Mapping public comment

Recreationists long at odds over motorized use in and around the Great Burn Wilderness Study Area have found a new digital forum in recent months. And while the debate over motorized use has fallen far short of civility in the past, level heads are so far prevailing as the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest gathers public comment on revisions to its forest plan.

The forest launched its e-collaborative project last fall, featuring a USGS-developed mapping tool that allows members of the public to attach their comments to a specific point on the forest map. Other commenters are then able to view those statements and reply. People can even include pictures of certain locations. Project coordinator Carol Hennessey says this is the first time a national forest has employed this method of gathering comment. She feels the tool adds new depth to the collaborative process.

"People have a really important sense of place, and they're very visually based," Hennessey says. "They can say, 'I ride in the Great Burn,' but the Great Burn is very, very large. When they can put a point on a map and say, 'This place, this basin right here, is really special to me and this is why,' it brings people who have differences together at a smaller scale."

Hennessey adds the online back-and-forth has been surprisingly respectful to date. Snowmobilers, mountain bikers and primitive backpackers—many of whom desire different designations on large swaths of the Great Burnhave "really matured a lot," Hennessey says.

The Nez Perce-Clearwater has already held a number of meetings in tandem with the online project this spring. But the online map continues to draw comments primarily on the question of motorized use in the Great Burn, and likely will until the comment period ends Aug. 1. Ultimately, Hennessey says the pilot project will help the Forest Service determine whether such maps are "a good tool to use for forest planning nationally."

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