Flathead Forest

Posted: May 2, 2005

The Flathead Valley of Northwest Montana

Objective: Here, in the spectacular Flathead Valley, two collaborative groups, the Flathead Forestry Project (FFP) and Flathead Common Ground (FCG), were formed in the mid-1990's. Both groups were deeply concerned about the acrimonious and litigious atmosphere surrounding land management on the Flathead National Forest, with FCG focused on collaborative, watershed-scale planning and FFP working to build enough trust among the various factions in the on-going “timber wars” to enable plans to be carried into action -- and to ensure that the resulting on-the-ground work was of the high quality essential to maintaining that trust.

FFP's mission was to "promote community trust and collaborative processes; ensure forest and ecosystem health; and provide for a sustainable resource-based economy within the region."

FCG’s objective was to "improve wildlife habitat and forest conditions and to simultaneously utilize economically viable timber sales as a tool to help to achieve these environmental objectives.

Participants: All FFP participants collaborated as individuals, not as representatives of organizations or specific interests. FCG participants represented the Intermountain Forest Industry Association, Defenders of Wildlife, Montana Logging Association, National Wildlife Federation, Montanans for Multiple Use, Montana Wilderness Association, Plum Creek Timber, Artemis Common Ground, Great Bear Foundation, Trout Unlimited, F. H. Stoltze Land and Lumber, Weyerhaeuser Corporation, Flathead Wildlife, MT Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the office of Senator Conrad Burns, and the U.S. Forest Service.

History:Flathead County is about the size of Connecticut. Roughly 77% of its land area is in government ownership, including large portions of the Flathead National Forest and Glacier National Park. Of the remaining 23% in private ownership, 62% is forested. Not surprisingly, the forest products industry has always been a major driver of the area’s economy, but by the mid-1990’s tourism had become a significant component as well. Many visitors were so taken by the beauty of the Flathead that they subsequently moved there either full- or part-time. As the population and the economy became more diverse, arguments about how public forest resources should be managed grew ever more frequent and impassioned. All too often the failure to achieve acceptable resolution of those disagreements led to appeals, cancellations, or litigation of proposed federal or state management projects, with related local job losses and growing hard feelings.

In early 1994, two independent logging contractors, Jack Jay and Floyd Quiram, started to explore ways to resolve the situation. A series of small meetings was organized, and gradually expanded to include more and more interested persons. By late spring the all-volunteer group, now called the Flathead Forestry Project (FFP). was meeting every other week, and anyone with an interest in collaboratively addressing public forest management issues was welcome. Approximately 30 people were regular attendees, and over 100 received detailed meeting minutes.

FFP participants were all local, but had widely differing personal experience, knowledge, and opinions regarding forest management. Many had not known each other prior to attending FFP meetings, which were held weekly. Candid, but civil, discussions and considerable time spent together in the field resulted in a degree of trust and common understanding being built among participants during FFP’s first year. Collectively, the group was starting to build a vision of future forest management in which a key ingredient would be the use of “steward loggers” loggers trained and/or experienced in the philosophy and practice of stewardship forestry, focused on achieving the desired ecological end-result on the land rather than on the volume of timber removed in the course of that work. Another concept the group explored was the separation of the logger from the logs, whereby whatever timber was removed would be sold in a transaction unrelated to the contract for performing the stewardship work, thereby removing any perverse incentive for loggers to cut more or better trees than necessary to achieve the desired future condition. Not everyone in FFP was convinced that the group’s conceptual model would work – or even that it was needed – but everyone agreed it was worth trying. The strategy decided upon was to start small, carrying out a number of projects deliberately limited in acreage and impact, but with maximum public participation in project planning, design, contracting, and monitoring.

Individuals working for the Flathead National Forest were active participants in FFP from the beginning, so everyone was aware that FFP’s proposed stewardship model could not be implemented on national forest lands under the agency’s legislative authority at that time. The group consequently decided on a two-pronged demonstration program – one that would “push the envelope” as far as it could go on Forest Service lands, and the other that would implement FFP’s stewardship model more completely on private and State of Montana-owned forests. At the same time, FFP began drafting proposed federal legislation to permit a limited trial of the group’s concepts on National Forest System lands. Then-Representative Pat Williams (D-MT) and Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) introduced the legislation in their respective houses of Congress. Favorable articles and editorials appeared in some Montana newspapers, and many community-based forestry groups around the country supported the proposal, but opposition from national environmental organizations and major forest products industry groups was strong, and the bill was not given a committee hearing.

 FFP members at the Paint Emery stewardship site
Photo by Carol Daly
At about the same time, Seth Diamond of the Coeur d’Alene, Idaho-based Intermountain Forest Industry Association (IFIA) and Hank Fischer of Defenders of Wildlife’s office in Missoula, Montana, began talking about undertaking a landscape-scale project and working with other concerned stakeholders to reach consensus on how it should be managed. Then, they hoped, Forest Service managers could use that consensus as the basis for a plan that would include specific implementing activities. They recruited Tom France of the National Wildlife Federation and Patrick Heffernan of the Montana Logging Association, and together the four decided to pilot the concept on the Flathead National Forest. “Basically, Common Ground [FGC], in a nutshell, was a realization by three major competing interests that they were getting nothing done on their own,” said Greg Schildwachter, who succeeded Diamond as the IFIA representative. “The only way we could get anything done was to work together on each other’s interests and on the interests of other competing stakeholders.”

    Early in 1996, FCG’s four founding member organizations began inviting others to join them at their monthly meetings. A scientific panel was enlisted to review any recommendations that might emerge from the groups’ collaboration. The panel included specialists (most at the University of Montana) in the fields of biology, forest ecology, silviculture, aquatic biology, hydrology, ecology, and wildlife biology. 

    The project area selected by FCG, in consultation with the Forest Service, was Paint Emery – 70,000 acres on the east side of Hungry Horse Reservoir. Among its needs were a road improvements or closures, campground improvements, elk winter range enhancement, improved grizzly bear security, noxious weed mitigation, erosion control, and fish habitat restoration. By 1998, some FCG participant groups had pulled out of the effort, but those remaining had been able to agree upon (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) a multi-faceted plan that FCG offered to the Forest Service, and which became one of the alternatives studied by the agency in its National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis of proposed actions in Paint Emery.

    That same year, then-Senator Conrad Burns (R-MT) inserted a rider into the federal FY1999 Omnibus Appropriations Act to authorize a limited demonstration of 28 “stewardship end result contracting” projects on national forests nationwide. The provisions of the bill were very similar to FFP’s 1995 proposed legislation. Here was an opportunity to forward the work of both FFP and FCG, which had been operating entirely separately, with only a couple of participants (outside of Forest Service personnel) active in both groups. FCG had moved on to another planning effort, at Big Creek, but FFP and the Forest Service developed a stewardship demonstration package to implement several of the FCG-conceived projects in the Paint Emery area. A stewardship contract was awarded in 2001 and successfully completed in 2004.

    When Congress extended the stewardship demonstration program to permit 28 more projects, FFP worked with the Forest Service in developing the Hungry Horse to West Glacier stewardship project to do hazardous fuels reduction on Flathead National Forest lands in that area’s wildland-urban interface. FFP then successfully applied for a grant from the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) to carry out a complementary fuels reduction project on private lands in the same area.

    Accomplishments: FFP’s initial (1995) on-the-ground effort was a 15-acre ponderosa pine restoration project located next to the Swan Ecosystem Center in Condon, MT. The second, in the North Fork, dealt with some of the effects of long-term fire exclusion from the area’s forests. Treatments involved individual tree or small group selection, commercial, and pre-commercial thinning on four sites, ranging in size from 10 to 48 acres.

    A 20-acre project in 1996 on private land dealt with a variety of issues such as thinning and stand improvement, recreation, wildlife, and limited residential use. FFP then worked with the Montana DNRC to develop a management plan and related treatment for a 480-acre parcel located adjacent to the Happy Valley subdivision. State law requires such trust lands to be managed to provide income for school operations. The challenge was to meet the trust requirements, satisfy community recreation and aesthetic demands, and maintain a healthy forest ecosystem. A 20-acre demonstration project on the site was successfully completed in late 1997, helping pave the way for a more extensive DNRC project in Happy Valley shortly thereafter.

    The private land and Happy Valley demonstration projects were the first two to use major elements of FFP’s proposed stewardship contracting model – (1) the solicitation of bids that, rather than simply consisting of a fixed price for timber to be removed, instead required offerors to explain how they would achieve a desired end result (ecologically restored condition) on the ground; and (2) best value contracting, which allowed the agency/landowner to use other factors (experience, past performance, qualifications of key personnel, equipment, etc.) in addition to price in deciding to whom to award a contract.

    In order to make possible the 114-acre Cedar Flats project, conducted in 1999, FFP raised $100,000 from private foundations (channeled through the National Forest Foundation to the Forest Service) to finance a series of service contracts that addressed such issues as wildlife security, recreation, forest stand and structure restoration, fire, and urban/wildland interface area management. The use of service contracts (as opposed to timber sale contracts) enabled FFP to test best-value and end result contracting on National Forest lands. The trees removed by the service contractors in the course of their work were purchased by local mills in separate sales by the Forest Service.

    Although the Paint Emery project was appealed by several environmental groups, the Forest Service was able to move forward with it by agreeing to modify a proposed element of the road removal work. One of the first parts of the plan to be implemented accomplished the relocation of two miles of the well-used Emery Creek Road away from the creek bank to reduce sedimentation and improve fish habitat. The later FFP-facilitated stewardship project addressed campground improvement, erosion, weeds, logging site restoration, visual impacts, and grizzly bear security issues in Paint Emery.

    FFP hosted several field tours of Cedar Flats and Paint Emery (including one for congressional staff members) to showcase what stewardship contracting could achieve. It conducted a training program for multi-party stewardship project monitoring teams from Montana, Idaho, and Washington communities.

    FFP’s DNRC-funded project in the Hungry Horse to West Glacier was completed in 2006, having accomplished hazardous fuels reduction on 247 acres of private land in the wildland-urban interface. FFP also facilitated the 2005-06 congressionally-mandated multi-party monitoring of the Flathead National Forest’s Robert-Wedge post-fire restoration effort.

    Challenges/constraints:  In FFP, people participated as individuals, not as representatives of any organization or specific interest. That was to give everyone as much flexibility as possible, encourage “outside the box” thinking, and allow individuals to express their own opinions, even if those opinions differed from the official positions of any public or private organizations they might work for or belong to. This worked well within the group, but in a relatively small community where “everybody knows everybody,” media coverage of FFP activities inevitably resulted in some linkages being assumed. This led to at least one individual leaving the group because of unhappiness within his organization’s board of directors about the implied connection.

    FCG participants, on the other hand, came as representatives of their various organizations. As a 2001 Red Lodge Clearinghouse case study noted, “they could not leave their agendas at home. They were expected to speak in the voice of their members and their boards. Some had greater flexibility than others. Some had a more fervent belief in the collaborative process than others. Virtually all were paid, subject to recall, to career change, and to changing mandates. They had not ‘volunteered’ their services, as the FFP players had. This was to cause problems later on, when some groups balked at the final management agreements that were reached.” Further, the initial FCG ground rules developed by Diamond and Fischer required members to recognize the need for stream restoration, reduced road densities, and vegetation management (tree harvesting). The latter issue was a “deal breaker” for some environmental organizations, while some multiple use groups were adamantly opposed to forest road closures.

    FCG’s Big Creek planning project involved many of the same issues as Paint Emery, but its most controversial aspect was the Forest Service’s court-ordered requirement to substantially reduce the road density in the Big Creek drainage to meet grizzly bear recovery needs. Based on information received from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) that seasonal road closures could be counted along with permanent closures in calculating the overall open road density, FCG announced in 1999 that it had a plan that met the necessary legal criteria and had endorsements from many industry, environmental, and multiple use interests. Although the deal ultimately came apart when it turned out that seasonal road closures could not be counted in Big Creek, the fact that FCG’s diverse and sometimes antagonistic participants were able to agree upon any plan was evidence of a remarkable commitment to a collaborative effort.

    "I consider the work of both [FFP and FCG] as huge successes" says Gary Dahlgren, who worked with them as deputy Assistant to the Flathead Forest Supervisor. "Flathead Common Ground laid the groundwork for significant restoration of the Paint Emery 80,000-acre watershed, [and] from the success of the Cedar Flats program to a number of other productive projects, FFP's partnering with the agency was tremendously valuable."

    FCG was disbanded a number of years ago, and FFP hasn’t met in two years. "I feel we accomplished what we set out to do," FCG’s Fischer says. "We never intended to be a functioning group, once the original plans had been worked out with the Forest Service. But we did prove that 'collaboration' is a valid way of operating."

    Although it took far longer to accomplish than they had ever anticipated, FFP participants take satisfaction from the role they played in fostering stewardship end result contracting, which is now widely used by both the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

    The full Red Lodge Clearinghouse case study of FFP and FCG may be found at: http://launch.vermontlaw.edu/epp/resources/Flathead.pdf

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