Fires, bears, lawsuits: Retiring forest leader has seen them all

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Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake Flathead National Forest Supervisor Cathy Barbouletos on Tuesday in Kalispell.

After going through historic wildfires, a litany of litigation, budget crunches, challenges in grizzly bear conservation and much more, Flathead National Forest Supervisor Cathy Barbouletos is retiring.

“This is the last time I’m officially wearing the uniform for a picture,” Barbouletos said during a recent interview in which she reflected on her 31-year career — the last 12 years at the helm of the Flathead Forest.

“There’s just so many other things I want to do,” Barbouletos said of her decision to retire on April 2.

Barbouletos started her career with the Bureau of Land Management while earning a master’s degree in forest management from Utah State University.

She decided to change to the Forest Service, largely because of the places that career choice could take her and her husband, Tom, a Forest Service entomologist.

“The places we’ve been able to live have been phenomenal, this being my favorite, obviously,” Barbouletos said. “We’re staying here, definitely.”

But the Flathead Forest has presented a wide variety of challenges, most of them carrying a common theme: finding balance between forest resources and the different and often conflicting constituencies that use them.

And the Flathead is complicated with features some other forests don’t have, such as wilderness, wild and scenic rivers, timber management and ski areas. The presence of a protected grizzly bear population alone sets the Flathead apart from most other national forests.

Barbouletos said she’s most proud of the forest being able to maintain and enhance an “integrated program” that manages all of those features to serve recreation, industry and conservation interests.

“The multiple-use mission is a hard mission to deal with because there are so many forest users,” she said. “We’ve been able to keep that multiple use mission and multiple use vision alive.”

Barbouletos came to the Flathead in 1998. Not long after that, she found out just how contentious some forest management issues could be.

“2001 was a really tough year,” she said.

That year, the forest was hit with the first of three big fire years that would come over the coming decade.

The Moose Fire was controversial from the start, with critics questioning the initial response, to the end, with critics challenging the way the Forest Service worked with local fire departments.

It was a controversial matter, but Barbouletos said there have since been huge strides in interagency cooperation when it comes to responding to wildfires.

Those improvements were developed during the epic 2003 and 2007 fire seasons, both of which involved large and threatening wildfires on Flathead National Forest lands.

Just as important, Barbouletos noted, were improvements in the way the Flathead Forest followed up on post-fire rehabilitation projects.

“The fires were a huge deal,” Barbouletos said.

“Once they were out, that was just the start for us.”

The complex projects involved an array of work such as salvage logging, weed control, road management and revegetation work, and they required lengthy environmental impact statements that often can take years to complete.

But Barbouletos pressed for expedited environmental reviews that took about a year to complete after the 2003 and 2007 seasons.

Barbouletos concedes that the state and tribes can put together post-fire projects faster than that, but the Forest Service is faced with more stringent requirements when it comes to environmental reviews, particularly because the agency often must defend its projects in court.

And that’s a subject Barbouletos knows well.

All of the forest’s post-fire projects, going back to the Moose Fire, were challenged by lawsuits. The litigation largely was aimed at the way the forest implemented its road density standards to protect grizzly habitat.

Over the last few years, the forest has prevailed in all of the cases, some of which were taken all the way to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

And that, said Barbouletos, is evidence of how well the projects were planned and defended in their environmental impact statements.

“It says you did everything up-front right,” said Barbouletos, noting that she may be best known on the Internet as the lead defendant in all of the Flathead’s recent litigation. “If you Google my name, all those lawsuits come up.”

Barbouletos said she believes the forest has done considerable work in grizzly bear conservation, an effort with which she has been closely involved as a member and former chairwoman of an interagency committee in charge of grizzly recovery in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

The committee has overseen unprecedented research on the region’s grizzly bear population. At one point, one of the most important research projects was in jeopardy of ending because of a lack of funding. Barbouletos took the lead, finding the money for the project to continue.

“We scrabbled together a lot of money because it was so important,” she said.

From the time she arrived on the Flathead, Barbouletos has been faced with a series of budget difficulties that have collectively resulted in the forest’s full-time staff being whittled 212 employees to about 150 employees.

“We’ve been able to regroup, reorganize,” she said.

And that has been done with an emphasis on keeping personnel in the field “because that is where the work gets done,” Barbouletos said.

“We have consciously ensured that our seasonal work force has been maintained,” she said, adding that last year’s seasonal work force of about 190 people was the largest ever on the forest.

“If I had one piece of advise to the next [supervisor], it would be: ‘Listen to the employees,’” Barbouletos said. “They know the issues, they know the resources, they know the forest users.”

Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by e-mail at jmann@dailyinterlake.com

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