Lincoln County Coalition

Posted: Jan 1, 2002

Lincoln County in northwest Montana.

Objective: The Lincoln County Coalition (LCC) is a diverse citizens’ group joined together “to promote forest health, sustainable landscape management and sustainable communities and forests; to revitalize the wood products industry and [the] local economy; to preserve recreation opportunities, both motorized and non-motorized; and to protect certain backcountry areas in the Yaak [Valley].”

Participants: LCC is comprised of loggers, mill owners, snowmobile and ATV riders, conservationists, hunters and anglers, wilderness advocates, educators, outfitters, other local businesses, and local elected officials.

History: Lincoln County covers a diverse and often rugged 3,675 square miles of northwest Montana. Three-quarters of it is National Forest System land, managed by the Kootenai National Forest, and about four percent of that is protected wilderness area. No new wilderness areas have been designated since 1964, which frustrates many Lincoln County residents and pleases others. Ten percent of the county is industrial forest land, but the local timber industry has been in a downward economic spiral for over a decade, and selling the land itself rather than the wood it can produce has become a financially attractive alternative for industrial landowners. New employment in construction and recreation-related jobs has helped, but hasn’t offset the heavy losses in mining and forest products jobs the area sustained. Lincoln County’s unemployment rate is among the highest in the state – 16.6% in March, 2009.

The Lincoln County Coalition (LCC) had its genesis in 2002, when Stimson Lumber, the major employer in Libby, the county seat, announced plans to close its mill, reportedly because of a lack of adequate available timber. For a time, it looked as if the mill would continue operating if an additional 10 million board feet annually could be obtained, and a community task force was convened to work with Stimson to find that extra volume. With the help of the U.S. Forest Service, local businesspeople, mill workers, conservationists, and elected officials, a wood source was found – surrounding the nearby communities were overstocked forests that needed to be thinned to mitigate potential wildfire in the wildland-urban interface. Stimson closed the mill anyway – a terrific blow to the community.

Lincoln County Sno-Kats
Photo courtesy of
But many task force members weren’t ready to just walk away. In their diversity, they had begun to discover unexpected common ground, rooted in a shared frustration.

Sometimes, the people of Lincoln County, Montana, feel like life is a tug-of-war...and they are the rope….

Seventy-five percent of [the county] is the Kootenai National Forest, managed by laws from in Washington D.C. and often enforced by judges and litigants hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. Another 10 percent of the county is corporate timberland — logged, swapped, or sold from distant boardrooms. Northwestern Montana is the most productive forestland in the Rockies, yet mill after mill has shut down over the last decade. Those mills supported families and small businesses. Likewise, local conservationists, who would like to protect special areas, are frustrated, as no new wilderness areas have been created on the Kootenai since 1964. They, too, feel jerked around by decisions made far away.
Meanwhile, there is a new kind of change. Lincoln County has been “discovered” by retirees and moneyed outsiders, building seasonal or retirement homes. Property values have rocketed. Some of the richest wildlife habitat is sliced into subdivisions and favorite hunting spots and fishing streams are blocked forever behind “no trespassing” signs. – LLC website

The desire to enable their community to gain some control over its future appeared to be solid common ground, and it made sense to keep building on it. Recalls Robyn King of the Yaak Valley Forest Council, “We said to the county commissioners, ‘We don’t want to stop the conversation.’ And the commissioners gave us some suggestions, and said to keep going.”

There was a lot of conversation – years of it. First came getting to know each other and building some level of trust. Donna O'Neil of the Lincoln County Snow-Kats says, "It's very new turf for everyone. It's like keeping cats, dogs, and mice in the same room – and everyone thinks they're a mouse." Learning more about the views of former adversaries, such as environmentalists, doesn’t mean adopting them as one’s own, however. “Our views have not changed,” O’Neil emphasizes. “They still want wilderness, and I oppose it. I don’t understand why they want wilderness, and they don’t understand why I want to go to the top of a mountain and make noise.” But, “Everyone has a right to their opinion and their perspective. There has to be some willingness to share.”

Accomplishments: After three years of far-ranging conversations and the exploration of many ideas, LCC began creating what participants titled the “Three Rivers Challenge: A Map of Common Ground.” Presented for wide public consideration in 2007, the Challenge is ambitious. “We think [it] can end the timber wars on the Three Rivers District and avert a potential war between motorized and non-motorized recreation,” says an LCC briefing paper. It’s limited in geographic scope and carefully designed as an extended experiment. It also requires Congressional action to implement.
The full text of the proposed legislation can be found at . Briefly, LCC seeks to develop, in partnership with the Three Rivers District of the Kootenai National Forest, the Three Rivers District Cooperative Stewardship Forest Study Area to:
  • Provide opportunities for treating small diameter overstocked fuels, beginning in the wildland urban interface;
  • Make the overstocked fuels available for processing at area mills;
  • Create jobs in restoration forestry activities that enhance watersheds and critical fish and wildlife habitat;
  • Provide for the participation of diverse community stakeholders, together with federal, state, and local agencies, in planning how to best use forest land in Lincoln County;
  • Create a special mediated appeals process for the pilot area to encourage appeals resolution "on the ground and not in the court room";
  • Establish a Resource Advisory Committee for the project;
  • Designate the Roderick Inventoried Roadless Area as wilderness;
  • Make permanent the existing snowmobile use in the North West Peaks Scenic Area and portions of two inventoried roadless areas;
  • Create a permanent non-motorized area in the North West Peaks Inventoried Roadless Area and backcountry recreation areas in portions of two other inventoried roadless areas; and
  • Create the Three Rivers Community Recreation Working Group to seek resolution of potential motorized and non-motorized recreation conflicts.

Both of Montana’s U.S. Senators have been supportive of LLC’s efforts, and in early 2009, Senator Jon Tester invited three members of LCC to sit on a panel with him in Libby, where the Three Rivers Challenge was discussed. U.S. Representative Denny Rehberg has made no commitments, but says he likes to see community members working together to find solutions to their problems.

Challenges/Constraints: The possible creation of new wilderness areas is always a heated issue in Montana and, predictably, the wilderness element of LCC’s proposed legislation has attracted the most attention. Montanans for Multiple Use devotes a page of its website to the LCC, warning that, “If the proposed bill does not contain strong language that places the jobs and recreation parts of this bill on a superior or at least equal footing with the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws, the jobs and recreation folks will likely end up with nothing. In addition to protection from ESA, the legislation needs to include some way to insulate jobs and recreation from legal action by environmentalists.”

Shepherding any bill through Congress is difficult, and as a small, volunteer group with no legislative experience, no continuing, on-the-ground presence in Washington, and the possibility of facing active opposition from another Montana organization, LCC has a particularly daunting challenge before it. With years of collaborative planning behind it, however, and with its members’ shared concern for the future health of both their community and their environment, LLC should have at least a fighting chance of success. “Right from the get-go, this was really exciting. This was democracy in action,” says Tim Linehan. “No one had pulled off anything like this around here, but folks thought ‘Let’s go for it; all they can tell us is no.’” – Tim Linehan, Linehan Outfitters and Lincoln County Coalition member

For more information see:

NRDC's Onearth Story

Missoulian Story

Kootenai National Forest

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