Update on Swan Study –
Establishing a Conservation Forest in the Swan Valley
The forested area in the Swan Valley and in Lake County consists of approximately 225,000 acres. Three major classes of forest landowners are in the Swan: The US government (Forest Service), Montana State trust lands, and small private landowners.
For those of you who have not been closely following the Swan Study (swanforestinitiative.org), the Lake County Conservation District (LCCD) initiated a study about four years ago with a basic question: Can about 60,000 acres of US government lands in the Swan Valley in Lake County be proactively managed and, as a result, produce a profit that can be invested in a yearly forest fuels reduction program in the Swan Valley?
The study showed that the cost of managing a conservation forest could easily be paid for by sustainably selling timber to the forest products industry. Additionally, the study showed that about $500,000 in profits could be generated per year which could then be used to reduce the forest fire hazard on all lands in the Swan Valley each year, regardless of ownership. The number of acres treated per year would be between 250 and 500.
The Swan Study is in its last phase and this step is called “politics.” Since September of 2017, the LCCD has been talking to staffers on Montana’s congressional delegation about the possibility of creating legislation that would result in a pilot Conservation Forest being established in the Swan Valley. We have found that our congressional delegation and staffers are overwhelmed and, as a result, the LCCD’s request for an in-depth discussion about the concept of a Conservation Forest has not taken place.
In the last few months, the LCCD decided to focus on Senator Daines for this discussion because he seems to be the Montana leader in promoting forest policy change. It is LCCD’s hope that Senator Daines will find time in his schedule in the coming weeks to have that in-depth discussion.
If you are from Lake County and have an opinion regarding the Conservation Forest concept, please go to Senator Daines’ web site and voice your opinion. https://www.daines.senate.gov/connect/email-steve
THE PUBLIC COMMENT PERIOD FOR THE SWAN STUDY ENDED 8/31/2017!!
PLEASE CLICK THE LINK BELOW TO SEE THE RESULTS:
The study process has been transparent and inclusive. Four workshops were held in 2014 to explain the study’s focus and to allow LCCD district residents to express their views. A website was established in early 2014 enabling LCCD to post the results of each step of the study. Additionally, the following stakeholders receive periodic updates on the study’s results and progress: United States Forest Service (USFS), Montana’s Department of Natural Resources (DNRC), Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), local State legislators, Governor’s office, Congressional staffers, Lake County Commissioners, local city councils and residents of the Swan valley living in the district.
The Conservation Forest model being studied includes the following key points:
- The approximately 60,000 acre forest would be established on the Flathead National Forest. All lands are within the LCCD boundaries and Lake County.
- The Conservation Forest will be managed in trust by Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC). The beneficiary of the trust is the LCCD.
- The laws, rules and regulations governing the management of Montana’s State forest will be used by DNRC to manage the Conservation Forest.
- All lands included in the Conservation Forest will continue to be owned by the United States Government. The people of the United States will continue to have the right to all lawful uses of these forest lands.
- The Conservation Forest will revert to United States management 100 years after Congress approves establishment of the Conservation Forest.
- All net revenues generated from proactively managing the Conservation Forest will be invested in conservation work in Lake County. The conservation work can occur on federal lands, State of Montana lands, private lands and tribal lands. Net revenues will most likely be invested in the Swan valley for a few decades.
As of November, 2016 the following steps have been completed in the Study (All results are posted on the web page).
- Idea Vetting – (discussion with Flathead National Forest about conservation concerns, then a 12 month period of reflection, which resulted in converting a conservation concern into a conservation opportunity).
- Information Gathering – LCCD District residents concerns and opinions – (described previously).
- Development of a Forest Information Tool – to aid in understanding of forest dynamics – (5 videos developed by a Forest Ecologist).
- Analyzing Economic Feasibility – (Mason, Bruce & Girard).
- Legal analysis – (Don McIntyre and Maresa Jenson).
This video is about SRMS Working Video
Lake County is located in the center of Western Montana on the south end of Flathead Lake. The almost 954,000 acres in the county is 35% privately owned. The rest of Lake County lands are non-taxable because they are owned by Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, by the State of Montana , and the Federal government (administered by the Forest Service or the US Fish and Wildlife Service). The County’s terrain is arguably the most diverse in the State consisting of very productive agricultural lands, several large lakes, and steep mountains, most notably the Mission mountain range. Lake County is Montana’s ninth most populous with 28,746 residents, according to the 2010 estimates produced by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Lake County was founded in 1923. Legislation enabling the creation of Conservation Districts in Montana was passed in 1939 and the Lake County Conservation District (LCCD) was organized in 1945. Montana’s Conservation Districts were created to provide for the conservation of soil and water, to preserve natural resources, to protect the tax base, to protect public lands and to protect and promote the health, safety and general welfare of the people of Montana. In accordance with Montana State Law, Conservation Districts may assume responsibility for managing and executing Federal projects relating to the conservation of soil, water and vegetation. The LCCD must obtain the consent of the Federal government before assuming management responsibilities on Federal lands.
The taxable base in Lake County is declining. Private industrial forest lands are being purchased by the Federal and State governments. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) regularly purchase tracts of land in Lake County and withdraw these lands from the tax rolls. CSKT will take ownership of Kerr Dam in 2015. Withdrawing the dam from the tax rolls will reduce the tax receipts. A large sawmill in Pablo was closed and dismantled in 2010, eliminating an important taxable asset in Lake County. Montana law assures counties that tax revenues will not decline from year to year, which results in higher taxes being paid by the remaining county taxpayers.
After World War II, the United States Forest Service (USFS) began to intensively manage federal forest lands so that a growing nation would have easy access to U.S. produced lumber and to promote the protection and health of our nation’s forests. The focus on managing forests changed significantly in the early 1990’s. The growth of trees and maintaining healthy forests was replaced with an emphasis on ecosystem and landscape management. A 75% decline in harvest since 1990 has lead to a buildup of forest fuels.
The Flathead National Forest manages approximately 161,000 acres in Lake County. Between 85,000 and 95,000 acres are suitable for timber management and are not classified as wilderness. National Forest lands in Lake County increasingly show signs of significant forest health decline, the same decline that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of acres of Montana forests dying on the Helena, Beaverhead-Deerlodge, and Lewis and Clark National Forests. When a forest dies the costs are significant. Green trees are valuable—many times more valuable than dead trees. When a forest dies, millions of dollars in taxpayer asset value is lost. An additional and very direct taxpayer cost is incurred when these dead forests burn. The cost of fighting catastrophic fires is significant, now running into the hundreds of millions of dollars annually. When a catastrophic fire occurs, forest soils are stripped of the vegetation holding it in place. Unnecessary and high levels of erosion can occur which degrades water quality and reduces soil productivity.
The Flathead National Forest managed lands in Lake County are adjacent to four major wilderness areas and three other areas designated for special use. The Bob Marshall, the Scapegoat, and the Mission Wilderness areas are managed by the United States Forest Service. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (SCKT) own and manage the Mission Mountain wilderness area. These four wilderness areas total over 1.7 million acres. The three special use areas are the Jewel Basin Hiking area, the Swan Lake Wildlife Refuge and Glacier National Park. These three special use areas total 1.03 million acres. The federal forest lands in Lake County are also adjacent to over 1.0 million acres of other federal non-wilderness lands being managed by the Lolo and Flathead National forests. The non-wilderness, federal forest lands in Lake County are less than 3% of federally forest lands in a 100 mile radius.
The Federal Government recognizes that federal ownership of lands in Lake County comes with a financial responsibility. This responsibility has been fulfilled through several pieces of federal legislation: the 25% fund, payment in lieu of taxes, and most recently the Secure Rural Schools and County Self-Determination Act. Financial support for Lake County to operate schools and maintain county roads from these sources is declining and is at risk of being eliminated.
The non-wilderness Forest Service lands in Lake County support a valuable and renewable resource. The sustainable harvest of this resource can create jobs and supply local mills with forest products essential for their survival. Most significantly, the sustainable harvest of National Forest lands will insure that fuel loads are reduced, soils are protected, erosion is minimized, water quality is protected and forest health is improved. Sustainably harvesting the National Forest lands in Lake County also provides the Lake County Conservation District with a renewable source of funds for conservation projects throughout the county.