Planning for the Bitterroot National Forest’s Middle East Fork (MEF) project crept closer to completion with the Forest Service’s Nov. 23 resolution of 15 official objections filed against the project. The agency’s preferred alternative would commercially log about 3,800 acres to reduce wildfire risk and address a bark beetle epidemic.
Regional Forester Gail Kimbell, charged with reviewing the objections before Bitterroot Forest Supervisor Dave Bull issues his final decision, addressed each by letter. She writes that she considered holding public meetings to discuss objectors’ issues but ultimately decided not to, feeling that such a meeting would only reiterate “deeply held diverse opinions and feelings” rather than lend new insight to the process. Plus, she writes, objectors’ points were clearly established in their comments. Two objectors, Native Forest Network Director Matthew Koehler and Friends of the Bitterroot’s Larry Campbell, said they didn’t feel Kimbell’s letter resolved or even fully addressed their issues.
While the letter is the Forest Service’s only official response, Bull said Nov. 29 that in coming weeks he will review the objections and Kimbell’s responses and contact all objectors to further discuss their concerns. Then he’ll issue a Record of Decision around mid-January.
An assessment performed by Helena mediator Brian Kahn, hired by Bull to assess possible resolutions to differences over the project, confirmed Kimbell’s belief that public meetings wouldn’t likely be successful. But Kahn also suggested that a broader discussion could address issues beyond the MEF project.
“What [the assessment] seems to be underscoring is the issues are less about the project and more about values and beliefs about public land management,” said Bull, who plans to find a facilitator and schedule this separate discussion by January. Specifically, there are three prominent issues to address: “They seem to revolve around how we communicate, how we work with different organizations and individuals who have an interest in forest management, and how we set priorities,” Bull said. “It’s a range of issues I’ve heard repeatedly that beg the question in my mind about there being a different way we can interact with the public.”