forester Leeane Marten oversaw the objection process but didn’t offer any resolution.

“There is no dialogue specific to resolutions. It’s really to clarify points in the objections for the reviewing officer, in this case the regional Forester,” Rissien said.

Conservationists highlighted several issues in the finalized plan such as high timber-extraction goals, opening current roadless and wild areas to logging and recreation, reduced protection for old-growth forests, and expanded motorized recreation in areas such as the Great Burn Recommended Wilderness.

“Instead of looking to the future, the Forest Service produced an antiquated timber plan that will further imperil the forest for decades to come,” said Jeff Juel, Friends of the Clearwater Forest Policy Director. “The Revised Plan would more than double the maximum (timber) cut produced any year so far this century and more than quadruple the regular limit on clearcuts to over 200 acres in size.”

The U.S. Forest Service combined the Nez Perce and Clearwater national forests into one in 2009, and the forest sits just west of the Idaho border along the Bitterroot Mountains and south into the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.

The Nez Perce-Clearwater Forest started scoping for its new combined forest plan in 2012. Court challenges to the 2011 Clearwater Travel Plan added to delays as snowmobilers pushed for more access while conservationists defended wilderness boundaries and wildlife habitat.

In 2019, the Nez Perce-Clearwater Forest finally published a draft environmental impact statement and management plan, which disappointed conservationists because it opened so much of the forest to logging. While the 1987 plans allowed the extraction of about 50 million board-feet a year, two alternatives in the new proposal ramped that up to between 200 and 250 million board-feet.

The new plan also replaced numerical standards for things like stream pollution levels or retention of old-growth trees with qualitative descriptors. Finally, the forest plan proposal was completely restructured with oddly mixed alternatives instead of preferred and no-action alternatives. During last week’s meeting, one of the commenters noted how difficult it was to figure out what the Forest Service was doing in comparison to the previous plan.

After considering more than 20,000 public comments on the draft plan, Nez Perce-Clearwater Forest Supervisor Cheryl Probert issued the final plan and a draft decision on Nov. 27, calling it the best compromise for all. But again, conservationists did not agree.

Wilderness advocates immediately noticed that the Hoodoo Recommended Wilderness Area on the Idaho side of the Great Burn Proposed Wilderness had shrunk by thousands of acres from what was proposed in 1987. A long section of land extending from Fish Lake northwest to Hoodoo Pass was gone, relegated to regular forest, along with a large lobe on the southeastern edge near U.S. Highway 12 and Blacklead Mountain.

In her decision rationale, Probert said she’d heard about the need to protect wolverine and mountain goats but also heard complaints from snowmobile users who said that “there are no replacements for the opportunities provided here.” She asked opposing groups to come up with a compromise, but none came. So she carved the area up to create one.

Probert said devising the plan was “much like fitting pieces of a puzzle together to create a cohesive picture. My goal has been for everyone to see their ‘piece’ in the completed puzzle, though it might not be shaped or positioned exactly as desired.”

The Lolo National Forest is currently conducting a public process to rewrite its own forest plan and Rissien said the Nez Perce Clearwater Forest Plan could negatively affect that plan, because the Great Burn Recommended Wilderness straddles the two forests.

“Adjacency is relevant, especially as it pertains to the Hoodoo Pass area and the Great Burn Recommended Wilderness. It weakens the recommended wilderness status by reducing the acres. But also allocating winter motorized recreation in such close proximity to the Lolo Forest,” Rissien said.

Most importantly, the Nez Perce Clearwater National Forest is essential for wildlife species and habitat, which could be lost if logging projects and roads are allowed to proliferate, especially in areas that are currently protected, conservationists say. The Forest is home to many threatened species, including wolverine, whitebark pine, Canada lynx, bull trout and chinook salmon.

During the three-day meeting, former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear recovery coordinator Chris Servheen noted that the Forest provides islands of roadless and secure habitat that grizzly bears rely on to provide linkage to the Bitterroot and Cabinet-Yaak ecosystems.

“This Revised Plan threatens animals that are sacred and important to the Nimiipuu people, including salmon, grizzlies, and elk,” said Julian Matthews, Coordinator of Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment. “It’s shameful to see the Forest Service propose actions that would actually take us backward on species recovery efforts that it’s supposed to move forward.”

In a January statement, Probert said she would issue a final decision in mid-2024. However, Marten is currently reviewing the objections and could have additional instructions for Probert, which could delay the final decision.

Wildlife groups have successfully sued the Flathead National Forest over its 2017 Forest Plan, which, like the Nez Perce Clearwater Plan, allowed more logging in areas that are critical habitat for wildlife. Courts have also required the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to review some of its biological opinions related to the Flathead Forest Plan.

Rissien said the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest may find itself facing similar court challenges if the Nez Perce-Clearwater Forest Plan remains unchanged. The Fish and Wildlife Service will also publish a biological opinion on the plan, but it usually doesn’t do so until the Forest Supervisor finalizes the decision.

“We’ll have to review the biological opinion from the Fish and Wildlife Service. There are so many threatened species on the forest - it's going to require a pretty hard look at what the Fish and Wildlife Service is going to say about how the plan contributes to the recovery of those species,” Rissien said. “I don’t want to look too far into our crystal ball, but if the Forest Service stays on the track that they’re currently on with this draft decision, I don’t see how the plan can reasonably contribute to the recovery of all the threatened species on the forest. We’ll definitely be conferring with our attorneys on the strength of any legal challenge.”

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