Rally to the Right 

Bitterrooters voice intent to regain control of the forests

In a cross between a pep rally and a religious revival, about 300 Ravalli County residents, most of them involved in ranching and logging, gathered at the Darby School last week.

The meeting, which was organized by the Bitterroot Stockgrowers, was markedly different from the many informational meetings held by local and federal agencies over the past few weeks. This one had a strong political point of view.<

The meeting addressed the future of the county—particularly the state and federal lands within the county that burned in Firestorm 2000. And the rally organizers emphasized that the future depended on the people sitting in the gymnasium bleachers, and those they could persuade, to listen and help their cause.

Chief among their concerns was the action or inaction of the U.S. Forest Service in the next few months over the burns. Will fences be rebuilt and grazing allotments be reopened? Will salvage logging take place in a timely fashion? What can the different groups in the county do to assist in those efforts?

Those concerns were clearly heard by Darby District Ranger Craig Bobzein, who urged everyone present to comment as the process takes place. “We need to hear from you what you want to see done on the forests,” the ranger told the group. “We respond to what we are hearing.”

And, in response to a comment that too little is accomplished during spring burning programs to improve forest health, Bobzein agreed. “North-facing slopes can’t be burned in the spring and they are too heavily fueled to be burned at other times. Mechanical treatment is the option on those slopes, but for that to happen, we have to hear from you,” Bobzein states.

Overall, the theme of the meeting was an aim to regain local control over activities on federal lands that have significant impacts on local residents. A number of New Mexico counties have declared a state of emergency because of the catastrophic fire danger and are announcing their right to take whatever steps are necessary to “remove this threat to its citizens.” Specifically, this means the counties are challenging the federal government on forest management issues and intend to take control over forests within their boundaries. The same resolutions are being considered by county commissioners in Idaho and Utah, according to Howard Lyons.

“We need to empower our county commissioners to do the same,” Lyons said. “They have to have direction from us. We need to mitigate the direction of Forest Service policies that affect us here.”

Lyons used the battle former Ravalli County Sheriff Jay Printz waged over the Brady Bill as an example of one person making a huge difference to all the nation’s citizens.

“If we’re at risk from a catastrophic fire, that has a health-and-safety impact on us. If logging and grazing ends on our forests, that has an economic impact on us. We need a county plan that describes the custom, culture and economic history of this valley and that will mitigate public land policies that impact us,” Lyons argued. “That sort of county plan will give us standing to communicate with the federal government.”

Pat Connell, a forester who works for Rocky Mountain Log Homes, spoke of his pending lawsuit against the federal government. He is suing the government for not following its own policies to protect endangered species and forest communities in a forest in Utah. A proposed timber sale there was reviewed for five years and a final decision was to log only a tiny fraction of the dead wood in that forest “as a result of public comment and agency review.”

Connell said he went to the county commissioners of the six counties in Utah that are affected by the Forest Service decision and explained what he planned to do. All 18 commissioners agreed to sign onto the lawsuit, making their counties plaintiffs with Connell. Notice of the suit has been given and it will be filed next month.

“We’re taking the Endangered Species Act and using it as a pro-management tool, as it should be used,” Connell explained. “Doing nothing can hurt some critters a hell of a lot worse than taking some action.”

Many of the speakers addressed their comments to Ravalli County Commissioners Allen Thompson and Smut Warren. Suzie Foss, rancher and horse raiser, said she doesn’t think of herself as a political person. “But by inaction, I gave up a lot of rights. This is about education and knowing what’s happening. We need good science mixed with common sense and economics to move this forward,” Foss said. “Together we are power. You fail yourself if you forget that.”

Rancher Dwain Rennaker, who battled fire as it swept across the back half of his ranch, was the most outspoken about his view for the future. He also drew the strongest applause. “I am sick and tired of the FOB [Friends of the Bitterroot] controlling, running and ruining my life,” Rennaker declared. “We need to start salvage logging tomorrow. We don’t need these trees to blue and bug-rot and fall over and create another jungle.”

Meeting organizers urged those present to join local groups with similar views to theirs and to make their voices heard in the debate over what should be done on the Bitterroot National Forest in coming months to deal with fire-scarred areas and to try to minimize future fires.

“We need a little balance. We need to get involved so we get a little consideration,” said retired USFS forester Bernie Swift of Hamilton. “This is a changed world and we’re going to have to change it back.”

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