(CN) — Jim Miller isn’t looking forward to the next time the Bitterroot National Forest tries to revise its forest management plan. As president of the Friends of the Bitterroot, a small but dedicated group of western Montana conservationists, Miller already participated in the process once in 2005. The experience was discouraging, but this time, he’ll be prepared, Miller said.

Frustrated with what’s happened in the past and what they say are the Forest Service’s skewed priorities, the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Task Force, a regional conservation coalition, has published its own plan proposal in advance of Lolo and Bitterroot national forest efforts. It’s becoming a trend as more national forests are finally updating long overdue plans.

“We didn’t want to be behind the eight ball. Once (the forests) start scoping, they’ve pretty much made up their mind as to what they want it to be,” said Mike Bader, Task Force consultant.

The current management plans for the Lolo and Bitterroot forests were published in 1986 and 1987, respectively, and are now out-of-date. Forest management plans are comprehensive documents intended to guide every aspect of management on each national forest. Because science and policies change over time, management plans are supposed to be updated about every 15 years. But few national forests have been able to meet that goal.

The Bitterroot Forest tried in 2005, inviting stakeholders from extractive industries, recreational groups and conservation organizations to weekly meetings. Then, after negotiating for two months, participants received a card informing them the Forest Service needed to revise its planning rule due to a court challenge, so the forest would start over at some future date.

“It was one of the most painful experiences of my life. It was a group of people sitting at the table dividing up the forest for their own wants and needs. There was no baseline in terms of what are the ecosystem values that we need to acknowledge and start with. That information was absent,” Miller said. “So that’s what’s so important about this document — this is the good science. This identifies what is important to wildlife. The corridors. What are the waterways that are important to fish? Where are the old growth forests?”

At 25 pages, the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Task Force’s Citizen Plan doesn’t address all the issues included in a normal 400- to 500-page forest plan. But it hits the aspects that conservationists and wildlife advocates want the two national forests to preserve, specifically wildlife corridors, wilderness and roadless areas, stream habitat and old-growth forests.

“One of the things that’s pretty unique about our region is we have 99% of the fish and wildlife that were here when Lewis and Clark came through — they’re not in great numbers but they’re still there. So that’s one of the things we’re working on maintaining,” Bader said. “We think Lolo and Bitterroot need to be considered together because they’re part of the same landscape.”

Conservationists say that getting the Forest Service to preserve wildlife and wild places is getting increasingly difficult, in spite of the fact that national polls continue to show that Americans place high value on such things. But extractive industries continue to push for access as do an increasing number of recreational groups, from traditional hikers and campers to newer over-the-road drivers to e-bike riders.

“The Forest Service is under enormous pressures from all kinds of areas: recreation, logging, mining, a lot of pressures. So we’re trying to present the best available science, the most reasonable plan that could be possible. Our ultimate goal is to educate the public and to get this as one of the alternatives during the revision process,” said Task Force president Patty Ames.

Pressures aside, the agency sometimes creates policies that appear to undermine conservation goals, leading to issues of trust. For example, instead of measurable criteria or standards for maintaining habitat and wild places laid out in existing plans, the Forest Service has indicated it wants increase its use of “conditioned-based assessments.” The agency has recently used such assessments to authorize timber sales, saying they allow for more flexibility and discretion. However, conservationists say the assessments are perfunctory, not detailed enough to prevent ecological damage. Legal experts suggest that the assessments might violate the “look before you leap” aspect of public process laws.

Wildfire suppression is another issue where some Forest Service decisions raise questions. Drought, heat and high winds driven by climate change have increased the catastrophic wildfire risk since the plans of the late ‘80s. To assuage public fears, the Forest Service has carried out logging projects in the wildland-urban interface near communities for fire mitigation. But other projects are proposed farther in the backcountry under the same pretense. That’s the final piece addressed in the Citizen Plan.

“We’re looking at using the best-available science to deconstruct the wildland-urban interface concept, because it’s really been abused,” Bader said. “They’re really taking advantage of it, and fire scientists are starting to call them on it, saying if you want to do an old-fashioned timber sale, let it rise or fall on its own merits. But telling people that you’re going to protect their house by cutting out in the backcountry is disingenuous.”

The Lolo National Forest started its revision in 2006. But like the Bitterroot Forest, it aborted the effort after California-based Citizens for Better Forestry successfully challenged the Forest Service’s 2005 planning rule, partly because it violated public process laws.

Now the Lolo National Forest is preparing to start its revision process again, although it’s still a bit early. USFS Region 1 Plan Revision Team Leader Amanda Milburn said the process could start in 2023, but “the timing is dependent on national priority-setting, and we do not yet have an approved revision schedule.” 

And the rules have changed since 2006. In 2012, the Forest Service developed a planning rule that sets goals of ecological restoration and finding consensus. Conservationists were pleased with the rule, but recent revisions for some forests have failed uphold restoration goals. For example, the Flathead Forest plan revision, finalized in February 2019, failed to meet the bar, but it’s taking a lawsuit to force the Flathead Forest to protect wildlife. In June 2021, a federal judge agreed with environmental groups that the Flathead plan didn’t go far enough to limit or reduce roads that encroach on grizzly bear habitat.

The Task Force doesn’t want that to happen on the Lolo Forest.

Plans for four national forests near the Lolo, including the Flathead, have been revised under the 2012 planning rule. Milburn previously worked on the Helena-Lewis and Clark Forest plan revision and has noticed that groups are increasingly putting out proposed plans ahead of time, rather than waiting for scoping.

For example, the Bitterroot National Forest started working on a Climbing Management Plan about a year ago. Just as public meetings started, climbing and conservation groups released their respective versions of what they’d like the plan to be.

“Now that Region 1 has revised three or four plans and a lot of the same stakeholders and groups are interested in forests across the state, they’ve gained experience with the revision process and how they’d like to provide input. And groups are getting more familiar with this new planning rule that we’re working in. So I think (plan proposals) might be an emerging trend for the Lolo,” Milburn said.

The revision process starts with an ecological assessment of the forest that will inform the new plan. Milburn said her team will solicit information from the public to bolster the assessment, and then they’ll start developing the proposed plan with more public input. The entire process takes about four years.

The consensus encouraged by the 2012 rule usually takes the form of collaborative groups of stakeholders who add input, but many organizations are not selected to participate. Some don’t want to, because they think the requirement for compromise means wildlife and wild lands are least represented but have the most to lose.

“The Forest Service approach is to assemble some of the interest groups whereupon they divide the Forest up according to their own wants and needs. That leaves our forests and the fish and wildlife that inhabit them without a seat at the table. The groups that have developed the Lolo Bitterroot Partnership will be the voice for our forests and wildlife because they are under threat as never before,” Miller said.