Commentary: Working together for solutions on public lands

The Whitefish Range by Steve Gnam
The Whitefish Range by Steve Gnam

This significant op-ed on the importance of the collaborative process for developing public lands policy was written by Noah Bodman, a board member of the Flathead Area Mountain Bikers and Amy Robinson, a regional field director for the Montana Wilderness Association. It was posted to the Daily Inter Lake on April 23.

Highly relevant to this is our previous post on the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project . . .

Working together locally counteracts the divisiveness that is splintering our nation and communities. Too many Americans are allowing pride, principles and politics to distract from the reality that we actually have a lot of common ground together. Reaching out to someone who does not agree with us takes courage and curiosity. Like many Montanans before us, we choose to respectfully sit down together and do the tough work to discover a path forward.

If a wilderness advocate and a mountain biker can overcome the division, then anyone can.

About four years ago, we entered into a collaborative group known as the Whitefish Range Partnership. The partnership consisted of about 30 individuals from across the Flathead Valley area that cared about how the public lands of the Whitefish Range would be managed. Everyone was aware that the Flathead National Forest would revise their forest plan, which would lay out a management blueprint for the next 20 or more years. Instead of reverting to old, ineffective fighting tactics of the past, people agreed that it was worth trying something new. Working together.

So, private landowners, businesses, timber mills, horsemen, motorized users, mountain bikers, and wilderness lovers worked together. After two years, the entire group reached an agreement that supported extraordinarily diverse values. We then presented the agreement to the Flathead National Forest to consider in their forest planning process. We won’t lie, the process of working together was not easy and we oftentimes wondered where it would lead, but we pressed on.

It’s easier to criticize than compliment. It’s easier to tear something down than to build it. And it’s easier to dwell on disagreements than it is to work towards common ground. The path to productive dialogue is not paved in gold. But at the root of it all, it’s easier to dislike our opponents when we don’t know them.

Lo and behold, we discovered along the way that we actually agreed on far more issues than either of us expected, and we began to trust (and even like) one another. We began to see one another as human beings instead of shortsighted interests.

To be clear: A fruitful conversation does not mean abandoning one’s values and principles. We have not somehow found the magic formula that ends years of hard-fought battles. Our disagreements do persist, and we acknowledge them. On difficult topics, sometimes we simply agree to disagree, and that’s OK too. But in this day and age when public lands are at risk from a wide array of competing interests, it is in our benefit to respectfully work together. In the long run, we believe this approach benefits the land and fosters strong, more united communities.

We aren’t yet sure how, or if, the Forest Service will incorporate the recommendations from the Whitefish Range Partnership. But, we believe it was worthwhile to have worked collaboratively rather than going into our corners and fighting it out. And where disagreements remain, we carry on but with a new perspective.

Of course, there are people all across the state bucking the choice of division by cooperating. Locally, a small subgroup of the Whitefish Range Partnership worked on a Forest Service project dubbed the Whitefish Face working group. Other collaboratives like the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Project and the Kootenai Forest Stakeholders Coalition have been building bridges and breaking down walls for over a decade. We’re not saying collaboration is the answer to everything, but partnerships are far more productive than the alternative gridlock.

Each day we have a choice and so do our decision makers and politicians. When we present ourselves as polarized factions, little is accomplished and our trenches just get deeper. But by stepping forward with solutions as a united front on a vast array of concerns, we present a compelling mandate, and inaction is no longer an option. So, we challenge citizens to present such a mandate, and we challenge our politicians to overlook self-interest and extreme party lines to choose the muddled middle for the good of our communities and our public lands.

Bodman, of Kalispell, is a board member for Flathead Area Mountain Bikers. Robinson, of Whitefish, is field director for Montana Wilderness Association.