Table talk 

Bob Castaneda reflects on his Kootenai years

When Bob Castaneda began his career with the Forest Service 36 years ago, marking trees for timber sales on a northern Idaho timber crew, things were a lot different.

“We didn’t get much attention back then,” he says. “Our work wasn’t very controversial.”

Castaneda moved on to bigger and better things in the Forest Service, times changed, and on May 26 he retired after six years as forest supervisor for the Kootenai National Forest (KNF), where controversy was part of the job.

The KNF has always been prodigiously productive land. Its location in the northwestern corner of Montana puts it squarely in the path of wet Pacific-Coast weather, which helped its trees to grow faster and thicker than in the rest of Montana.

The Kootenai’s lush forests, Castaneda says, helped the forest earn a reputation as the “Timber breadbasket of Montana,” where about 200 million board feet were harvested annually in the late 1980s.

The thick forest also served as home to a profusion of wildlife, including endangered grizzly bears and grey wolves, and an attractive place for hiking, hunting and off-highway vehicle (OHV) recreation.

These many uses, often conflicting, have contributed to the controversy endemic to the KNF. Castaneda tosses in another factor: Unlike more economically diverse communities in Flathead, Missoula or Gallatin counties, he notes, the small towns surrounded by the KNF are almost completely dependent upon the forest for their livelihood.

Castaneda describes his tenure as supervisor as marked by efforts to bring opposing interest groups together and manage the forest to support recreation, wildlife and jobs.

But conflicts between competing agendas have come to a head in the last year, as the KNF management plan is revised for the first time since 1987.

Fred Hodgeboom and Bill Martin are two people with opposing stakes in the new plan. Martin is a member of several conservation groups, including the Cabinet Resource Group, the Montana Wilderness Association and the Yaak Valley Forest Council. Hodgeboom is president of Montanans for Multiple Use (MFMU), a nonprofit group opposed to governmental restrictions on national forests.

Both men are critical of Castaneda.

Hodgeboom notes that sawmills in Eureka and Libby closed under Castaneda’s watch. He believes that as logging has decreased to 50 million board feet per year, fire risk has increased due to excess biomass in the forests. One positive of Castaneda’s tenure, in Hodgboom’s view, is the KNF’s decision under Castaneda’s guidance to eliminate “recommended wilderness” as a possible designation in the KNF plan now nearing completion, and replace it with a new category: “wildlands.”

That decision stands out as an example of how Forest Service work has changed in Castaneda’s lifetime.

National forest lands designated as recommended wilderness disallow motorized or mechanized uses, logging, mining and new road building. They are also recommended to Congress for designation as legal wilderness, which designation would make the limits on their usage permanent.

Due to such restrictions on and the potential permanence of recommended wilderness, Hodgeboom and MFMU oppose the designation. And so Hodgeboom is pleased with the KNF’s elimination of the category.

“The one thing I am impressed by is that he dropped the wilderness designation,” Hodgeboom says of Castaneda. “He did respond to the local input.”

On the other side, Bill Martin is critical of that decision. While Castaneda has stressed that the restrictions on usage in “wildlands” and “recommended wilderness” are the same, Martin notes one important difference: “If you don’t identify areas as suitable for wilderness [designation], then Congress will never make them permanent wilderness areas.”

Indeed, he says, Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Resources, says his committee will only consider areas designated as recommended wilderness for permanent wilderness status.

The fight over wilderness designation, Martins says, is just one example of the polarization Castaneda leaves behind.

Castaneda, though, describes the decision as an attempt to calm discussions over the new forest plan.

A year ago, Castaneda says, he went to the public with a sample forest plan that included a proposal to add more recommended wilderness to the KNF.

“Some people liked it,” Castaneda says, “but there were a lot of people that didn’t.”

It was clear, he says, that the majority of people living around the KNF would oppose any plan that created more wilderness. So after meeting with his staff and the public, Castaneda came up with the “wildlands” designation—a tactic unprecedented in national forest planning.

The simple change of name, he says, accomplished the goals of people like Billy Martin by creating more areas free of roads and OHVs, but also appeased Fred Hodgeboom and his MFMU cohorts.

“If you were in [a wildlands area] you couldn’t tell the difference from a wilderness,” he says.

Castaneda says he’s learned over the years that the traditional Forest Service method of offering multiple alternatives for a proposed action, be it a new mine or a new forest plan, doesn’t work well in these contentious times.

Usually, the Forest Service draws up several plans for the public to consider, then lets them fight over which one should be instituted, he says, banging his fists together to illustrate the result.

Castaneda says he came up with idea for the wildlands designation by bringing opposing interest groups together for discussions.

“Getting people around a table,” he says, allows oppositional groups to set aside issues they agree on, attack ones they don’t and come up with new ideas.

And though not everyone is happy with the wildlands designation, he believes it accomplishes Forest Service goals of conservation and allowing for multiple uses.

His only regret, he says, is that he didn’t get people together sooner.

If there’s any advice he’d give his successor, Paul Bradford, who takes over in July, it’s to learn from his experience.

“Get ’em around a table early,” he says.

ppeters@missoulanews.com

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