MTPR

Correction: Lawsuit Attempted To Stop Thinning Project In Roaring Lion Fire Area

Aug 4, 2016

Shortly after the Roaring Lion Fire broke out July 31st, charges and  counter-charges flew that a lawsuit or lawsuits had or had not stopped US Forest Service attempts to log or thin the affected area to reduce fire danger. 

I interviewed the Bitterroot National Forest's District Ranger about that on August 1st, you can read that interview, edited only for clarity, in its entirety below. 

On August 5th Bitterroot National Forest Public Affairs Officer Tod McKay sent me the following email: 

"I just want to clarify something that may have been a little confusing.  It was in response to your question on timing when you asked, 'so you guys were literally within weeks of getting out there and doing some treatment to reduce fire dangers?”' Eric (Winteher)’s response, 'Yes, the Forest Supervisor had signed the decision, and we were proceeding ahead, getting ready to get that going.'

Just a couple of clarifications on this.

  1.  We were a couple of weeks away from working on the contract to implement this project—i.e., not a couple of weeks away from on-the-ground thinning or logging. We expected to award a contract in September (before the end of the FY) and that work would begin in the winter.
  1. The lawsuit was filed July 26, 2016. Plaintiffs requested an injunction but none has been issued to date. In other words, we had no reason to, nor any plan to alter the Westside Project timeline at the point in time when the Roaring Lion Fire started.

We hope this helps clear-up confusion regarding the actual ‘start time’ of the project and are sorry that we weren’t more clear in the interview. "

We have also reached out to the attorney's for the litigants in the lawsuit, asking for comment, and have not heard back at this time. 

We regret any confusion caused by publishing incorrect information given to us by the Bitterroot National Forest, and plan to follow up with additional reporting on this story. 

-Eric Whitney, News Director, Montana Public Radio. 

Part of the Bitterroot National Forest that’s burning in the Roaring Lion fire southwest of Hamilton was just a couple of weeks away from being logged and thinned – both to sell timber and to reduce fire danger. But a lawsuit filed three weeks after the project was approved put a halt to it.

Timber sales and thinning projects can have an impact on whether wildfires start and their ability to spread, but don't necessarily guarantee improved fire safety.

To get the background on the logging and thinning project the lawsuit opposes, I talked to Eric Winthers, the ranger for the Darby-Sula district on the Bitterroot National Forest. He spoke outside a crowded public meeting in Hamilton on Monday. A forest spokesmen also offered these clarifications, after this story was published.

MTPR News Director Eric Whitney: In recent years, has there been any logging, thinning or treatment of the burn area now to reduce fire danger, or to commercially log it?

Darby-Sula District Ranger Eric Winthers: Not in the area where it's at now, but to the south of there, there's been some treatments in the Hayes Creek area. And our new treatment is designed to go from that to the north up to the Roaring Lion area. Along the forest boundary.

Whitney: So you're saying you guys were literally within a week or two of getting out there and doing some treatment to reduce fire danger?

Winthers: Yes. The forest supervisor had signed the decision, and we were proceeding ahead. Getting ready to get that going.

Whitney: And that was a commercial timber sale? Or fire mitigation?

Winthers: Yeah. Part of it was a commercial timber sale and part of it was kind of a hand thinning and you know, hand piling brush next to the (roadless area) boundary.

Whitney: And what was the name of that project?

Winthers: It was called the West Side Collaborative Vegetation Management Project.

Whitney: And do you know roughly how large an area was going to be treated?

Winthers: Probably 3,000 acres of treatment.

Whitney: Do you know when that project was first proposed and how long it took to get to the point where you were ready to get out and get the work done?

Winthers: You know that's been probably about two and half, three years, probably of planning.

Whitney: So it went through that entire planning process and got all the way to the approval stage before there was any formal objection, is that right?

Winthers: There has been objections that we've worked through. For some, it wasn't satisfactory. Currently there's a lawsuit that's been filed.

Whitney: The lawsuit was filed after the project had been approved and signed the forest supervisor?

Winthers: Correct.

The Roaring Lion Fire on July 31, only hours after it started.
Credit Inciweb

Whitney: And can you tell me the nature of the suit? What was the litigant asking for?

Winthers: They're opposed to the building of new roads adjacent to their properties.

Whitney: So it was an adjacent landowner to which direction?

Winthers: It would be to the east of the forest boundary there.

Whitney: And their primary objection was building the road?

Winthers: Yeah. Building the road and there was a bridge proposed for Camas Creek.

Whitney: Did the Forest Service negotiate at all with the landowner or try to explain, or avoid litigation?

Winthers: Yeah, we initially asked for access across this property. But it would have to be permanent access for us to get in there, and the public, so he was opposed to having permanent access.

Whitney: So the Forest Service was asking to build a road across private property?

Winthers: Yeah, or to have guaranteed access across that property.

Whitney: Like a mile of road?

Winthers: Probably maybe half a mile or so. But the road we've proposed on the forest is about 2.8 miles that would come up from Hayes Creek.

Whitney: So 2.8 miles on Forest Service land and about a mile on private land?

Winthers: Yeah. If we could have gone across private, it would have been a lot less. But we still needed about 2.8 miles to get across the forest boundary to do the work.

Whitney: So would it be accurate to say that the litigation, the injunction, stalled work?

Winthers: It's kind of stalled work. The judge has not ruled, you know, in terms of whether he's gonna file an injunction or not.

Whitney: Has that area actively burned?

Winthers: The northern part of the project area did burn. Those were some of the hand treatment units in the roadless area.

Whitney: Anything else that you think people need to know about the situation?

Winthers: You know, we're always trying to do projects to reduce fuels in that wildland urban interface. And, to reduce the danger of fire to the publics that live next door.

Whitney: And I think you said when we spoke previously that a lot of that work has been started to the south and was progressing north, is that accurate?

Winthers: Yes, the most recent timber sale was down by Lake Como and north to Lost Horse Creek and that was about a 12 million board feet timber sale. We just completed that. And prior to that, there was even further south there was more projects. So we've been kind of progressing north for quite a few years now.

Whitney: Can you give me a rough idea of how large an area that you've been able to treat in that moving north process?

Winthers: I would say there's probably been 15,000 acres, maybe 20,000 acres of treatment completed.

Whitney: Over roughly what period?

Winthers: Probably I would say 15 years or so.

See the Westside Collaborative Vegetation Management Project and the lawsuit that halted the project.

In response to this interview, Forest Spokesman Tod McKay offered these clarifications.

Find the latest Montana wildfire news here.