Thinning democracy 

When the Bitterroot National Forest decided to finally release the final Environmental Impact Statement for its preferred alternative on the Middle East Fork Hazardous Fuels Reduction project last Thursday, it was an invite-only affair. If you weren’t one of the lucky members of the community, the “credentialed press,” the Ravalli County Commissioners or the State Senate, you were likely to be escorted from the public building by armed (and armored) Forest Service law enforcement officers.

That’s what happened to Bitterroot Valley residents and avowed conservationists Stewart Brandborg, Larry Campbell and Jim Miller. The three members of Friends of the Bitterroot (FOB), a local conservation group, say they have no history of criminal or violent behavior, yet their presence at the meeting was apparently deemed dangerous by Bitterroot Forest Supervisor Dave Bull, who later told the press that the men were removed by armed guards because the agency wanted to provide a “safe environment.”

“The only violence inflicted here is that of the Forest Service against public participatory process guaranteed in the United States Constitution,” says Brandborg, 80, whose father was the Bitterroot forest supervisor from 1935 to 1955.

“Our intent was to let media know of the release of the final EIS and to identify the preferred alternative,” explained Tracy Hollingshead, Sula district ranger, when asked how the Forest Service devised its guest list, which, she says, included “some of the people who were involved from the beginning.”

Evidently that didn’t include Friends of the Bitterroot, who have been involved in the Middle East Fork Project for more than a year and a half. Campbell, conservation director for FOB, said Thursday’s incident was an insult to the democratic process, and recent editorials in the Ravalli Republic and Helena Independent Record seem to agree.

“This country is fighting wars around the world in the name of democracy,” says Campbell. “I’m not going to let kids go off and die in the name of the democratic process and then let democracy slip through our hands here.”

All three men told the Independent they are investigating the possibility of legal action relating to the incident.

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