Group makes case for wilderness, timber in Kootenai Forest

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The Montana Wilderness Association hopes to add 180,000 acres of wilderness in the Scotchman Mountains and Cabinet Mountains in the future.

But they’re also working with local stakeholders to assure land uses like timber harvest, snowmobiling and other recreation are also maintained in the Kootenai National Forest.

The Cabinet Mountains Wilderness currently spans 94,000 acres. But the greater body of the Kootenai National Forest is over 2.2 million acres.

But historically, there’s been a real problem with wilderness management in Lincoln County, especially with timber production down.

“We’ve lost the balance of common sense management. We’ve started this false argument of pitting wilderness against management,” county commissioner Mark Peck lamented in a talk with reporters on Monday.

Peck and Amy Robinson of the MWA are members of the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition, which includes recreationists, business owners, conservationists, and mill operators who would like to see a healthy forest that supports all manner of species, including humans.

In late 2015, the Kootenai Stakeholders agreed to a forest-wide proposal that establishes guidelines for timber management, creates areas for motorized and non-motorized recreation, and designates the new acreage that triples the size of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. This proposal will augment MWA’s preservation goals while boosting the county economy.

Current timber harvest is about 50 million board feet annually, but the Stakeholders call for a harvest of 70 to 90 million board feet that would be reaped while protecting water and habitat in the wilderness. F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber has also supported the Kootenai Stakeholders.

Along with the addition of new wilderness lands, Stakeholders hope to reassume responsibility for timber lands that have been previously managed and need to be managed again - balancing backcountry recreation and economic importance.

Over 80 percent of Lincoln County is Forest Service or U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land, which means that private revenue can’t be earned from the land, Peck explained.

“We can’t afford for this forest not to produce,” he noted. “It’s very frustrating to live here and not have any control over our destiny.”

Robyn King is the executive director for the Yaak Valley Forest Council, and she wants to keep public lands in public hands while empowering local collaboratives to utilize the land. She remarked that communities treat the Forest Service like an “occupying force.”

“We should be in partnership with them. We demonstrate how democracy in action works,” she said. “There’s a seat at our table for everyone who wants to be there.”

Kristen Smith, owner of Cabinet Mountain Brewing Company in Libby, is invested in the county’s economic development and recognizes that the forest is an essential resource.

“Our forest system is unique on a worldwide scale, and it’s special to us as Americans,” she said.

Peck agreed.

“On 2.2 million acres, there’s enough room to do it all. We can’t just take our hands off and let it go,” he said.

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