Kootenai Stakeholders Coalition prepare for legislative campaign

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Chas Vincent

The Kootenai National Forest covers a vast majority of Lincoln County’s natural resources, recreation and wilderness areas. Lincoln County currently claims the second-highest unemployment rate in the state, prompting calls for the community to open up the forests for timber harvests. Others demand allocated wilderness areas, while another group maintains that snowmobiling remains a right on public land.

About 10 years ago, a group formed to bring those interests to one conversation. After about a decade of developing collaborative goals between groups of different interests, the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition is now working on getting those goals stamped with federal legislative approval.

“Without implementation, or the ability to implement what we’ve been working on for the last seven years, it’s really just ink on paper,” said State Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, an associate at Environomics, a public relations group focused on connecting government affairs and timber management. “It’s everyone rolling up their sleeves, and saying there’s 2.2 million acres here; there’s something for everyone.”

The coalition formed in 2006, drawing from different groups whose interests include timber harvest, wilderness and recreation. During the last seven of those 10 years, the coalition has developed a list of guidelines that the organization says can enhance all three while hurdling the endless advance of environmental litigation in order to get Congressional approval.

Today, the coalition includes officials from lumber companies, Lincoln County, Montana Wilderness Association, the Yaak Valley Forest Council; even the Troy Snowmobile Club. Community members from Eureka, Troy, Libby, Columbia Falls and Thompson Falls make up the organization.

The current Forest Service plan expects that the Kootenai could produce around 40 million board feet of timber, but Vincent said the coalition’s plan could draw about 90-120 million board feet by accessing the forest from different areas.

But before the process goes into legislative form, Vincent said the coalition needs public outreach to ensure that everyone’s concerns are heard before the bill is brought to Washington, D.C.

“We need a process that recognizes that there are excellent, diverse people working in a collaborative fashion with the agency that will manage the watershed for future generations,” he said. “As a Kootenai pilot project, we need all the communities supportive of that pilot. That’s what we’re beginning to do.”

Amy Robinson, northwest region field director for the Montana Wilderness Association and a member of the coalition, said the organization is currently scheduling a lineup of public open houses expected to begin sometime this month. The coalition’s website, kootenaifuture.org, went live a few weeks ago and outlines the goals developed during the last 10 years.

“We no longer want to fight old battles because there’s an amazing amount we already agree on,” Robinson said. “People really want to move forward in the community. That comes from a lot of different interest groups and leadership.”

Vincent said in order to best prepare for bringing the coalition’s plan to Congress, members of the community have to be on board with the coalition’s plan.

“We have to make sure we get those three legs of the stool attached firmly,” Vincent said. “We have a lot of work to do before prime time. But we’re getting close.”

Reporter Seaborn Larson may be reached at 758-4441 or by email at slarson@dailyinterlake.com.

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