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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Gianforte, Conservationists See Different Things In Flathead Fires

Nicky Ouellet
Rep. Gianforte visited the Howe Ridge Fire in Glacier National Park Wednesday, August 22, 2018.

Representative Greg Gianforte toured areas affected by the Howe Ridge Fire in Glacier National Park Wednesday morning.

Reporters weren’t allowed on the tour, but speaking with them beforehand, Gianforte recognized this fire season’s impacts on Montanans: poor air quality, lost summer homes and a financial hit to tourism businesses in the Flathead Valley.

"I think it also is critically important that we understand that this has become all too common, to have wildfires burning across the state," the congressman told reporters. "We need to look upstream and I've really championed forest management reform back in Congress. We need to get back to managing our forests again instead of breathing them each summer."

Gianforte, a Republican running for re-election in November, advocates for more commercial logging projects on public lands and streamlining environmental evaluations to reduce the likelihood of future wildfires.

Gianforte pointed to the three fires burning in the Flathead National Forest, where commercial logging is part of the agencies’ forest management goals, and the Howe Ridge Fire in Glacier National Park, where the forest is managed to retain its natural processes.

"The three that occurred outside the Park, there had been forest management, and as a consequence you can see the difference in the size," says Gianforte. "Talking to the Flathead National Forest, they shared with us in the briefing that in fact because fuel reduction activity had occurred it was much easier to control those fires. I'm not suggesting we should do something different in the park. It's just an observation that we have three fires that are hundreds of acres and one that's over 10,000 acres. Part of the difference was fuel management was done in the first three cases and not in the last one."

Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber says there’s a little more nuance to the role past logging projects have played in the Paola Ridge, Coal Ridge and Whale Butte Fires.

Asked how much of a difference was made by fuel treatments that occurred in those areas, versus topography and weather, Weber says "topography and weather ended up playing a big part in the Whale Butte. Very different there because the fire didn't get to our fire lines."

Weber says that about 10 years ago, the Flathead Forest did a logging and fuel reduction project in the area where the Whale Butte fire is now burning about 300 acres northwest of Polebridge. That project was intended to reduce the probability of a crown fire and improve initial attack conditions. But Weber says when the fire started, the terrain was too steep and there were too many snags to safely send in firefighters on the ground.

Instead, they’re using existing roads from that recent logging project, far from the fire’s edge, to create a shaded fuel break between the fire’s flank and Polebridge.

"On that fire, the fire has not burned up against the treatment we put in," says Weber. "But what it did with this indirect - it saved us an awful lot of time, money, and effort because they had these units to anchor with from the Red Whale Fuels Project. And so it saved a lot of cost and it saved a lot of time."

The Paola Ridge Fire west of Essex has moved into an area the Forest treated in the late 1990s. Along with prescribed burning and mechanical treatments, it included a large unit of helicopter logging. Weber says the 280-acre Paola Ridge Fire slowed down when it hit that section of the forest.

"It also shrunk the fire front so that where the fire was coming down was a much smaller area. So what that did was it bought the firefighters time to get these shaded fuel breaks and fire lines in that they might not otherwise have had," says Weber.

Keith Hammer chairs the Swan View Coalition, but he used to work for the Forest Service and private industry as a firefighter and logger. He says logging the forest doesn’t always lead to mellower fire behavior.

"Last summer there was a fire up on the Kootenai Forest up here toward Rexford and Eureka," says Hammer. "And the District Ranger had a comment in the paper that when that fire hit some of their old clearcuts, which no longer had big fire resistant trees and was full of little, you know, smaller trees, that the fire just raced and ran through a much faster rate than it did trying to go through older forest or old growth forest."

At the fire command center outside West Glacier, Representative Gianforte blamed what he called “environmental extremists” for blocking projects that he says would mitigate wildfires.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has called people who put those lawsuits forward “terrorists.” Asked if that is the right term for them, Gianforte responded: "Well, I call them “environmental extremists.” I think that applies. There are groups that produce nothing but lawsuits. And as a consequence we breathe our forests every summer."

Swan View Coalition’s Hammer says that’s not the case on the Flathead. He calls the “extremist” label B S.

"More timber sales go by without being challenged than those that get legal challenges from various groups, whether it's ours or other environmental groups," says Hammer.

Hammer says his group tends to litigate commercial logging projects that his group disagrees are necessary to protect the wildland-urban interface. He says the Forest Service sometimes proposes urban interface projects when they’re too far from private property to make a difference. Hammer says he supports projects like the one outside Essex in and near the WUI. And, he says, Swan View Coalition doesn’t just litigate.

"We have first gone through years of going and meeting with the Forest Service, meeting with the timber industry, going out on field tours and looking at the areas that they want to log. Talking about these issues, reading their environmental documents, commenting on their environmental documents and then if necessary, if we object to it, having to file a written objection with the agency," says Hammer. "You have to do all of that stuff first before you can ever take this in front of a judge. And what's really important to understand is that entire public involvement process is what these politicians are trying to cut out. That will leave the public with the only recourse is to go to court."

Gianforte says his forest reform proposals would not cut the public out of the planning process.

Forest Supervisor Chip Weber says lawsuits don’t usually block projects all together but they can slow projects down. He says sometimes that’s a problem.

"That came into play in the 2015 fire," says Weber. "We had just been sued over two projects down in that landscape. And even though we won the lawsuits it delayed us by a year implementing those. And so there were portions of that landscape that we hadn't got around to treating just because of that delay that had much more significant fire effects than had we been able to get in there."

On the other hand Weber says, "sometimes it's not so important because you don't get the event. We know the places that are prone to fire, we know how to treat them to protect the values at risk. And so we kind of move across the landscape with our planning efforts trying to do that, but you don't know where your fire ignitions are going to occur before the season starts."

Gianforte’s Democratic challenger, Kathleen Williams, says on her webpage that she supports legislation proposed by Senator Jon Tester that, "will create timber jobs by requiring the Forest Service to manage thousands of acres each year for timber harvest, especially areas … that pose a serious wildfire threat."

You can find a link to that proposed legislation here.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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