A new forest plan for the Kootenai National Forest that’s expected to be finalized this spring retains wilderness values in the Whitefish Range, which forms the North Fork’s western boundary.
The plan preserves the Ten Lakes Wilderness Study Area and keeps the recommended wilderness designation for the Whitefish Divide.
The 34,000-acre Ten Lakes Wilderness Study Area was established by Congress in 1977, but it has never been designated as wilderness. The Whitefish Divide is considered recommended wilderness. Forest Service officials can recommend wilderness designation for an area, but only Congress can designate wilderness.
The Whitefish Range has long been targeted by wilderness advocates, but political will has been lacking to complete it. Even Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which designates wilderness in the Yaak, doesn’t include the North Fork. Over the years, the idea of designating wilderness in the area has become a polarizing topic.
Debates aside, the Ten Lakes and Whitefish Divide areas are largely managed as wilderness, Kootenai Forest planner Ellen Frament said, but there are exceptions. Trail crews, for example, are allowed to use power tools while clearing trails, and snowmobiles are allowed in parts of the Ten Lakes area.
The Kootenai Forest’s final forest plan and draft decision should be completed by April, Frament said.
Meanwhile in the Flathead National Forest, discussions over future forest plans are just beginning to form. Flathead Forest planner Rob Carlin said last week that developing a forest plan will hinge on a collaborative process between all stakeholders.
That process should begin late this spring or early summer and ramp up into formal discussions by the end of the year. The goal, he said, is to have a forest plan completed by 2016. Wilderness, particularly in the North Fork, is bound to be a topic of discussion.
An informal group of stakeholders, ranging from timber interests to environmental groups, landowners and businesses, already has begun to meet locally to discuss the future of the Flathead Forest side of the Whitefish Range.