Community collaborative moves forward

By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

SOUTHWEST MONT. – The future of the Gallatin Range is in the hands of the nearby communities – or so claims the Gallatin Community Collaborative Exploratory Committee.

Formed after a Feb. 29, 2012 meeting hosted in Bozeman by the Gallatin National Forest, the committee’s work is the first step in a collaborative process aiming to solve the long-standing land use conflict in the 155,000-acre Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area, which straddles the crest of the range.

The group this spring hosted six informational sessions in Big Sky, Bozeman, Livingston and Emigrant, explaining the work it’s done in the past year-plus to create a set of guidelines and operating protocols for the future process – and for creating the Gallatin Community Collaborative, a group it estimates will have 30-50 members, and possibly hundreds of others involved through subcommittees and as concerned citizens.

“Will there be something within the framework to be sure diversity is actually achieved?” asked Big Sky resident Heather Budd at the first session, April 22 in Big Sky, getting to the heart of the issue. “How do we ensure we are getting true representation?”

This will be the future GCC’s responsibility, says current facilitator Dan Clark, Director of the Montana State University Local Government Center.

“The strength of the outcome is going to depend on how diverse [the GCC] is and how inclusive they are,” Clark said at the second meeting, April 30 in Bozeman.

Exploratory Committee member Jeremy Fatouros called for “an initial gut check… [When] we get to that collaborative, we’re going to have to take a step back six months into the process and say, ‘Do we have everybody on board?’”

Fatouros is owner of Lost Creek Outfitters and manages The Lodge at Big Sky. Other committee members represent interests including motorized and non-motorized recreation, landowners, conservation, education and agency managers.

“The group is so diverse,” Fatouros said. “A year ago I couldn’t communicate with 90 percent of these people, and [now] having that communication and that bond and trust is huge.”

Committee member Dale Sexton, owner of the Livingston outdoor shop, Timber Trails, has been recreating in the Gallatin “since before I could walk.” He also operates a commercial fly fishing guide operation in the WSA, and says the region “deserves this amount of attention, debate and passion.”

Together with the Gallatin National Forest – which manages the land – the Exploratory Committee is considering revisions to its management plan, and has laid what it hopes is groundwork for future management. Its vision is for a fair, transparent, inclusive, fact-based and civil process that allows the GCC to work toward a “broad, adaptive and durable” resolution that it will ultimately present to the Forest and federal elected officials.

“We need broad based support,” Sexton said. “That’s what we see taking it to another level.”

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Adjacent to Yellowstone National Park, the Gallatin Range is home to robust wildlife populations and provides world-class recreation for the surrounding communities of Livingston, Big Sky, Gardiner, West Yellowstone and Bozeman.

Congress designated the HPBH-WSA in 1977 to “preserve its existing wilderness character” until a decision about long-term management and protection could be made. One of 39 in the state, it’s been the center point of conflicting user groups ever since.

“What polarizes people so much is the recreational aspect, particularly the motorized versus non-motorized,” said Fatouros, who grew up in the area and has been recreating in the Gallatins for 40 years. That divisiveness has only grown since the Gallatin National Forest established its most recent travel plan in 2006, after which several environmental groups filed suit against the agency.

Accordingly, attendees at all the Exploratory Committee’s informational sessions met the group with “some bit of skepticism,” Fatouros said. “But by the end of the night, I think we converted everybody to not just a supporter, but to wanting to be involved.”

Many attendees asked questions about the specifics of how the GCC would function, which the committee explained was not within its scope. Others pressured Forest Service District Ranger Lisa Stoeffler to explain how the agency might implement the process.

“We don’t want to put many constraints on it,” Stoeffler said at the April 30 Bozeman meeting. “It’ll depend on what kind of proposal and who has authority in that area… It depends on the creativity and breadth that group wants to look at. We would do everything to embrace that and move that forward through the proper process.”

Stoeffler noted, however, “nothing that happens in the collaborative supersedes or exempts [the Forest Service] from moving through the proper process, but we want to do that in concert… I’m more optimistic after watching this group that people can come together and come to some level of consensus or resolution.”

After asking pointed questions of Stoeffler and several committee members, Republican legislator Kerry White, who represents rural Gallatin County, Big Sky and West Yellowstone, was also positive about the process:

“I’ll stay fully engaged to try to move this process forward,” said White, also a leader of Citizens for Balanced Use, a motorized recreation group. “I’m as optimistic as Lisa is. I’ve lived here 59 years…”

White pointed out successful rotational use programs recently established in Hyalite Canyon, south of Bozeman, in the summer. “Whatever comes out of the group, I hope we won’t get to litigation,” White said.

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Although Clark describes the process as “building the plane while flying it,” the next steps are fairly well lined out.

First, the exploratory committee will hire a new facilitator who will hold an organizing meeting this summer to form the collaborative group. The GCC will be looking for citizens to serve on subcommittees and in leadership roles, attend meetings, and stay informed by following the work online.

“The collaborative when it’s set up is probably not going to resolve anything in three or four meetings,” said exploratory committee member Eva Patten. “It’s going to be a lot of hard work and discussion leading, we hope, to a whole new way of looking at things.”

“What that makeup will actually look like when it’s all said and done, I have no clue,” Fatouros said. “This is a chance to make history. This is a legacy we can set forth for generations to come.”