MISSOULA – Researchers in the University of Montana’s W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation recently partnered with the Southwestern Crown Collaborative to release survey results describing local residents’ attitudes toward forest management in the Seeley-Swan and Blackfoot areas of Montana.
The collaborative includes local citizens, nonprofits, federal and state land agencies, and UM researchers. The group surveyed residents to better understand how forest management decisions have impacted communities and to provide managers with insights on how to incorporate local concerns into national forest decisions.
The project was part of the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, which provided the selected national forests with 10 years of funding for restoration projects. Projects include thinning overgrown stands, prescribed burns, stream restoration, road restoration and weed eradication. The program also required multiparty monitoring, said Cory Davis, a research associate in the Franke College of Forestry and Conservation and coordinator for the Southwestern Crown Collaborative.
“Our monitoring program helps us measure the local outcomes of this restoration program from an economic and social standpoint, as well as ecologically,” said Davis. “For this survey, we were trying to get an idea of local citizens’ attitudes toward the landscape – what is most important in terms of goals for forest management and how satisfied they are with current management.”
The survey focused on the geographic area known as the Southwestern Crown of the Continent, a contiguous land area in western Montana with similar forest types and similar economic communities. The area included smaller towns whose economies are dependent on natural resource management – from timber to tourism. Missoula was not included.
UM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research administered the survey to a random sample of residents within the landscape in 2018 on behalf of the Southwestern Crown Collaborative and the Flathead, Lolo and Helena-Lewis and Clark national forests. Davis, UM Assistant Professor of Human Dimensions Alex Metcalf and graduate students Haley Hodge and Fred Lauer then analyzed the data.
“Our most important finding was that the vast majority of people valued multiuse management of the national forests,” Metcalf said. “A large majority of the people believed that the Forest Service should be doing everything from wildlife and wildfire management to supporting local economies and tourism. We often assume there are different factions out there that want very different things from forest management – timber harvesting versus managing for wilderness, for example. Instead, we found widespread agreement across a diverse range of goals.”
Residents also approve of all forms of management to address wildfire risk, including thinning and prescribed fire, although smoke is a concern. They also want to see logging following wildfire, with overwhelming support for salvage logging. However, clear-cuts as a silvicultural treatment were unpopular, with only 30% approval. Residents were divided on letting wildfires burn – even without a threat to lives or property – with 42% disagreeing and 48% strongly agreeing.
However, overall satisfaction with forest management was low. Few respondents (16%) felt that their comments were seriously considered, and most (61%) felt that decisions were already made prior to the public comment period.
Metcalf said he hopes the survey results might improve forest management and relations not only in the Southwestern Crown, but across the state.
“It is clear people want opportunities to be heard, but also need to understand how their feedback influences management decisions,” Metcalf said. “This is one of the few studies that asked people what they thought about forest management. Our results give forest managers some honest feedback about what their constituents want and care about. Hopefully, this effort can be repeated in the future to gauge how well the forests are improving their relationships with local communities.”
Local national forests, including the Flathead, Lolo and Helena-Lewis and Clark, were funders and partners in this work.
“Public engagement is imperative for successful national forest management,” said Bill Avey, forest supervisor of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest. “Many feel strongly about these special places. We encourage folks to take the time to get involved in public comment periods and local collaboratives, as both directly shape the stewardship and management of the National Forest.”
To view the full report, visit the Southwest Crown Collaborative website.
Contact: Alex Metcalf, UM assistant professor of human dimensions, W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, 406-243-6673, firstname.lastname@example.org