Costumes, rumors and conflict in the B’root 

About 60 environmentalists dressed as bears, frogs and other forest dwellers marched through Hamilton last Thursday night in support of their proposal to allow natural recovery of the forest following last summer’s fires.

The marchers, most of whom were members or supporters of the local grassroots organization Friends of the Bitterroot (FOB), walked from the Ravalli County courthouse to the new Hamilton High School about two miles northeast. There they joined a public meeting organized by the Bitterroot National Forest to discuss the details of a Forest Service plan to restore the burned forest. The feds’ proposal calls for logging as much as 280 million board feet of timber and is vigorously opposed by FOB.

The public show was unusual for FOB, which tends to air its conservation views either directly to Forest Service officials, or, occasionally, in federal court.

Before the marchers assembled, rumors were already flying. According to Kevin Schreier, a Ravalli County grants administrator and a Republican candidate for county commissioner, two Missoula attorneys working for FOB were offering to pay Missoula welfare recipients $20 apiece to join the Hamilton march.

FOB president Jim Miller disavowed the rumor, adding that he had not heard it. “I seriously doubt it,” he said.

There were a handful of Missoulians who joined in the march, but Miller and former FOB president Jim Olsen denied they had been paid to do so. “Well, that’s just another thing [environmental opponents] make up when they don’t want to talk about the issues,” said Olsen.

Rumors aside, the march was deemed successful by the participants who drew a few car honks of support, one thumbs-up from a passing bicyclist and plenty of curious stares from Hamilton motorists.

The public meeting wasn’t nearly as festive. Another 150 or so people had assembled before the marchers arrived, and not all were friendly to environmental concerns. The first questioner set a hostile tone when he asked whether questions about the agency’s forest restoration plan could be limited to Ravalli County residents only, a clear reference to the Missoulians who marched alongside the Bitterrooters. The question drew loud applause from the crowd, but facilitator Chris Love rejected the request, saying the meeting was open to all members of the public.

It wouldn’t have mattered where the questioners lived, since Love and BNF officials maintained such tight control of the meeting that it appeared rehearsed. Rambling was disallowed and follow-up questions were ignored.

The Forest Service is accepting public comment on the EIS until July 16.

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