For more than half a decade, the Lake County Conservation District has been working on a proposal to transfer management of 60,000 acres from the Flathead National Forest to the state for the next 100 years.
Despite opposition, the board voted to move forward last September with the so-called Swan Forest Initiative. That means the next step is shopping the idea to Montana’s delegates in Congress. But two-thirds of Montana’s D.C. delegation say they haven’t heard of the Swan Forest Initiative.
"This is an opportunity to take a natural resource, a renewable natural resource that’s grown right here in Lake County, proactively manage that resource, and then turn the profits from that management right back into conservation work here," says Jim Simpson, the board chair of the Lake County Conservation District.
The conservation district's mandate is to manage soil and water quality projects in the county. Simpson says Montana’s 58 conservation districts are chronically underfunded. More than half run on less than $30,000 annually. So he is proposing a so-called conservation forest. It would use timber sales to beef up his district’s budget, adding an estimated $500,000 to $1 million per year from timber sales.
"For the first two or three decades almost all the net proceeds from that conservation forest would be reinvested in the Swan Valley and reducing fuels, "Simpson says.
After that, the conservation forest would fund soil and water quality projects, reclamation of old septic tanks on farm fields, erosion and dust control, and maybe even research on endangered and threatened species habitat.
The kind of management arrangement he’s proposing, where the land remains federally owned but the state holds management authority, hasn’t been tried anywhere, Simpson says. The U.S. Forest Service swaps land with states frequently, but to establish a management transfer like the Swan Forest Initiative would require an act of Congress. There are still some fine points to hash out, like the project’s legal geographical description.
Simpson says those details will come once he finds a congressional backer.
"Attaching it to the Farm Bill has been mentioned, or creating a standalone bill that has something in it for every state has been mentioned."
But what Simpson proposes as a creative model for funding local conservation projects, opponents call a land grab.
"This area, outside of Wilderness, is part of the 60,000 acres of proposed unsustainable timber harvest," says Kari Gunderson.
Gunderson has lived and snowshoed around the Swan Valley for four decades. Today, fat snowflakes settle over the dense forest on the edge of the Mission Mountain Wilderness south of Swan Lake, burying tracks of deer, ermine and snowshoe hare.
"I do not take my place attachment for granted. This is a special place, the Swan Valley. Rich in flora, fauna and wild experiences like this."
Gunderson, a former wilderness ranger for the Forest Service, is part of working group that formed about a year ago, after Simpson held a series of public meetings about the Swan Forest Initiative. Gunderson’s objections to the proposal range from the philosophical to the concrete.
"This is the Flathead National Forest that belongs to all Americans; and the Lake County Conservation District is trying to promote this to benefit Lake County residents," Gunderson says.
Her biggest question is how the conservation forest would handle environmental uncertainties like the effects of climate change.
"Due to uncertainty of effects of climate change on forests, it would be foolhardy to enter into a long-term agreement for a pilot experimental venture like the proposed conservation forest."
Gunderson and others worry the Conservation District is biting off more than it can chew in a number of ways.
"I'm concerned about fire work done. Should one big fire take place it could completely deplete the fire funds for the state of Montana, and then who’s going to be held playing for the rest of the costs?"
I ran that by Lake County Conservation District’s Jim Simpson during an interview at the Imagine IF Library in Kalispell. He says a portion of revenue from logging the conservation forest would go back to the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, which would take the lead firefighting. He uses the same rate private forestland owners pay the DNRC for fire protection, an annual $50 fee plus 30 cents for each additional acre over 20 acres.
"That one is relatively modest," Simpson says, "it's about $13,000 a year for a 60,000 acre parcel of land."
It’s actually a little closer to $18,000. Gunderson is also concerned that current National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, protections for fish and wildlife on the federal land would give way to weaker state standards, and that public comment on proposed projects — a central tenet of decision-making on public lands — would at best be weakened and at worst disappear, if management were transferred to the state.
"They [the Forest Service] are required by NEPA and other federal legislation to involve the public, to solicit public comment, and these comments are analyzed and taken into consideration to a much higher degree than what I see at the Lake County Conservation District."
Simpson counters that the forest would follow Montana environmental laws, and that he is already listening to public comment, in the form of a non-scientific survey that the Conservation District conducted prior to the Board’s September vote.
"In fact, I believe of that total number of 1,400, 450 were from Lake County, and then 54 percent of those did in fact support us moving forward. So that’s influenced me to vote to move forward," Simpson says.
According to that survey, 80 percent of the total respondents opposed the project, and 85 percent of people living in the Swan Valley opposed.
For Gunderson, perhaps the most concerning aspect of the Swan Forest Initiative is how it fits into what she sees as a broader national movement to transfer federal lands to the states. She points to President Donald Trump’s recent decision to shrink a handful of National Monuments, and the brewing discontent of ranchers and foresters who want to see lands managed locally. The Swan Forest Initiative, she says, is a local echo of that national movement.
"It is precedent setting," Gunderson says.
Simpson has never seen it that way. In fact, at a meeting at the end of 2016 he expressed surprise that anyone would call his proposal a land transfer. He’s heard the point made by the public as well as the DNRC, which would inherit management responsibilities if the proposal passes.
"They're not opposed to managing it, they just feel that if the general public hears the state is going to be managing federal lands, they will interperet that as a taking," says Simpson.
Although the DNRC, along with the state Legislature, funded an initial study for the proposal with two grants totaling $40,000 in 2014, the agency is neutral on the Swan Forest Initiative.
For the Initiative to become anything more than that, it needs an act of Congress.
Montana’s Democratic Senator Jon Tester says while he’s open to collaborative, on-the-ground, community-driven land management solutions, the Swan Forest Initiative has a long ways to go. Tester adds he hasn’t been approached about carrying legislation for the project.
Republican Senator Steve Daines also hadn’t heard about the project, but said he tends to support grassroots initiatives.
Republican Representative Greg Gianforte’s staff has discussed the idea with local government officials. A spokesperson says Gianforte supports greater local involvement in decision-making on federal lands, but doesn’t come down one way or another on the Swan Forest Initiative.
Backers of the Swan Forest Initiative are going to need stronger commitments than those for their idea to become reality.