New forest leader oversees busy summer

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Chip Weber, the new supervisor of the Flathead National Forest, comes to the position with 26 years experience with the Forest Service, most recently as a district ranger for five years on the Willamette National Forest in Oregon.

Chip Weber has a diverse background and broad interests in forest management, all of which should be helpful for the new supervisor of the Flathead National Forest.

Weber came to the Flathead about two months ago after five years as a district ranger on the Willamette National Forest in Oregon. He says his predecessor, Cathy Barbouletos, left the forest in good management shape, with a competent staff and well-integrated programs.

“This is my dream job and I’m glad I’m here,” Weber said in a recent interview.

The sprawling Flathead Forest is a diverse landscape with wilderness areas, roadless lands, wild and scenic rivers, and endangered and threatened species, but Weber notes that it is also a “working forest” with a wide variety of recreational uses.

In his 26 years with the Forest Service, Weber has worked in ecology, silviculture and firefighting, as well as being involved in timber, recreation, engineering, fisheries and wildlife programs. He even was the lead botanist on a fire recovery project.

Weber noted that all of the programs on the Flathead are in some way connected with each other. A good and often overlooked example, he said, is how timber programs have greatly benefited recreation, mainly by providing access to national forest lands.

Because of the way programs are connected, Weber said his first priority was to get to know the forest staff across four ranger districts, even the distant Spotted Bear Ranger District.

“I’ve been to Spotted Bear three times,” he said.

Many of the forest’s programs are benefiting from an infusion of about $15 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The Flathead Forest has an interactive map on its website that is peppered with white dots that signify about 50 current and planned projects, most of them paid for by stimulus funds.

Weber said the projects are worthy and will result in long-term results that will be noticeable to the public.

“I’m pretty proud of the work we have going on out there,” he said. “I look at it from the public service standpoint ... Then I think about the people who have been out of work who are getting work because of this.”

The stimulus projects are being carried out by private contractors who hire their own workers, so it is difficult to say how many jobs are involved, and Weber shies away from using a formulaic multiplier in estimating jobs “created or saved.”

But he said the projects clearly are putting people to work.

“There are real jobs that are being created or sustained because of this,” he said.

Most of the big-ticket projects involve road improvements, the largest being rehabilitation work on the West Side Hungry Horse Reservoir Road, the Tally Lake Road and the road leading to the Jewel Basin.

But there are lots of other projects: bridge replacements, trail work, campground and boat launch improvements.

The work will cause temporary closures or delays for forest users, and that is why the forest is emphasizing public information efforts.

“We are hoping people will see the long-term benefits over the short-term inconveniences,” Weber said.

Weber said he also has turned his attention to the forest’s timber program, because he is “very cognizant” of threats to Montana’s remaining timber industry — a vital tool for managing national forest lands.

He noted that he has a friend who works on a national forest in Colorado, where the timber industry has vanished and beetles have caused damage over thousands over acres.

He said the Flathead’s timber program has been consistent, even when it has been challenged by litigation and other influences such as weak lumber markets. He said there are no guarantees on how much timber the forest can produce from year to year, but the timber industry needs to have some expectations.

“What we can produce is a track record that reduces the risk perception,” he said.

Weber said the timber program is important in managing the forest for desired conditions, providing for species diversity, influencing stand density to reduce risks of disease and insects and in curbing the risks of high-intensity fires.

He said fire also plays an important role in the region’s ever-changing forests.

“People have this notion of static ecosystems,” he said. “But they are not. They are dynamic ecosystems.”

Weber is an avid hunter and angler. He has a wife of 28 years, Susan, and two grown daughters.

On the Web:

For information on forest projects, including a map, go to http://www.fs.fed.us/r1/flathead/engineering/arra_index.shtml

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

 

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