Bitterroot National Forest officials, overwhelmed by the scope of fire rehabilitation work before them, and as unhappy with the public participation process as the public itself, are taking a new tack in developing a post-fire recovery strategy.
In a “normal” fire year, the Forest Service would put its specialists to work devising salvage sales and other post-fire projects. Environmental analyses would be prepared, public hearings would be held, official decisions would be made, bids would go out, and, in most cases, environmental appeals would be lodged. In that order.
But last week, Stevensville District Ranger Nan Christianson announced a new plan to involve the public in an effort to rehabilitate the approximately 375,000 acres of Bitterroot National Forest that were affected by wildfire.
Between now and sometime after the holiday season, the Forest Service will hold three series of meetings from one end of the county to the other, in which citizens will be asked, literally one by one, what they want the Forest Service to do about the charred landscape.
Recognizing that most people can’t or won’t turn out for night meetings, Christianson said other means of polling the public are being considered, including a telephone hotline, which citizens can call anonymously and leave their suggestions, or boxes at valley stores and gas stations where folks can drop off their written ideas.
The idea is to involve people who normally shun Forest Service public hearings. Those hearings, Christianson agrees, often attract the same people—half on one side of the wearying jobs-or-the-environment debate and half on the other—and unless managed by someone with an iron fist, turn personal and hostile.
“The public process is not that satisfying,” she says. “Everyone just comes in with their own strong opinions and they can’t just talk [to each other].”
Still, Christianson would rather see strong emotions than public apathy, which is why she’s willing to consider every idea for garnering public input short of going door-to-door. “It’s tough to get people involved when they’re not threatened by anything or interested in anything.”
Lack of interest probably won’t be a factor in deciding this three-to-five year rehabilitation plan, however—not with as many out-of-work loggers and passionate environmentalists as the Bitterroot harbors.
Already, three issues have emerged in preliminary talks with the public, according to Christianson: the need for salvage logging; protecting against weed infestation; and reducing the fuel load in the “urban interface”—the area where the neighborhoods meet the forest.
The challenge to the Forest Service, says Christianson, is to build on the good will with the public that came out of this fire season, and to become a full partner in forest rehabilitation.