Hiking in the Yukon. Image: Pat Morrow
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"I left inspired to protect the special places in my own backyard."
Sara Renner, Y2Y supporter

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Let's Sit Down and Talk

An unlikely group of loggers, conservationists, horsemen, cabin owners and more from Montana’s Whitefish Range get together for some grassroots land-use planning.

Sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands. At least that was the strategy the Whitefish Range Partnership – an unlikely group of allies including loggers, conservationists, hikers, horsemen, mountain bikers, cabin owners and more - took when the future of their backyard was at stake.

L-R: John Frederick, Larry Wilson, Frank Vitale and Bob Brown on the top of Mount Thompson-Seton, Whitefish Range. Image: Amy Robinson

The Whitefish Range is some of Montana’s most beautiful land: 300,000 acres (121,405 ha) of public forest, west of Glacier National Park and bordered by the North Fork portion of the Flathead River. It’s a small corner of the 2.4 million acres (971,245 ha) Flathead National Forest, but to the interest groups in the area it’s their playground, their livelihood, their home.

Us and Them

“For years we clashed over the use of this landscape,” explains Michael Jamison of the National Parks Conservation Association, who helped organize the planning efforts. “Coming together wasn’t easy. Everyone was entrenched in their own ideology; ‘greenies’ pitted against loggers, snowmobilers against skiers, and so on.”

But when word arrived that the U.S. Forest Service was going to revise the forest plan for the Flathead National Forest, which includes the Whitefish Range, suddenly the ‘us’ had expanded in the face of a new ‘them’ - the Forest Service. These former adversaries were motivated to sit down and talk.

Grassroots Solutions

Thirty-six constituencies were represented in the Whitefish Range Partnership, including some of Y2Y’s partners. Their goal was to get out in front of the Flathead National Forest planning process and develop a list of locally-created zoning recommendations specific to the Whitefish Range.

For 13 months this crew met twice a month, with additional breakout meetings. After consulting with the Forest Service to clarify what they could influence, the group discussed realistic land use considerations one item at a time: where to log, where to mountain bike, where to recommend Wilderness areas, and so on.

Flathead Map

In the end, everyone got more,” explains Jamison. “Snowmobilers got more land to play in. Non-motorized recreational trails increased. The suitable timber base increased from 55,000 acres (22,257 ha) to 90,000 acres (36,421 ha), and the Wilderness area expanded to 85,000 acres (34,398 ha). Private property owners concerned about fire encroaching on their backyard proposed a buffer zone that allows for logging and fuel reduction around their lands, about a mile before the non-motorized use zone begins. And because we consulted with the U.S. Forest Service, we know these recommendations can be implemented through the new forest plan.”

The Partnership’s recommendations were presented to federal land managers this December as part of the public consultation phase of the Flathead National Forest management revision. Whether adopted or not, the Partnership and the proposal are considered great successes – possibly unprecedented in the history of American land use planning.

Even Joe Krueger, Flathead National Forest team leader for the plan revision, says he’s seen attempts like this before, but this was the first time in his 26 years that he’s seen a group like this stick it out to reach consensus on a set of recommendations.

The Keys to Success

So what made their efforts different? Jamison suggests there were many factors that played into its success, but three elements stand out.

“First, we decided that nothing would move forward without consensus. No agreement on a single issue was final without unanimous approval of the entire package. Second, everyone could veto an idea, but those who did had to return to the next meeting with an alternative vision. It was the only way to keep the process moving forward,” adds Jamison.

View of the North Fork. Photo: Stephen Legault.

Bob Brown, a former Montana Secretary of State and longtime state legislator who brokered the meetings, was the third secret to the group’s success.

“Everyone trusted Bob. He kept us real,” says Jamison. “He called groups out for opposing an idea simply based on ideological grounds. He helped us realize that there was more than enough space for everyone.

A Model Worth Repeating

With so many land-use planning exercises underway in the Yellowstone to Yukon region, we had to highlight the successful experience of our partners. The experience gained by Jamison and his neighbors is worth repeating.

Their model reminds us ‘greenies’ that when we are creative and collaborative we can influence real change. It also reminds us that modern conservation is about finding common ground that works for everyone, snowmobilers, hikers, greenies, grizzlies and fish alike.