Flathead forest plan revision NOI

The Notice of Intent to initiate scoping for the Flathead revision EIS has been published and comments are due by May 5.  Here is a newspaper article.  Here is the website.  Here is my summary of the summary of the changes needed from the current plan:

  • 2012 Planning Rule requirements. Eight specific categories of requirements are described.
  • Grizzly bear habitat management. Relevant portions of a new interagency draft grizzly bear conservation strategy will be incorporated to provide regulatory mechanisms that could support de-listing. It would generally follow the model from the existing plan (given its apparent success at promoting recovery), and would add some plan components for a larger area, including connectivity zones.
  • Bull trout and native fish habitat. It would replace the Inland Native Fish Strategy with ‘equivalent’ direction, but would not include numeric riparian management objectives or a requirement for watershed analysis prior to projects.
  • Canada lynx habitat management. It would replace the current Northern Rockies Lynx Management Direction with a modified version. Changes would include additional exceptions to allow precommercial thinning.   Mapped lynx habitat has also been updated.
  • Inventoried roadless areas. In accordance with the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, they will be removed from lands suitable for timber production. Other decisions to be made in these areas involve recreation opportunities and travel management.
  • Old growth forests. Current plan requirements to retain existing old growth would be included in the revised plan, but changes would be made in how to provide snags and down woody material in the long term, and to address landscape pattern.
  • Winter motorized recreation. There would be no net increase in designated over-snow routes or play areas, but boundaries would change and offsetting additions and reductions would be made to two areas.

(Timber harvest is apparently not included as a ‘change’ because the volume objectives are comparable to recent volumes sold.)

There are some unusual things going on with the wildlife direction in the proposed plan.  First, the Forest Service has recognized that including a consistent and scientifically defensible conservation strategy for grizzly bears in its forest plans throughout the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem is its best hope of providing adequate regulatory mechanisms that will allow the species to be delisted.  That is the same philosophy that was behind the Northern Rockies Lynx Management Direction, and to some extent the Inland Native Fish Strategy.  And yet with changes in the Flathead plan, the Forest Service may be starting to disassemble those consistent and scientifically defensible strategies piece by piece.  That would be in line with expectations of the Fish and Wildlife Service IF the forest-specific changes are needed to achieve the original purpose of the strategy, but addressing forest-specific conditions (using best available scientific information).  It would probably be out of line, and not supportive of recovery,  if it simply represents disagreement with the original direction (which was imposed by a higher authority).

It will be interesting to see how the Forest Service manages this process at a broader scale, and whether it is setting a  precedent for disassembling the Northwest Forest Plan and other broad-scale conservation strategies through plan revisions.

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