Yaak Valley Forest Council

Posted: Jul 1, 2004
Written by: 
Jane Braxton Little

Location: Yaak Valley, Kootenai National Forest, Lincoln County, Montana.

Objective: To permanently protect the last remaining roadless cores in the Yaak Valley; maintain and improve habitat for native species; support the development of a sustainable local economy based on stewardship, conservation, and ecological restoration; and encourage dialogue among historically polarized groups to find common ground on ecosystem-based forest management practices.

Ninety-seven percent of the remote and rugged Yaak Valley in Montana's far northwestern corner is publicly owned and is managed by the Kootenai National Forest. It includes 1,400 miles of streams and roughly 180,000 acres of roadless areas. In his 1999 Book of Yaak, noted author and local resident Rick Bass described it as a “Noah's Ark of diversity,” as it is home to dozens of threatened, endangered, or sensitive species such as wolves, grizzly bears, redband and westslope cutthroat trout, Coeur D'Alene salamanders, water howellia, wood toads, and more. The 150 or so people who live in “the Yaak” are as diverse as the flora and fauna, but they share a deep – perhaps spiritual – commitment to the area. They are strong-minded, independent, and seldom reluctant to express their opinions about the Yaak and its future.

When the U.S. Forest Service proposed logging in the Kootenai National Forest’s 464,000 acres of inventoried roadless lands under the 1995 “salvage rider,” a group of Yaak residents were galvanized into action. To dispel the common perception that only outsiders were interested in protecting those remaining roadless areas, they drafted a public letter affirming their commitment to sustainable logging and their equally strong determination to keep roadless areas roadless.

The 25 people who supported those goals formed the Yaak Valley Forest Council (YVFC) in 1997. Today, the group consists of about 85 outdoor guides, bartenders, massage therapists, road builders, loggers, teachers, writers, seamstresses, electricians, and other local property owners, most of whom are economically tied to the local landscape. In addition to its members, YVFC has over 1,200 people on its active mailing list.

The group’s website explains YVFC’s central concern: “Since the end of the last Ice Age…nothing has yet gone extinct here – a testament to the Yaak Valley's strength and resiliency. But not a single acre of the Yaak Valley is permanently protected.” YVFC aims to change that, but change doesn’t come easily in the Yaak.

Yaak Falls
Photo courtesy of Travel Montana
Accomplishments: In its first 12 years, YVFC focused on building awareness of the threats to the local ecosystems. Community presentations on ecosystem-based planning and forest stewardship offered new approaches to traditional activities. YVFC brought in nationally known writers and artists to inspire local residents to create their own art and increase general understanding of the intrinsic and economic value of natural networks. Among the results are two compelling books: Archipelago: Notes From an Inland Island and The Roadless Yaak - Reflections and Observations About One of Our Last Great Wild Places.

In 1998, YVFC helped launch a 10-year pilot project on approximately 400 acres of the Kootenai Forest, pioneering a stewardship contracting approach to forest management. In exchange for making needed forest health improvements, such as road restoration, trail maintenance, and stream rehabilitation on national forest lands, local woods workers were able to keep the logs and other woody material that they removed in the course of that work. During its successful implementation, the Yaak Community Stewardship Forestry Project brought over $1 million into the Lincoln County economy, and none of its component activities was appealed.

The Headwaters Restoration Partnership Project, initiated by YVFC in 1999, has so far surveyed nearly 600 miles of streams, collecting data on fish distribution, barriers, and sediment sources. The project focuses on the sensitive inland redband trout and the upper Yaak River, the last remaining ecosystem supporting Montana's only genetically pure native rainbow trout. Working in partnership with the Forest Service and other agencies and groups, YVFC has helped restore native trout habitat and decommissioned over 35 miles of roads, including one road in a core area for grizzly bears. It has also created or improved over 10 miles of non-motorized trails where degraded roads once existed. The Headwaters project has begun working with private groups (such as Yahk to Yaak) and government agency representatives in southern British Columbia to address and replicate watershed restoration efforts in the Canadian portions of the Upper Yaak River (spelled Yahk, in Canada).

To encourage a sustainable local economy, YVFC is working to establish a micro-enterprise system based on stewardship principles. It is designed to connect operators doing small-diameter logging with independent local mills that can process those materials for value-added manufacturing into finished products such as yurts. YVFC’s commitment to the local community as well as to the environment has stimulated a steadily growing and productive dialogue within the Yaak community, involving (among others) Kootenai Forest officials, Lincoln County commissioners, and the last local small-mill owner.

To further encourage discussions among long-polarized groups, YVFC’s Forest Watch Program has taken a leadership role in collaborative work through the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition (KFSC), a diverse mix of people committed to having a voice in the management of the Kootenai National Forest. “When I first came here [over a decade ago],” says YVFC executive director Robyn King, “the Forest Service was treated like it was an occupying force. It didn’t seem like we would get much done if we didn’t start working with them.” YVFC has been helping build better working relationships with the agency, and encouraging more community people to participate in the dialogue. Some efforts have deflected appeals and litigation; others have generated data that strengthens public understanding of forest ecosystems.

Challenges/constraints: From its inception YVFC attracted hostility, some of it extremely personal, that went beyond the antagonism frequently encountered when a collaborative group first tries to address natural resource conflicts. In spite of the resistance, YVFC persevered. As King explains, a key factor was “the power of listening genuinely and authentically, …having the willingness to stick to it and remembering what our core organizing principle was – that the old way didn’t work, and all the fighting had gotten us was that all but one mill in the county had closed and none of the big issues had been resolved. You have to be willing to reach out to as many people as you can, even if you know that some of those folks won’t be interested. Just taking that step is critically important. That doesn’t mean you’ll get everyone to the table, but that you extended your hand is very important.”

The stewardship contracting pilot project clearly demonstrated YVFC’s commitment to sustainable forest management and helped convince the resource-dependent community that YVFC was an ally in developing new ways of practicing traditional industries. Yet a few years ago, when YVFC members participating in the Kootenai’s Forest Plan revision process urged the Forest Service to manage roadless areas in the Yaak as recommended wilderness areas, the hostility erupted again. The Forest Service held 18 public meetings to discuss forest planning, but it did not provide the outside facilitation that many felt was needed to enable productive discussion in such a heated, polarized atmosphere.

The Yaak was not the only place where the revision of Forest Plans sparked controversy, however, and in early 2007, in the case of Citizens for Better Forestry, et al., v. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, a federal judge in California overturned the Forest Service’s 2005 Planning Rule and sent it back to the agency for correction of its multiple shortcomings and violations. And there it has remained.

Although frustrating in many ways, the lengthy interruption of the Kootenai’s Forest Plan revision process ultimately may prove to be a blessing in disguise for YVFC. It has given the group time – and a less volatile climate – in which to pursue other promising and innovative approaches to meeting the needs of the Yaak and its people. One of those, the Three Rivers Challenge, is explored in detail on this website in the collaboration story of the Lincoln County Coalition.

For more information see:

Yaak Valley Forest Council

The Roadless Yaak: Reflections and Observations About One of Our Last Great Wild Places
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