Draft Flathead National Forest plan delayed a couple of months

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The next step in the years-long effort to develop a revised management plan for the Flathead National Forest, originally expected this month, won’t be rolled out until late August at the earliest.

Joe Krueger is leading the team to develop the 2.4 million-acre forest’s first management plan overhaul in the last 30 years. He said Friday the expected June release of the final environmental impact statement has been pushed back two months due to a combination of factors, including the need to coordinate extensively with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the U.S. Forest Service.

“The time-frames take longer when you’re dealing with 33,000 comments, and we’re trying to keep it as accurate as possible,” Krueger said, adding that he’s also been diverted by several broad public-records requests submitted under the Freedom of Information Act.

When it’s finally released, the final environmental impact statement and draft record of decision will outline the forest’s preferred plan, likely to reflect one or more of the four planning “alternatives” outlined in the draft EIS released in June 2016. That will kick off a 60-day objection period, in which those who submitted comments during the previous public-comment periods can file formal objections challenging the proposed plan revision.

Of the more than 33,000 comments received on the draft environmental review, 576 were unique, with the rest consisting mainly of duplicate form letters. But, Krueger added, many of those comments spanned hundreds of pages.

The Flathead National Forest is charting relatively untested waters, with the plan revision being developed under a 2012 planning rule signed into law under the Obama administration.

As with many policies in the arena of national forests, it took years for that planning rule to be adopted. Following failed attempts under the administrations of presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, it was the first such rule finalized since 1982.

One of the major changes to the planning process, Krueger said, is the flexibility it gives to individual forests to shape policy around their unique challenges and resources.

“It takes the unique characteristics that each of these forests across the United States have, and it really tries to focus the plan toward protecting those unique characteristics and improving on them,” he said. Take, for example, the Flathead’s historic relationship with the regional timber industry. “It’s a unique, local characteristic of the Flathead. That’s not true everywhere.”

To that list he also adds dispersed recreation, the fact that half of the forest comprises designated wilderness areas and the opportunities that huckleberry production offers for both wildlife and human visitors.

A year ago, the Flathead National Forest was on track to be the second national forest in the nation to revise its guiding document under the 2012 rule — the first being the relatively tiny Francis Marion National Forest in South Carolina.

“We are neck and neck now with a couple forests, but we’re still right there,” Krueger said of his revised time table.

Despite not being one of the roughly dozen national forests selected as “early adopters” of the new planning rule, he said his team of five other full-time planners has been able to accelerate relatively quickly through the process due to their extensive experience guiding policy on the Flathead.

Those staffers, averaging more than 20 years within the Flathead National Forest, each focus on separate parts of the plan, including aquatics, wildlife, vegetation, recreation and writing and editing the document itself.

“There is nobody else in the county that I want than these resource professionals,” Krueger said.

A finalized decision is now due in February 2018, he said.

Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com.

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