Out on a limb 

Local conservationists and Lolo National Forest officials reach out in an attempt to find common ground.

In the forest near Ovando, where larch tower into the sky high above the Douglas fir and lodgepole pine, something new is happening. It’s early on the morning of July 13, and representatives from three Missoula conservation groups, along with volunteers and a crew of sawyers, are surveying yesterday’s work. For the first time, they’ve been given charge of four acres of a 300-acre Forest Service fuel reduction project, with which to demonstrate how they think thinning ought to be done.

“We felt like it was important to get our hands on something and show the agency a different approach,” says Jake Kreilick, with the National Forest Protection Alliance (NFPA). Along with the Native Forest Network, Wildlands CPR and the Sierra Club, NFPA is a partner in the project. Wildland Conservation Services’ crew, headed by local forester and soil scientist Mark Vander Meer, is providing the technical expertise and handling the saws. The conservation groups went to Lolo National Forest’s Seeley District Ranger Tim Love last spring, asking for a chance to demonstrate their non-mechanized, non-commercial approach to fuel reduction on part of the larger Monture Creek Fuel Reduction Project. Love says he thought it was a great idea and worked with the groups to set aside a unit; then they collaboratively designed a plan of action, complete with goals and means for evaluating progress. Both Forest Service officials and the conservationists involved say the Monture Creek demonstration project is an educational experience as well as a trust-building exercise.

“The importance of something like this is learning, on everybody’s part,” Love says. “There’s nothing better than having discussions out on the ground, in the forest…You listen and learn. That’s how progress is made.”

In a region where passion about environmental issues runs hot and conflict seems to be more common than shared understanding, the Monture Creek demonstration project is just one example of a recent emphasis on seeking out common ground. Both conservationists involved in the project and Lolo National Forest officials say they’re working intently on a range of consensus-building efforts, and though they don’t agree on everything, there is plenty of work to be done on projects that satisfy both in the meantime.

SEEDS OF CHANGE

“We spend way too much time focusing on our areas of disagreement,” says Matthew Koehler, director of Missoula’s Native Forest Network. “And we’ve decided in the past couple of years that there’s a generation’s worth of work that should go forward.”

Getting that work started is a conscious decision on the part of Native Forest Network, and other groups involved in the Monture demonstration project second Koehler’s sentiment. “There’s been this gradual shift, and it creates a rift sometimes because some people think we’re caving in [to Forest Service perogatives], but when we see we can make progress together, why not?” says Marnie Criley, restoration program coordinator with Wildlands CPR, a Missoula group.

Of course, some conservation groups like the Montana Wilderness Association and Trout Unlimited have been working with this mindset for years; others, like the Native Forest Network, are newer to the game and still working on the foundation; still others continue to write off the Forest Service as altogether hopeless.

This same dynamic seems to exist on the part of the Forest Service: After years of adversarial relations, some officials are wary about dealing with environmental organizations; others are beginning to see the potential in collaboration and close relationships; and others within the agency have long been trying to tap this potential.

Late last year, the Lolo National Forest began a significant effort to improve communications and relations with the public by hiring Mike Wood as an environmental liaison on a contract basis. Wood’s general charge is to help officials understand the public’s concerns and help communicate the forest’s goals to the public.

Wood’s master’s degree in resource conservation and law degree (both from the University of Montana) and years of living in the area give him a strong background for the job, plus the fact that he developed both experience and credibility with Missoula’s environmental community and forest management agencies as a former staff attorney for the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

Before being hired by the Lolo, Wood was working through the National Forest Foundation on a project called Breaking Ground, which sought to build better relations between the Forest Service and the environmental community. It was this work that initiated discussions with conservationists about the Monture Fuel Reduction Project. That Wood was later contracted by the Forest Service to continue this work demonstrates both the agency’s interest in fostering productive relationships and Wood’s effectiveness as an intermediary.

Wood’s half-time position, which is unique within the Forest Service, came about because “the Lolo felt having somebody in a position that could be more involved in ongoing issues was important,” Wood says. The Lolo’s geographical positioning around the greater Missoula area, which fosters large, active communities of all sorts, was part of the equation, too, he says.

“The Lolo is a unique forest in that it encompasses a crossroads of a lot of subcultures that make up the larger culture of the West,” says Wood, adding that it’s important to recognize that other forests are involving the public in other ways—just as forests can’t be managed with a one-size-fits-all mentality, neither can relationships with the public.

This seemingly newfound focus on cooperation coming from both the Lolo and some local conservation groups isn’t simply a matter of everyone deciding to get along—it’s partly a move on both sides to improve public perception of their respective missions. It’s also an effort to avoid court battles that are costly both in terms of dollars and manpower. Wood says there’s no getting around the fact that litigation takes resources away from other would-be projects, and the agency is eager to resolve disputes before they come before a judge.

On the public relations front, Kreilick says it’s important for “people to see we’re willing to roll our sleeves up” rather than just head-butting the agency. And Criley says, “The environmental community in general has the problem of being perceived [as too eager to file suit]. But I think these local efforts are helping to change that.”

ON THE GROUND

It’s common to hear disagreements between conservationists and forest officials about what constitutes good management and how to get it done. What’s not so common is to see those discussions translated into tangible results that can be compared and contrasted on the ground. The Monture Creek demonstration project, just a fraction of the 300-acre project, is an opportunity to do just that. Both forest officials and conservationists involved acknowledge the project is an experiment, and they sound equally eager to see how things turn out and what long-term effects the different techniques have.

The two main differences between how the Monture demonstration project and the remaining 296 acres of the fuel reduction project will be done are: The conservationists aren’t using heavy machinery in the thinning, and their project won’t yield any commercial lumber.

On the larger portion of the project, thinning of mostly lodgepole pine will produce about 800,000 board feet of lumber, says Bill Oelig, the Seeley Lake District fire management officer who coordinated the Monture Creek demonstration project. The bid for that part of the project sold July 12 to Plum Creek Timber, and work will likely begin this winter.

On the demonstration project, only trees under eight inches in diameter are being thinned. Trees competing with larch, a preferred species because past logging has rendered it an underrepresented variety, are thinned first. Low-limbed trees at risk as ladder fuels are pruned. Much of the slash is hand-piled and will be burned late this fall, but some is left as organic matter to nourish the soil.

Koehler says these methods differ from the ones used on the rest of the project in critical ways: “The only thing we’re running over the forest floor is our boots because one of our concerns, in addition to feeling the Forest Service cuts too many big trees, is the industrial nature of their treatment and the heavy machinery they use,” he says.

Resulting impacts that concern Koehler include soil compaction—which reduces the ability of water and oxygen to infiltrate the soil—and the creation of skid trails, which he says invite the spread of noxious weeds. Also important are other unintended consequences, he says, like the impact that dozens of logging trucks will have on the amount of sediment making its way off roads into area streams.

Before, during and after shots with a video camera serve to demonstrate the effects of “ecological thinning” on the demonstration project. Koehler says one key is following up this week’s work with years of monitoring to track how the techniques work, and how they compare to the rest of the project.

“We just think if we’re going to do something, monitoring is important so we can learn and do a better job in the future,” he says.

Of course, short of a fire burning through the area, there’s no litmus test for gauging the effectiveness of the fuel reduction work. However, effects like soil compaction and increased stand vigor resulting from reduced competition among trees can be measured.

Seeley officials Love and Oelig say the conservationists’ techniques meet the project’s objective—reducing the fire threat to the smattering of nearby homes bordering the overall project—and on visits to the site they’ve both been pleased with the progress being made. They say there’s definitely a place for this type of thinning, but they also think the larger project’s commercial aspect is appropriate, too. And Oelig says the techniques employed on the demonstration project wouldn’t be effective if applied to the larger project: “In this project, it’s not realistic,” he says. “The lodgepole have reached maturity and they’re starting to die. In a couple of years they’d be in a pick-up-stick configuration where fires are hard to suppress.”

So rather than wait for the trees to fade and turn into a fire hazard, he says, the project aims to capture their commercial value. It’s important to recognize that different treatments are appropriate for different areas, he says, and some parts of the larger Monture project will be handled much the way the demonstration project is playing out: “One prescription doesn’t fit all,” Oelig says.

The issue of soil compaction will be addressed by doing the commercial logging in the winter when the soil is frozen, Oelig says, in order to reduce the impact of heavy machinery.

Though Koehler’s and others’ concerns about the project as a whole remain, they say they got involved to help where they could. They also reiterate that this demonstration project isn’t the type of work they usually undertake, and that they aren’t really looking to get involved in long-term thinning. What they’re looking to foster in the long run are positive, productive relationships with the agency that oversees the lands they’re working to protect and restore. And the demonstration project at Monture, which requires a willingness to work together and a drive to find common ground, is just one of those efforts.

SITTING DOWN AT THE TABLE

Over the last year, Lolo National Forest officials have been having regular sit-down meetings with a handful of Missoula environmental groups, including the three involved in the Monture project and others like Missoula’s Ecology Center. To hear it from both sides, the meetings, held roughly on a monthly basis, are working. Discussions typically fall in two categories: Some talks pertain to specific timber sales or projects and serve as a forum in which to hash out details; other conversations address the broader picture.

For instance, Criley says at the meeting in late May, much of the discussion revolved around the relationship between the Lolo officials and the environmental community, and participants talked about their respective strategies and goals as a means for better understanding one another. This sort of dialogue is building a foundation of trust that can then serve as the jumping off point for all other discussions, and that’s a significant step.

“When people can connect on that level with each other, it doesn’t mean all the problems will be solved, but it does mean there’s an opportunity to reach for common ground,” says Wood, who attends the meetings along with Lolo Forest Supervisor Debbie Austin, Love and other Lolo district rangers, and Sharon Sweeney, the Lolo’s public information officer.

A basic factor in this nascent relationship-building is learning to understand each other’s language: “We are learning that sometimes we will use terminology that means one thing to us and it might mean something completely different to you,” says Sweeney. (One example would be “old growth,” which the Forest Service defines very specifically, but which is understood generally to mean exceptionally old, large trees.) “It’s been good to sit down and have these monthly meetings with various conservation groups to open lines of communication so we can all learn to speak the same language.”

Supervisor Austin says the meetings are part of “a concentrated effort on the part of the agency. We’ve been trying to figure out the most effective way of reaching out to the public, which can be a difficult thing because it’s very large and very varied.”

She adds that similar meetings are occasionally held with other interests like timber and off-road-vehicle groups, but the meetings with local conservationists are the most regular ones, mainly because it’s a new relationship that needs extra time and effort to develop. And over the next few months, Wood says, he’s looking to expand the breadth of the groups involved in the discussions. All parties say that building trust is one of the main outcomes of the meetings, and leads to other collaborative efforts like the Monture Creek demonstration project.

Efforts underway in the Upper Lolo Creek watershed are another example of this success. Though 60 to 90 miles of roads on Forest Service land have been slated for decommissioning near Lolo Pass in an effort to reduce the amount of sediment flowing into Lolo Creek, the Lolo National Forest has just a fraction of the funding required for the undertaking. Local groups like Montana Trout, Wildlands CPR, the National Forest Protection Alliance and the Native Forest Network have become interested in the project and say they’re motivated to help find funding and partner with the Lolo to accomplish the work. On July 15, Lolo forest officials led a field trip to the area to check out the roads and habitat that have been the center of discussion for months now.

“The fact that [the environmental groups] are interested in raising funds for this project is testimony to our improved relationship,” says Wood.

It’s not just the relationship that’s improved—working together also increases the odds of productive work getting done on Montana’s forests.

“The reason this is important is not just because it’ll make the water in Lolo Creek better,” says John Zelazny, executive director of Montana Trout. “It’s an opportunity to show how environmental groups, private citizens and government agencies can all work together to help improve the environment in Montana, which is really the ultimate goal.”

Criley says Friday’s fieldtrip and collaboration in general are important for a third reason: “It’s important to get the community involved from the beginning, on the ground, so they can see what we’re talking about makes a difference. It has a real potential to be a model for partnership,” she says.

AGREEING TO DISAGREE

Just because there’s an increased emphasis on collaboration doesn’t mean all disagreement has evaporated. There are still plenty of Forest Service projects that are unwarranted and illegal in the eyes of conservationists, who are still using lawsuits as a tool for addressing them. On the flip side, forest officials still don’t agree with all that conservationists’ hold to be true, and they’re still sometimes frustrated by what they’re asked to do. Even in the case of the Monture Creek Fuel Reduction Project, the conservationist groups involved don’t sanction the project wholesale—that’s why they got involved in the first place, as a way of showing an alternative approach.

“Most of us are at the point where we can agree to disagree on some things and agree to move forward with other things,” says Wood.

He says, though, that it can sometimes be difficult to move beyond differences. He cites the example of two pending lawsuits against the Lolo National Forest brought by the Ecology Center, one group represented at the monthly meetings by executive director Jeff Juel.

“It takes an intellectual exercise to separate out the impact of litigation so that there can be open communication with the litigants,” Wood says.

On the other hand, though, it’s been equally difficult for Juel, Koehler and others to keep moving toward common ground when they continue to hold that some agency practices, like certain uses of categorical exclusion to speed up a project’s timeline, are illegal.

These difficulties, however, are part of a long-term process of building trust where little, if any, existed in the past.

And Oelig says a fair amount of the classic distrust that has hovered in the gap between the agency and environmentalists has begun to dissipate in recent years.

“It was a love-hate relationship and now it’s become more of a working relationship,” Oelig says. “We value their opinion and they ours…They see things we don’t see and we see things they don’t, so it’s working well.”

Koehler thinks the evolution is positive too: “We feel good about it, and we’re happy that people are starting to take notice,” he says.

Koehler says from the Native Forest Network’s perspective, one event that put their relationship with the Lolo National Forest on a new trajectory was the scrapping of a planned salvage logging project near the West Fork Gold Creek trail, near the Rattlesnake Wilderness, following fires in 2003. After going out on a fieldtrip last June with concerned citizens and forest officials, Lolo Supervisor Debbie Austin cancelled the project. Koehler says the move showed officials were really listening and were actually concerned with the input they received. Plus, he thinks it showed an effort to pay attention to conservationists’ perspectives.

“[Austin] saw an opportunity to build trust and to build a better working relationship with the environmental community,” he says.

Austin agrees the event marked a turning point. She says one main factor was the fieldtrip itself, where discussions took place out under the sky rather than via volumes of legal correspondence. “All of us have a lot more in common than [we do differences]. I think at that meeting it became a lot more clear,” she says.

Wood says the recent collaborations being seen between Lolo National Forest officials and local environmentalists are the result of years of smaller efforts on the part of both sides, and that the time seems ripe for building upon that progress.

“I think the desire for changing the dynamic of the relationship has been within the agency for years, but it’s a slow process of trying to figure out how to do it…sometimes you have to go all the way down one road before you realize it’s the wrong one and turn back,” Wood says.

Lolo officials say similar efforts to engage the public—and specifically environmental groups heavily invested in forest decisions—are happening in forests across the region. But Koehler, Criley and Kreilick say their relationships with the Lolo are far more positive than with other forests with which they work. And though the cause—or even the accuracy—of this perceived difference is difficult to pin down, they say the evidence can be seen in the regular meetings being held, and the willingness to turn over part of something like the Monture Creek project for a demonstration project.

And Wood says he and Bitterroot Forest Supervisor Dave Bull have been talking about steps to improve relations between the public and that forest: “He has invited me to facilitate some meetings with environmental groups,” Wood says.

Regardless of what’s going on in other forests, though, it’s clear that some blend of personality, politics and sheer desire to make progress is generating results in the Lolo National Forest. Each meeting, each collaborative project, each attempt at talking out differences, is one more step along a long path. And by the looks of it, those steps are speeding up.

“I do think we have a ways to go, but we’re standing on a much firmer platform now than we were a few years ago,” Kreilick says. “This is all part of a long-term process, but at least it’s underway.”

jmcquillan@missoulanews.com

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