Opinion: Discussion, cooperation needed for 21st century forest management

Posted: December 2, 2012

Source: Missoulian

There’s nothing wrong with dissent – it is, after all, part of the American DNA – but neither is there anything wrong with dialogue, discussion and – if it can be reached – agreement, experimentation,success.

Both styles have their uses, but the latter method in particular can possess a richness and resonance that can be healthy for communities as well as help us move toward more properly managed landscapes in the long-term.

These two schools of thought are currently locked in a battle of wills over the Colt Summit Forest Restoration Project. I applaud the spirit and effort of conservation groups like The Wilderness Society and the Montana Wilderness Association who are working with state agencies, local county governments and small family-run timber companies to defend this project from those who, to date, have expressed no interest in discussion or experimentation.

To be clear, litigation has filled a historic need. Few would disagree that there have been and will be again forest management prescriptions proposed and implemented that warranted dissent and legal recourse. Few would also disagree that some objections were less substantial than others. Sometimes the forest was abused to manipulate short-term economics – whether corporate or local – that favored but a few; other times the legal system was abused to serve what was often the ideological rigidity of litigants who did not know the landscape over which they fought.

Rightly or wrongly, adjectives such as “frivolous” and phrases such as “lacking merit” came gradually to overpopulate all discussions. This might not have been the reality but it was, for many, the perception. And that is bad for all parties, including the affected landscapes. Because of that there have been periodic calls to do away entirely with the legal system and the right of citizens to appeal. It is hard to imagine a more offensive strike against the heart of democracy. And yet, with rights come responsibilities.

Lord John Acton said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I have no doubt that in the absence of a legal system of government, land management prescriptions would be abused. They have in the past – despite the efforts of many great on-the-ground specialists – and it would be naive to think that they would not in the future. But there is an interesting alternative – not a replacement, but an alternative – to the appeals and litigation process, in which collaborative groups are more involved in the scoping process, and in which mediators work to come up with solutions to avoid the courts.

All around Montana, neighborhood groups are sitting down to help propose common-ground solutions for a cascading number of land management challenges. The Colt Summit project is trying to do the same by proposing a project that achieves multiple goals, from protecting homes from fire to making streams more hospitable for bull trout. Unfortunately, a portion of the project was recently delayed by a federal court judge on a procedural issue after being challenged by four environmental groups.

I fully believe the resources that have been expended in this court case could have been better used if the plaintiffs had spent their time helping shape the project from the get-go rather than sinking their energy into a court case that lost them over 90 percent of their arguments. Now that the Forest Service is required to do further analysis I only hope the plaintiffs will work in good faith to help inform that process instead of following the pattern of litigation.

Renewed attention – and commitment – to a cooperative process is showing positive benefits in a few small places like the Kootenai National Forest and elsewhere. Not every proposed sale can be “fixed” through these deeper levels of discussions. Nor should any group set aside its grievances for the sake of settling an appeal. But these discussions and their beneficial effects – tangible and intangible – are being noted by politicians, community members, and, hopefully, agency officials.

Discussion and cooperation remain a crucial solution for 21st century forest management and a path toward a more properly managed landscape. In the future, this evolving process will produce more responsibly managed forest projects and help us expand our network of protected wild lands regardless of small hurdles like Colt Summit.