Swan Citizens Ad Hoc Committee and Swan Ecosystem Center

Posted: Jan 24, 2010
Location:  The Swan Valley of northwest Montana Objective:  “To maintain a strong, vital community involved in setting its own destiny through partnerships that encourage sustainable use and care of public and private lands” –mission of the Swan Ecosystem Center. 

Partners and Participants:  Local residents and businesses; USDA Forest Service (USFS); Flathead National Forest (FNF); Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) ; The Trust for Public Land; The Nature Conservancy; Northwest Connections; Salmon Prairie School; Swan Valley Elementary School; Montana Department of Environmental Quality; Missoula County Weed District; Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP); the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CS&KT); Upper Swan Valley Historical Society; and others.

History: Nature created extraordinary beauty and environmental richness in the 12-mile-wide, 400,000-acre Swan Valley.  Geologic stresses tilted the earth’s layers, thrusting up the peaks of the Mission Mountains Wilderness to the west and the Swan Range and the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the east.  Glaciers sculpted the land between the mountains, etching side valleys, carving and feeding lakes and wetlands.  From its headwaters in the Upper Swan, the Swan River flows northward through vast forests of pine, larch, fir, and spruce, home to a array of wildlife that includes whitetail and mule deer, elk, black and grizzly bears, moose, mountain lions, coyotes, lynx, bald and golden eagles, and native bull trout, among others.   

For generations, the Kootenai, Salish, and Pend d’Oreille peoples lived seasonally in the Swan, hunting, fishing, harvesting berries, and otherwise following traditional practices, but there was little other human activity on the land.  That changed in 1864, when the Northern Pacific Railroad (NP) was chartered to build a line from the Great Lakes to the Pacific to encourage development of the Northwest.  To facilitate the venture, Congress gave the NP a grant of every-other-section of land along the proposed main line and branches and for some miles on either side, anticipating that as the line progressed, the land would be sold to incoming homesteaders, thereby generating the capital needed to accomplish the remaining construction.  Lands granted to the NP in the Swan Valley produced no rail service there, but the resulting “checkerboard” ownership pattern (alternating square-mile blocks of government and NP lands) nonetheless profoundly impacted the area’s future.   Government lands not homesteaded ultimately became part of the Flathead National Forest (FNF) or were granted as trust lands to the State of Montana, leaving less than 10 percent of the Swan in private, non-industrial ownership.   

In 1945, the newly formed Plum Creek Timber Company opened the first of its wood processing facilities in the Flathead Valley, about 70 miles to the north.  In the mid-1960s, Plum Creek was acquired by the NP, which still owned over 88,000 acres of forestland in the Swan, and the intensity of logging there increased substantially.   At the same time, national concern about environmental health issues was growing.  Between 1969 and 1980 Congress passed numerous measures in response, among them the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and the National Forest Management Act (NFMA).   In compliance with NFMA, the FNF adopted its first Land and Resource Management Plan (Forest Plan) in 1985, following a painful five-year effort. The plan’s introduction ruefully acknowledged the turmoil in which it was developed: 
    Controversy and bitterly divided public opinion has created a situation where agency activities are viewed, by what seems to be an ever increasing array of special interests groups, as inadequate, inappropriate, or even detrimental to the very resources we are responsible to manage.  This assault has raised doubts, both within the agency and externally, concerning Forest Service responsiveness to public input and even responsible management…. 
Appeals and litigation of the Forest Plan began almost as soon as it was adopted.   By 1990, timber harvests were declining as a result of both a downturn in national demand for lumber and an increase in environmentally-related restrictions on logging operations. Forest-related employment in the Swan had plunged, and the economic future looked grim.  There was ample evidence of environmental degradation as well – large clearcuts checkerboarded across the landscape, increased stream sedimentation, and wildlife habitat losses.  As is usual in small communities faced with major problems, public meetings were called.  The first few turned into verbal free-for-alls, with the fears and anger of residents exploding in shouts and accusations directed at environmentalists, the Forest Service, loggers, “outsiders,” and each other.  A snoose can was hurled at one speaker, and some people were so intimidated or discouraged by the hostile atmosphere that they stopped attending.   Rod Ash, a retired high school teacher, conservationist, and well-respected member of the Condon community, was deeply troubled by the deteriorating situation.  A friend familiar with the use of collaborative processes suggested they might work in the Swan.  “The idea was to get hold of people from every walk of life in the valley and get some discussion going,” recalls Neil Meyer, one of the first people whose participation Rod enlisted.   The goal was not only to reduce local tensions but, more importantly, to turn the community’s energies toward finding positive solutions for its problems. 

Accomplishments:  The resulting informal group called itself the Swan Citizens Ad Hoc Committee.   Alan “Pete” Taylor, a retired government researcher, volunteered his services as a meeting facilitator.   “He taught us how to have consensus-based, civil meetings, how to have the patience to let everyone have their turn to speak, and how to capture everyone’s viewpoint,” recalls Anne Dahl, an early ad hoc member. 

After some months of small group meetings, the committee took its approach to the community at large.  Monthly general meetings on specific topics of concern were initiated, later supplemented by smaller working groups addressing specific issues.  To ensure that the views of all residents, not just those who came to meetings, were heard, the ad hoc committee worked with the University of Montana in 1993 to survey residents about their visions of the future of the Swan and their attitudes about important local issues.  Not surprisingly, jobs and the economy were a major concern, but respondents also ranked environmental features (forests, wildlife, mountains, open space and wilderness) “extremely high” in terms of importance, far outstripping the weight assigned to the social aspects of life (knowing your neighbors, affordable housing, independent living, community, and influencing change).   The challenge was clear – to retain/restore the Swan’s environmental qualities and create jobs in the process.  In 1995, the ad hoc group partnered with the Flathead Forestry Project in planning and monitoring a FNF ponderosa pine restoration project next to the agency’s Condon Work Center – the first of many activities undertaken to collaboratively involve the local community more directly in national forest management in the Swan. 

Two tough tests of the ad hoc committee’s capacity followed almost immediately.  For 12 years, the FNF had contracted with two local residents to serve as “wilderness rangers” in the Mission Mountains, opening trails, packing out garbage left by thoughtless campers, and (perhaps most importantly) interacting with up to 2,000 wilderness visitors each season and educating them about proper wilderness use.  Shortly before the 1996 field season was due to begin, the FNF axed the contract due to budget cuts.  The ad hoc committee facilitated a meeting of Swan residents with the FNF’s district ranger to explore options, and within two months a $2,000 foundation grant had been obtained and $10,000 in donations raised from local residents and other wilderness users to cost-share the contract and keep the program going for another year.

But there were other budget-related problems.  Until 1973, Condon had been headquarters of the FNF’s Condon Ranger District, employing up to 50 people year-round, and as many as 100 in the summer.  As timber harvest levels had declined, so had district employment, and finally the district was merged with another, and most of the remaining staff transferred out.  The ranger station became a seasonally-used “work center”, and now it too that was scheduled for closure.  Convinced that maintaining an active FNF presence in the Swan was essential, the ad hoc committee struck a deal with the agency to cost-share the facility’s operation and carry out a mutually agreed-upon work plan. As an informal organization, the ad hoc committee itself could not enter into such an agreement, so the non-profit Swan Ecosystem Center (SEC) was formed, opening its offices in the work center in April, 1997.   Among its accomplishments so far:  

  • Continued fundraising for and management of the Mission Mountains and Swan Ranger program. Now expanded to include backcountry areas of the Swan Range as well as the Mission, the program is supported by private donations, FWP’s Recreation Trails Program, the National Forest Foundation, and the USFS.
  • Creation and staffing of a visitor center, museum, gift shop, and resource library at the Condon Work Center/SEC office.  Among the gift shop items are two volumes of Swan Valley, a Century of Change, collections of oral histories gathered from long-time residents by local historian and author, Suzanne Vernon, (with volunteer support) for SEC and the Upper Swan Valley Historical Society.   In addition to oral history tapes and photographs, SEC has collected, catalogued and made available to the public local homestead documents, maps, books and hundreds of scientific reports relevant to the Upper Swan. 
  • Completion of the Upper Swan Valley Landscape Assessment through a cooperative arrangement between SEC and the ad hoc committee.  Participants included the FNF, Plum Creek, DNRC, FWP, USFWS, and many volunteers.   Both DNRC and the FNF use the landscape assessment as a land planning resource, and it guides SEC’s on-going landscape restoration work.
  • Implementation of a program to encourage stewardship of private, non-industrial forestlands in the valley.  An on-line Swan Valley Forest Stewardship Handbook provides area-specific information.  SEC staff foresters help individual landowners plan restoration/conservation activities, including reducing hazardous fuels around homes.  A small grants program has been available for several years to assist with the costs of implementation, and in 2009 SEC received an 18-month, $407,000 economic stimulus grant through DNRC that will enable significant increases in on-the-ground restoration work  and related local jobs.
  • Facilitation of continuing collaborative involvement of the community in public forest stewardship. When a management activity is under consideration, SEC facilitates field tours and meetings for concerned citizens and agency officials to discuss possible actions, alternatives, impacts, and desired outcomes.  Those interactions enable the transfer of local knowledge to the agencies, assist in dispelling misunderstandings, and provide a “heads-up” for local contractors about upcoming job possibilities.   Multiparty monitoring of  key projects (frequently in partnership with Northwest Connections and/or local schools) helps increase trust between the community and the agencies.  
  • Administration of Environmental Protection Agency  grants to implement and monitor watershed restoration.  SEC organized the Technical Advisory Group of  agencies and organizations that now address water quality in the Swan, and conducts annual monitoring of Swan Lake to track restoration progress.
  • Creation of the Bear Aware program to promote “peaceful coexistence” between bears and people in the Swan.  Some activities include publication of the twice-yearly Swan Valley Bear News, a Bear Fair, and the provision of bear-resistant trash containers for loan or purchase by residents and businesses.
  • Expansion of information services, educational programs, and other activities to keep residents and visitors up-to-date on what’s happening and encourage public participation in the stewardship of the valley.  Some examples: educational hikes and “hands-on” field activities for students; periodic “Eye on the Environment” columns in the Seeley-Swan Pathfinder; and the provision of Forest Service maps, firewood permits, trail information, and visitor services at the Work Center.  

For years SEC, FWP, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes had sought to protect three sections of Plum Creek land in the Elk Creek drainage that provide essential habitat for bull trout, an ESA-listed threatened species.  After Plum Creek’s 1999 conversion to a real-estate investment trust (REIT), acquisition became a possibility, and in 2006, SEC and the Tribes received funding from the Bonneville Power Administration to purchase and jointly administer one section (640 acres). A five-member committee with representation from Swan residents, the Tribes, and FWP now oversees management of the section as a “conservation area,” with some active management permitted.

While delighted with the Elk Creek purchase, SEC realized that the large-scale land sales the Plum Creek REIT was planning would lead ultimately to subdivision and development of large tracts of forestland in the Swan (and elsewhere in Western Montana), altering the environment and the economy and likely limiting public access for recreation and other traditional uses.   Thus SEC became an active participant in the broad-based Montana Legacy Project (MLP) which was formed to conserve those lands.    

In 2008, MLP announced that 310,000 acres of Plum Creek property (including over 60,000 acres in the Swan) would be purchased through The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and The Trust for Public Land (TPL), using a combination of new federal and state financing mechanisms, foundation grants, and individual donations.  Most of the land will be transferred to USFS and DNRC ownership, but some will be sold to private conservation buyers.  Through MLP, the second Elk Creek section is being added to the FNF, and SEC is raising funds to acquire the third to manage as a working community forest. 

  “Much was accomplished to ensure little would change,” said a 2009 SEC newsletter article about MLP’s success in facilitating the purchase of Plum Creek land in the Swan.   But in truth, things will continue to change.  The major challenge for SEC will be helping the community positively affect the nature of that change.  

Much progress has been made on the early goals identified by the ad hoc committee – facilitating civil dialogue, retaining and/or restoring the Swan’s environmental qualities, and creating forest-related jobs.  “We’ve narrowed the number of skeptics and detractors over the last 13 years,” observes Dahl, the executive director of SEC since its inception.  “They know we’re not anti-logging.  They’ve seen the benefits of our work.”   Periodic surveys of community opinion, newsletters, well-publicized public meetings and field tours, partnerships with other groups on special projects, and other outreach efforts help keep SEC’s board and staff attuned to the current range of interests in the Upper Swan, even those they know they cannot satisfy. 

The MLP purchases will restrain, but not stop, new development in the valley.  As one real estate company’s website says, “There is a very limited supply of private land in the Swan and undeveloped properties are an increasingly rare commodity.”   Scarcity of available land, coupled with continuing demand for large-acreage view properties (particularly those with streams or river frontage) has driven up prices in recent years, putting home or land purchases out of reach for many low- to moderate-income families.  Rental housing is almost non-existent.

On the employment front,  new development creates job opportunities in construction, furniture making, maintenance and other personal services, and retail sales.  In addition, since most of the MLP lands will be managed by DNRC and FNF as working forests, traditional logging and new “green collar” forest restoration jobs should become available.   The Forest Service, however, often takes advantage of the economies of scale by issuing large regional or national contracts under which mobile work crews move around the country performing hazardous fuels reduction, tree planting, and similar service work   SEC’s challenge will be to persuade the agency to offer contracts that are small enough for local contractors to be able to bid on them, and ensure that the creation of local employment opportunities is used as a selection criterion in bid evaluations.

Finally, changes in key people will test the strength of collaborative relationships in the Swan in the coming years.  A number of FNF personnel with whom SEC has established excellent working relationships will be retiring, some as early as January 2010.  With the agency poised to revise its Forest Plan and establish the management direction for FNF lands in the Swan for the next decade or so, effecting a smooth transition will be critical.   Closer to home, the SEC board of directors needs to prepare for internal transitions.  While Dahl has no plans for immediate retirement, she has said that at some point she will want to scale back the level of her involvement in SEC’s day-to-day administration – so she has more time to enjoy the natural beauty and local life style that SEC and the Upper Swan community have worked so hard to preserve.

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