Over a decade ago, a group of people who had been fighting over the future of the Kootenai National Forest had a new idea, to unify for common goals. And they are still looking to get more people involved.
Even as the divisions and contentiousness surrounding policy decisions in the U.S. is still a growing topic of discussion, seemingly incompatible groups in Lincoln and Sanders counties are still working together and finding common ground that benefits all of their goals.
The Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition began in 2006, growing out of a collaborative effort between the timber industry, outdoor recreationists such as the local snowmobile clubs, and the Yaak Valley Forest Council and conservationists, said Robyn King, a founding member.
The early years weren’t easy, but with each success the group achieves, they demonstrate the benefit of working with one another rather than fighting, she said.
Once people sat down and looked at each other, they found that there were actually a lot of things they had in common, and goals they could work toward as a unified front.
Grete Gansauer, a field coordinator with the Montana Wilderness Association, said that she thinks the rift people assume stands between loggers and conservationists is a false narrative.
“I think that this group is proving, and has shown that, it’s not going to be easy, but if we sit down at the table we have a lot more common ground than we ever thought was possible,” she said.
“We all fought to a draw, and nobody won,” King said of the time before the group formed. “We have proven since 2006 that a dedicated group of folks who are willing to put their swords down, and diligently and respectfully look for those areas of common ground, can make difference.”
At the core of the coalition’s ability to operate effectively is a set of protocols and rules of engagement.
“If you can’t agree to sit in the room and be willing to hear somebody else’s point of view, and be willing to collaborate and find that common ground, then this isn’t the group for you,” King said.
If someone becomes particularly disruptive, the 15-member board of directors has the responsibility of approaching them, she said. In a few cases it has reached the level of a reprimand or people who “step away from the table,” but most people don’t even realize they’ve overstepped, and quickly correct.
There are sacrifices, Gansauer said. But it beats the alternative.
Even for conservation groups that managed in the past to stop timber projects they opposed, it doesn’t ultimately accomplish anything permanent, she said.
“In the end, everybody walks away with more than they came with, and I think that’s really positive, rather than just standing in our corners, being angry,” she said.
The most recent project the coalition went to bat on resulted in 24 million board feet estimated timber production. Other past efforts they list as success include fire reduction efforts and foodstock restoration to benefit big game and other wildlife.
Working together gives the group a bigger voice as well, Gansauer said. When a coalition of interests can come to the Forest Service during a planning or public comment phase with a list of things they agree on and support, it gets noticed.
That history of cooperation and input has also helped to foster a productive relationship with the Forest Service, she said.
Since about 2015, the coalition has been focusing on building an even broader base in the community, Gansauer said. Efforts in the past year has included gaining support from area chambers of commerce.
“I think that’s significant because they represent a lot of businesses in the community, but also because they represent economy development and prosperity in the community,” she said.
The national forest is a tremendous natural resource, not just for harvesting, but for use as well, she said.
“Here in northwest Montana, these rural communities rely on the natural resources that surround them, whether that be for timber, mining, the dam, or for outdoor recreation and tourism,” Gansauer said.
King said that the coalition is a way for different groups and interests to come together, “lay their swords down” and find ways to make their communities prosper economically.
For each interest involved in the future of the Kootenai National Forest, certainty is important, King said. Whether it is the loggers knowing healthy forests will be available for harvest, conservationists and low-impact recreationists knowing certain places will be kept protected or motorized recreationists having a place to go as well, each group is concerned about knowing that what they value will be protected.
“We’re not hanging out hat on one issue,” King said. That takes looking at all aspects, not just focusing on wilderness, timber or tourism as a singular goal.
“What’s going to be the thing that makes us a prosperous and thriving community is when we marry all three of those values into one unified voice,” King said.
With that in mind, the coalition’s next step will involve seeking legislative solutions to some of the things the group has come together on, Gansauer said. The more people supporting that effort, the easier the task of permanence will be.
More information about the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition, their members, efforts and accomplishments can be found at kootenaifuture.org.