There is a natural partnership between timber industry supporters and wilderness advocates who has been very productive in many places in Montana and neighboring states. Results have been mixed so far in Lincoln County.
This partnership is natural because, in most cases, productive timberlands and potential wilderness areas are in different places, with very little overlap. This means that it is possible to both increase timber harvests and also permanently protect some existing wild country. If we work together, there need be little or no conflict between these two goals.
Another reality that supports this natural alliance is our mutual frustration with how hard it has become to get common-sense decisions made and projects approved on public lands. For years, stalemate and inaction have limited both timber management and wilderness designation. It has been over 30 years since Montana has designated a single acre of wilderness, and, in the meantime, our timber industry has shrunk by more than 70 percent. It seems obvious that conflict between industry supporters and conservationists has not been good for either side, or for the communities we live in.
So, in the past decade, and especially in the past several years, many alliances have formed around our state and region. Results include strong support among conservationists for increased timber harvest and forest restoration and strong industry support for some notable wilderness proposals. For meaningful change to occur on the ground, we need to work together to advance both of these goals.
In Lincoln County, it is encouraging that the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Group has made considerable headway on a number of issues and projects. The Three Rivers Challenge has also achieved consensus to increase timber harvest, protect snowmobile access, and designate a small wilderness area at Roderick Mountain. But in Lincoln County, we have the great disadvantage of a scarcity of active timber companies and timber workers who are able to engage on these issues.
It is remarkable that in much of Montana and neighboring states, support for wilderness is strong from active timber operators. Like businesses everywhere, most logging and milling companies are more interested in problem solving than holding grudges. Opposition to wilderness proposals seems to come mostly from people more focused on political issues and ideology than on land management issues.
An example is Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which recently passed out of a key Senate committee with bi-partisan support. The bill combines provisions for increased forest management along with establishment of new recreation and wilderness areas. The bill is supported by most of Montana’s major sawmills including Sun Mountain Lumber, Pyramid Mountain Lumber, RY Timber, and Roseberg Forest Products as well as most of the state’s principle conservation groups and hunting and angling organizations.
Polls show support for this bill from over 70 percent of Montanans (Great Falls Tribune). This is an exceptionally high level of support for any kind of legislation.
Another example of a productive partnership is the Friends of Scotchmans Peak Wilderness proposal, which has been supported by the Idaho Forest Group, a company that operates seven sawmills and employs some 600 people in Idaho and Washington. The proposal has also been supported by Revett Minerals, operators of the Troy mine, which is one of Lincoln County’s largest private employers. The Friends of Scotchman Peaks have supported forestry initiatives in Idaho and reclamation and operating permits for Revett’s Troy mine. The Kootenai National Forest draft plan recently recommended the Scotchmans area for wilderness designation, concluding that the steep, rocky lands of the roadless area have little or no timber value.
The Scotchmans proposal has also been supported by a wide variety of business and community groups in North Idaho and Sanders County, with little opposition expressed. The reaction in Lincoln Country has been a remarkable combination of support as well as determined opposition.
It seems to me that a more positive vision of forest management would be healthy for our area – a vision that includes diverse groups working together to support a variety of positive goals. There will always be those who oppose cutting a single tree on public land and there will also be those who oppose designating a single acre of Wilderness. But most of us are in the middle.
When these people in the middle resolve to work together toward shared goals, then the advantages for local communities go way beyond the immediate results of a specific agreement or project proposal. A community that replaces conflict with cooperation can follow a more inclusive vision that includes common sense conservation, multiple use outdoor recreation, and new opportunities for jobs in natural resource extraction. Communities that embrace this vision tend to be better places to live, raise a family and invest in a business.
(Doug Ferrell is President of the Montana Wilderness Association.)