Montana Public Radio

Are Lawsuits Obstructing Fuel Reduction Projects? Not On The Bitterroot National Forest

Nov 7, 2017

Montana lawmakers are scoring political points by blaming environmentalists for suing to shut down logging projects on public lands. But public lands logging is both feeding area sawmills and reducing wildfire risk. MTPR's Nora Saks reports on a couple of projects in the Bitterroot Valley.

On an early fall day, Eric Winthers stands in the cool shade next to Canyon Creek, up in the Bitterroot mountains, a few miles west of Hamilton. But when he looks around, he sees more than a lush thicket of fir and pine. He sees future fire.

"If you look at it on an aerial photo, or GoogleEarth, you'll see this green wick, that this is the last green, thick vegetation that leads right to town."

Winthers is the Bitterroot National Forest's District Ranger based in Darby. He pulls out a fire history map, and points to where we are on public land sandwiched between two recently burned areas, the Blodgett fire to the north and Sawtooth to the south.

But this drainage hasn't burned in over 100 years. All that time, fuels have been building up. That means when that overdue wildfire does come through this kind of low elevation dry pine forest, it's likely to be more severe.

Jacquie Parks is a Forest Service fuels specialist. She says they're trying to connect the dots to predict where the next fire is going to be and get out in front of it.

"So this one stood out as a red flag. Obviously to the homeowners, especially after the Roaring Lion Fire, Observation."

Worried about the potential risk to their homes, many landowners who live in the WUI, or wildland-urban interface, near Canyon Creek, are thinning out the dense vegetation on their side of the property line.

But for that kind of treatment to be effective, they need the Forest Service to do the same. They organized, and in April delivered a petition with 90 signatures to the Darby Ranger District asking them to take action.

Bitterroot National Forest's Darby District Ranger Eric Winthers and Fuels Specialist Jacquie Parks display a map of the Canyon Creek Hazardous Fuels Reduction Project.

"So they're like, 'we're doing our part, so let's work as a collective neighborhood and get this thing taken care of'," Parks says.

The Forest Service agreed the timing was right. In September they proposed the Canyon Creek Hazardous Fuels Reduction Project. It's small, around 250 acres, and will involve hand-thinning smaller diameter trees, piling the slash and burning it to clean up the understory, and then a round of prescribed burns.

"That'll reduce the fire intensity and allow us to engage in fighting the fire a little more effectively if it does happen to come out of this canyon," Winthers says.

It's also a step towards reversing the management trend of fire suppression, and starting to return fire, via controlled burns, back in the landscape, little by little.

Andrew Larson is a professor of forest ecology at the University of Montana. After looking over the agency's plan, he says that as far as fuels reduction goes, on paper, "This has all of the marks of a responsible, sustainable, ecologically grounded project that meets some needs outside of the forest boundary as well. I hope they can do more of it."

The Forest Service is planning a bigger, more controversial project on the other side of the valley, in another "high-priority" area called Darby Lumber Lands Phase 2. It covers about 27,000 acres in the Sapphire mountain range, land that was mostly owned by the Darby Lumber Company.

Phase 2 is an ongoing effort to improve the damaged watersheds and road systems. It also includes around 1,200 acres of commercial logging and prescribed burns. Ranger Winthers says that will provide at least 5 million board feet of timber to local sawmills, and make the area less prone to severe wildfires.

"This is kind of adjacent to a subdivision there in the Little Sleeping Child area. It's kind of a dry pine site. It's got some Doug fir in it that's diseased, and needs to be managed effectively to increase the vigor of that stand and reduce the fire danger."

Larry Campbell is the director of an all-volunteer conservation group called Friends of the Bitterroot, whose main goal is to protect wildlands. Campbell has lived in the valley for over 40 years, and says the context here is really important.

"That is probably the most hammered, abused area on the entire Bitterroot Forest. It was checkerboarded back from the railroad days. Up Rye Creek, and Sleeping Child area, has been historically logged to the max," he says.

Campbell also points out that the proposal calls for two clearcuts; one 95 acres and one 40 acres.

"We thought we had gotten past that. Decades ago. Now they're back. There is no ecological reason whatsoever to do a clear cut. There are so many ecological reasons not to clearcut," Campbell says.

Clearcuts of that size don't concern forest ecologist Andrew Larson, because he says there's no indication of a return to that kind of forest-wide regime. In his view, it's the larger commercial thinning component that deserves closer inspection.

"That type of thinning they are proposing is justified, it's needed, it can be done right. I'm concerned or could be concerned because it can also be done wrong."

Doing it wrong means seeing the trees solely as a crop to be harvested, Larson says. In this case, if the Forest Service plans to meet its goal of forest restoration, he says he expects to see treatments designed from ecological, not agricultural principles. 

"The treatments in both cases would still reduce fuels, they would still reduce crown fire potential, they would still generate logs and commercial products. But the forest that's left behind is going to look different and function different."

Members of Friends of the Bitterroot are skeptical of the Forest Service, and they don't share the agency's stated goal of providing commercial timber. But the group also has no current plans to go to court over the Darby Lumber Lands project. As they have for decades, they're using the public process laid out in the National Environmental Policy Act to influence Forest Service plans.

Since 2010, there have been 118 projects on the Bitterroot National Forest. 41 different groups and people have submitted objections. There was litigation on one timber sale, but it wasn't from an environmental group. That lawsuit was settled and the sale went through. Not one project was stopped from going forward.

Friends of the Bitterroots' Larry Campbell is worried that Montana's delegation in Washington wants to limit that kind of participation.

"That is such a fundamental democratic right. These are public lands. If what Daines and Gianforte want to do is remove meaningful public input in the maintenance of our land, to me that's just a crime against democracy as well as a crime against the environment."

Since 2010, there have been 118 projects on the Bitterroot National Forest. 41 different groups and people have submitted objections. There was litigation on one timber sale, but it wasn't from an environmental group. That lawsuit was settled and the sale went through. Not one project was stopped from going forward.

"We've been trying to set the public record straight on that. There were no appeals. There's not been appeals and litigation in that area, at least nothing that resulted in delaying a timber sale or reducing it even by one two by four."

Montana's Republicans in Congress are currently pushing change in forest management via the so-called "Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017." The legislation aims to limit logging opponents' access to the courts. Backers say it will, quote, "streamline" approval of forest projects up to 30,000 acres in size, if they were developed in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service.

Democratic Senator Jon Tester opposed a version of this bill two years ago. He does, however, endorse some of its strategies to increase timber harvests on public lands and reform Forest Service spending on wildfires.