An Unlikely Alliance

Frustrated by federal inaction, timber companies and conservationists in Montana have forged a partnership that could pave the way for similar collaborations throughout the West

  • Tom Dickson
  • Jun 01, 2008
IT DOESN'T TAKE a forest ecologist to see that the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest is in trouble. Drivers heading over Homestake Pass on Interstate 90 just east of Butte, Montana, look out over a sea of rust-colored, beetle-killed trees stretching for miles in all directions. Silt washes off old logging areas into trout streams. Escalating numbers of off-road vehicles scare wildlife and tear up sensitive streamside habitats. Lacking official federal wilderness designation, nationally renowned roadless areas such as the Sapphire Mountains remain vulnerable to mining and other development. Meanwhile, timber harvests in the forest have declined 80 percent from two decades ago, contributing to local logging business layoffs and closures.

At some 3.3 million acres, the Beaverhead-Deerlodge is Montana's largest national forest. It provides important habitat for elk, grizzly bears and other wildlife, and attracts outdoor enthusiasts from across the country. But like other national forests throughout the West, the Beaverhead-Deerlodge suffers from what critics say is a U.S. Forest Service paralyzed by conflicting federal policies, overanalysis of logging proposals and indecision. "The Service is just plodding along, getting little done while always looking over its shoulder for the latest political threat, appeal, protest or lawsuit," says Bruce Farling, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited.

In 2005, dissatisfaction with the Forest Service compelled diverse private interests to create a coalition for proposing a management plan for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge that conserves wildlife, protects wilderness and supports the local timber economy. Known as the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership, this historic alliance of three conservation groups--the National Wildlife Federation, Montana Trout Unlimited and the Montana Wilderness Association--and five wood-products companies has gained widespread support from national organizations such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation as well as Montana's two U.S. senators and Governor Brian Schweitzer, who calls the collaboration "truly remarkable." If it succeeds, the partnership may serve as a model for collaborative efforts on other national forests gridlocked by policy conflicts.

The partnership proposal primarily addresses key controversial issues the Forest Service sought to avoid in a new plan for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge. For many years, environmentalists had tied up virtually every timber sale proposal in the forest through administrative appeal or lawsuits. The Forest Service sought to deflect these controversies by proposing ever-smaller timber sales that neither addressed real management problems in the forest, such as heightened fire danger, nor provided enough wood to supply the few local mills still operating around the Beaverhead-Deerlodge.

Wilderness designations were even more contentious. Montana's congressional delegation worked hard in the late 1980s and early 1990s to pass a statewide wilderness bill that would safeguard many of the state's most pristine wild areas. But the lawmakers could not come up with a compromise plan that satisfied not only environmentalists but also timber, mining and motorized recreation interests. Because no bill was ever passed into law, those pristine areas remain unprotected.

"When we first got together with the timber companies to talk about the shortcomings of the forest plan, we found a lot of agreement about solutions", says Tom France, director of NWF's Northern Rockies office. "We agreed with the companies that we needed the industry to address management problems such as the high potential for forest fires in areas close to communities. And the timber companies agreed with us that many areas in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge should be protected through Congressional designation as wilderness."

The resulting strategy developed by the partnership calls for protecting 570,000 acres in 16 different areas of the national forest by designating them as wilderness. The strategy also calls for designating six stewardship areas where timber harvest would be an important management component, but where the land management emphasis would be on restoration and habitat improvement. The strategy asks the Forest Service to use a new tool, stewardship contracting, as a key to meeting restoration objectives. Under stewardship contracts, which Congress approved in 1996, revenues generated through timber harvests stay in the forest and be directed at a variety of restoration projects, including road reclamation, trail construction and habitat enhancement. The strategy also requires that any timber harvest be completed with temporary roads and with strict adherence to riparian standards.

The backlog of restoration projects and needs in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge is significant. The Forest Service has developed a network of 4,800 miles of roads in the forest, but tight budgets leave little money for maintenance or addressing the many problems caused by road construction. The Forest Service has identified more than 300 trout habitat restoration projects in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, most of them related to the road network. The stalled projects include replacing culverts that block fish migrations and reducing erosion on old roads that smothers trout eggs and aquatic insects downstream.

"Right now, the Forest Service budget is so tight they are only completing one or two small projects a year," says Farling. "By using stewardship contracting, we can really accelerate the schedule for eliminating problems and restoring fish habitat."

"We think stewardship contracting is a key to our future," adds Sherm Anderson, the owner of the Sun Mountain lumber mill, which employs 300 people in the small town of Deerlodge, Montana. "We can not only harvest timber that needs to be harvested, but our equipment operators can reclaim the roads and remove the culverts that are hurting both our fisheries and our recreation industry."

Like any proposal that changes the status quo, the Beaverhead-Deerlodge partnership has critics. Some environmentalists fear it allows too much timber harvest in too many sensitive areas, and some loggers fault the partnership for not eliminating judicial review of timber projects.

"There were some difficult discussions in negotiating the partnership strategy," says France, "but we're confident we've produced a balanced plan that is an excellent starting point for Congressional action. We expect the strategy to get stronger as it moves forward." The next Congress is expected to take up the partnership strategy and its wilderness proposals when it convenes in January 2009.

Meanwhile, Farling says many Montanans have told him they support the partnership approach and that the time is long past for settling old controversies and moving forward with new strategies for national forest management. Adds Anderson, who served for eight years as a Republican senator in the state legislature: "There comes a point where you have to set politics aside and get some things done."

Tom Dickson is a writer and editor in Helena, Montana.

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