For the first time since 1986, the Flathead National Forest is updating its land and resource management plan, and some environmentalists aren’t happy about how the revision process has started.
Keith Hammer, chair of the Kalispell-based Swan View Coalition, is the most vocal of the critics. He charges that the Forest Service has failed to present crucial information to the public in a timely manner. He also believes the Forest Service erred in awarding a $285,000 contract to the Meridian Institute, a Colorado-based consulting firm hired to facilitate meetings and collect public comment during the revision process.
Much of the public involvement has come during a series of open meetings held in Kalispell late last month, with more scheduled for May 12-15. Hammer attended those April discussions and says he noticed a pattern of Meridian notetakers ignoring environmental concerns. Instead, he says, they tended to emphasize in their written records ideas about how to increase human access and use.
“At a minimum, they’re doing a really lousy job,” he says of the way Meridian has recorded comments. “And then, it’s repeated enough that we wonder if it’s not deliberate.”
The Forest Service will consult Meridian’s accounts of the comments as it drafts a revised forest plan. Upon completion, the plan will serve as the framework for how the Flathead National Forest protects ecosystems, provides for human access and promotes economic sustainability in nearby communities for the next 10-15 years.
Arlene Montgomery of Friends of the Wild Swan and wildlife consultant Brian Peck shared Hammer’s concerns about how public input was being managed. Together, the three drafted a letter to Flathead National Forest officials saying the plan-revision process “is ill-informed, poorly documented and is creating conflict and resentment rather than shared understanding and good will among the participants.”
Forest Plan Revision Team Leader Joe Krueger concedes the process isn’t perfect, but he insists the Forest Service and Meridian are doing their best to be fair and accurate. He calls the concerns raised by Hammer and others “valuable” and “productive,” and hopes they continue to attend meetings.
Hammer’s not so sure. He says that he and others will continue to find ways to be involved, but will reduce their presence at meetings. “We’re going to remain fully engaged in providing constructive dialogue, but we’re gonna do it in writing. And we encourage other people to. Do not trust this contractor [Meridian] to get what you’re saying to the Forest Service.”