A “listening session” on the Colville National Forest plan revision drew ire from locals last Wednesday who said the plan ignored local input and will have negative impacts on Stevens County.
The June 1 meeting, facilitated by the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution (IECR), was intended to accept comments on the proposed forest plan that will govern the Colville National Forest for roughly the next 20 years. CNF is currently managed under the last management plan that was completed in 1988.
While CNF staffers attended the listening session, having IECR run the meeting and let people know when their two-minutes of comment time was up did not sit well with some attendees.
“I find it vexing that I have to speak to an intermediate on this issue,” said Matt Rhodes who said he recently moved to Stevens County for its “farming and ranching culture.” “The U.S. Forest Service needs to work with our county commissioners on this plan because that’s the elected official I can reach out to and hold them accountable,” Rhodes said.
Other attendees also expressed concern that CNF staff had not properly “coordinated” with the Stevens County Commissioners to ensure the forest management plan had direct influence from local government.
“The coordination process is coordination between two governments of equal rank or importance without one being subordinate to the other,” said Barry Byrd of Northport. “I do not believe that is happening in this plan. All the local industries that make up the strength of this community should be prioritized.”
The current CNF plan draft makes notable changes to the natural resource products that can be accessed on the 1.1 million acres that make up the national forest.
In the proposed plan, timber harvests are reduced from 80 million board feet a year to 62 million board feet per year and new grazing regulations will likely reduce ranchers’ ability to graze the forest, according to CNF documents.
The CNF economic analysis on grazing in the proposed plan noted that access opportunities for ranchers would be reduced through an increase in “Backcountry” and “Recommended Wilderness” areas, as well as via plans for reduced road densities. New grazing regulations could also “limit future options and reduce the length of permitted grazing seasons,” according to the analysis.
Public access to the forest will also be affected by the proposed plan that aims to reduce road densities to one mile of roads per square mile of forest in “Focused Restoration Management Areas” and two miles of road per square mile of forest for “General Restoration Management Areas,” a standard that would decommission many current forest roads. A “Wilderness” recommendation to Congress for certain forest areas would also restrict any motorized access on over 63,000 acres of the CNF, or roughly six percent of the total forest.
The lack of access to natural resources was a serious concern for nearly all of those who commented at the listening session, including Debbie Wishon.
“If I understand correctly, the U.S. Forest Service is managed under the U.S. Department of Agriculture which focuses on producing the things needed to feed this nation. But this management plan wants to manage the forest for a ‘condition,’ not a ‘product,’” said Wishon. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
Another attendee, Steve Melzer, said that reading the forest plan draft made him feel like he was being “punched.”
“I feel like we are not being listened to. I feel like I am being punched. When we talk about two miles of road density and managing grass stubble height to 4-6 inches, those things are unrealistic. I have been out riding every day for the last two weeks and I can tell you it will be impossible to manage for conditions like 4-6 inches of stubble height. How can you tell when the animal eating that grass is an elk or a cow? And how do you manage the elk?” Melzer asked, referring to a requirement in the plan that would require ranchers with a grazing allotment to specifically manage grass stubble height in some areas.
Several people commented that the proposed forest plan changes the historic management of the forest and will have negative impacts in the future.
“Our access to our public lands is being squeezed down and shut out,” said Ann Byrd. “The culture, customs and tradition of this area is changing, it is not what it used to be. We are small, rural Stevens County where our forest ranger should be our neighbor.
The way this is being done makes it seem like things are arranged to minimize public input.”
Many attendees commented on the need for the U.S. Forest Service to work with the Stevens County Commissioners to develop a management plan that recognized the impact to the local community.
Even Commissioners Don Dashiell and Wes McCart said they were “disappointed” in the way the CNF coordinated with the Board of Commissioners.
Commissioner McCart said the Board met with CNF staff three times and requested specific changes to the proposed forest plan. Some changes were made, but not all. The plan was also put out for public comment before CNF responded to the Board of Commissioners on the requested changes.
Commissioner Dashiell said he personally does not support the current forest plan proposal and said he would like to see the 1988 plan stay in place, but with some changes to update the document.
The CNF will close the formal comment period on the proposed plan on July 5. Formal comment on the document may be made electronically via an online form available at: https://cara.ecosystem-management.org/Public/CommentInput?project=45826 Comments may also be submitted via email to: firstname.lastname@example.org . To submit comments in person or in writing, call 684-7000 for submission details.
By Jamie Henneman/The Independent Staff