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'Fast-Track' Timber Sale Near Whitefish Moves Forward

Whitefish Municipal Watershed Fuel Reduction Project map.
Whitefish Municipal Watershed Fuel Reduction Project map.

A new kind of fast-track timber sale is being proposed to reduce fire danger around homes northwest of Whitefish.

It’s on 1,300 acres of National Forest land near the ski resort. The City of Whitefish asked the Forest Service to thin trees from the area in 2004, but was told there was no funding available.

Then, last year, new provisions in the latest Farm Bill passed by Congress allowed Montana Governor Steve Bullock to designate the area as a so-called “priority landscape.” That means it’s eligible for a faster than normal review and approval process.

Mo Bookwalter, a state liaison with the Forest Service, says there are a couple of reasons why state and federal elected leaders passed the new Farm Bill fast-track provisions.

“First, I think the nation's forests are experiencing more and frequent insect and disease outbreaks, as well as increased length and severity of wildfire. Second, you see a frustration across the state by citizens and collaborative groups in the pace in which the Forest Service is able to get projects planned and implemented.”

The speed at which timber sales advance, or don’t, is largely determined by the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Environmentalists often praise the law as a necessary  for ensuring thorough review of the impacts of proposed projects on public land. And some worry the new fast-track timber sales amount to a back door out of NEPA. Bookwalter says that’s not true.

“It still goes through the NEPA process. It just reduces the amount of analysis and documentation required under environmental assessment or environmental impact statement.

That means, instead of analyzing several different alternatives for every timber sale, only one is evaluated.

A Forest Service spokesperson says a shortened public comment period also shaves off a month or two off of the normal review process.

And not every timber sale is eligible for fast-track treatment. Bookwalter says it only applied to projects of 3,000 acres or less that a local collaborative group agrees will benefit forest health or reduce fire danger.

Michael Garrity, with the environmental group Alliance For The Wild Rockies, disagrees with that assessment.

“It makes it more efficient for the forest service because they don’t have to let the public have a say in what they’re doing, so it's much easier for them. But it is not necessarily more efficient for endangered species like lynx, grizzly bears and bull trout when the forest service clearcuts their habitat.”

Whitefish Municipal Watershed Fuel Reduction Project map.
Whitefish Municipal Watershed Fuel Reduction Project map.

Garitty says he hasn’t reviewed the proposed Whitefish timber sale in detail, but says his group is keeping an eye on the new types of sales authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill, and whether they violate NEPA.

“We’d have to look at in on a project by project bases, but yeah, if they want to log somebody’s favorite elk hunting site, and plan to clearcut it, or clearcut bull trout watershed, we would object.”

Governor Bullock has proposed 13 fast-track timber projects like the one in Whitefish. So far, work has only begun on one, the 235 acre Firecracker Annie sale south of St. Regis. Bullock has made a million dollars available to move the projects along. In a letter to the Forest Service, he says 21 percent of National Forest Land in Montana is at risk from insects and diseases.

The public gets a chance to learn more about the proposed timber sale near Whitefish Wednesday. The Forest Service is hosting an open house at the Whitefish Community Center. Project planning leader Deb Bond says it’s a chance for the public to share their ideas before the work proposal is written up this winter.

“Toward the end of November come out with a proposal, which we would scope to the public and our desired date to have a decision on the project would be next summer.”

The open house runs from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. There won’t be a formal presentation, but wildlife biologists, fuel-managers and other specialists working on the project will be available to answer questions.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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