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Local federal land management considered

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RONAN – Public opinion is needed concerning an initiative to move 60,000 acres of federal forestland to state management.

The land is located in timber sections of U.S. Forest Service managed land in Lake County. Flathead Lake is on the west side of the acreage, Swan Lake is on the east side of a large section, and another section is south of Swan Lake.

The Swan Forest Initiative needs Congressional approval before any changes can be made. The management of the land would be transferred to the State of Montana for 100 years if the initiative passes.

Two opposing opinions surround the issue. Lake County Conservation District Chairman Jim Simpson is a proponent for moving the land under state management, and retired Lolo National Forest engineer Curt Rosman opposes the change.

Chairman Simpson explained his views saying the Lake County Conservation District is one of 58 conservations districts created by the legislature in the state to focused on the conservation of soil, water, and renewable resources.

The LCCD board is comprised of seven supervisors, and five of them are elected members.

“We’ve done what we can with the resources we have at hand, but we’ve never had enough to do a comprehensive job,” he said.

The details concerning the land transfer have been researched in an extensive study broken into five phases in the past six years, funded with grants from the State of Montana totaling $40,000.

The first phase focused on discovery to find out more information about the land.

“I think everybody on the board agrees that more proactive management on our forest landscapes really would benefit, not only those forests, but also reduce the damage that hot fires bring to soils and water quality,” he said.

Simpson said the board decided there “probably wasn’t anything” that they could do to reduce the damage, but after some thought, they changed their approach. Instead of seeing the forest material as a liability for fire, they decided to look at it as an asset that could be turned around to benefit the land. Sustainable timber production would be emphasized.

“Timber would be sold and the forest would be returned in a healthy, managed condition,” he said. “Proceeds from the sale of timber would pay for all state management costs and annual fire protection fees.”

Community outreach was part of the second phase. Simpson said he was “disappointed” that public meetings were not well attended. He received 148 comments and would like to have 2,000. He said the majority of the comments were favorable. Although, one of the comments against it said there was no data proving that there would be income from this project. The third phase looked at the role of management. The land would still be considered federal land, but all aspects of forestlands would be managed under Montana laws, rules, and regulations.

“We are not suggesting that this land be transferred to State of Montana ownership,” he said. “It remains federal lands.”

In the fourth phase, the study looked at an economic analysis. The anticipated net revenue from selling the timber is anticipated to be half a million to $1.6 million per year. The money would be used for conservation work.

People have asked him if anything like this has ever been done before. He said there are precedents including ski areas, farming, ranching, coal, and timber extraction. “Federal lands are used for a variety of commercial purposes.”

The fifth step was a legal review to figure out what laws need to be brought to congress in consideration for this initiative. The study is currently in the political step, which, again, requires public opinion. “We need anybody that lives in Lake County to give us an opinion,” he said.

Rosman opposes the initiative. He said he was originally neutral concerning the issue, but as a civil engineer, he looked into it.

“It wasn’t long before I became totally opposed to it,” he said.

He read many Montana laws to figure out if this initiative was legal, specifically the Enabling Act of 1889. It created four states including Montana. He said this act confirms by the Montana Constitution that people in the states will forever disclaim right and title to unappropriated public lands lying without the state’s boundaries.

“It seems to me that the Swan proposal is violating the intent of the act creating statehood by claiming a right to manage those lands,” he said. “National forests, like our national parks, belong to all the citizens of the United States.”

Rosman said that conservation districts have the authority under state conservation district law to manage federal projects on federal lands, but that affects all federal lands.

“In reality, all this proposal does is transfer management from the Flathead National Forest to the State of Montana DNRC.”

He said national legislation would be “very unlikely” to authorize the Lake County Conservation District to spend profits generated by management only for the Swan Valley.

“Rather, it would affect all national forests,” Rosman said.

Rosman offers an alternative to maintain forest health.

“Current laws and regulations allow collaboratively developed projects to be stopped from implementation. As a result, forest health is deteriorating,” he said.

He thinks efforts are better spent working with congress to reduce “unnecessary red tape” to address litigation that kills forest health projects.

In addition, he said, congress needs to fund wildfire suppression.

“Having congress adjust current laws and regulations to allow responsible forest management nationwide makes considerably more sense than changing state and federal laws as would be required for what is proposed in the Swan study.”

Chairman Simpson wants the public to know that he will give presentations on this issue if asked. He would also like public input. People can send comments to

The LCCD can be reached at 406- 676-2841 ext. 102.

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