An innovative western Montana logging and restoration project has landed nearly all of its hoped-for funding in the 2011 federal budget, much to the relief of organizers.

"The budget bill allocation was $25 million for 10 projects, and we didn't know how that was going to be divvied up," Blackfoot Challenge director Gary Burnett said of the money for the Southwest Crown Collaborative. The project is a multi-year program of logging, road repair and removal, fuels reduction and habitat restoration work.

"We asked for $3.8 million and got $3.5 million. That's pretty darn close to full funding."

That's especially impressive, as the first year of the federal Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program gave barely $1 million apiece to the 10 initial projects nationwide. Even so, in Montana that produced contracts to improve 138 miles of forest roads and trails; fight noxious weeds on 15,000 acres; reduce hazardous fuels on 1,630 acres around towns and cities; and do landscape improvement on another 3,150 acres of remote forests. Most of that actual work will take place this summer.

For the 2011 fiscal year, the Southwest Crown Collaborative project expects to treat another 10,000 acres of weeds; improve 7,000 acres of wildlife habitat; restore 30 miles of streams; upgrade 15 stream crossing culverts and bridges; improve 350 miles of roads and trails; cut 4,500 acres of hazardous fuels in the wildland-urban interface; and do landscape work on another 3,900 acres of remote forest.

"This program is supported all the way from the chief (of the Forest Service, Tom Tidwell) down to the forests, and that's a pretty exciting thing," said Lolo National Forest Supervisor Debbie Austin. "It's the first time I've been involved where we're able to concentrate a lot of restoration money in one place - enough to make a difference. This is unusual that three ranger districts have $7 million for just implementation and monitoring."

The work is spread across the Lolo, Flathead and Helena national forests. Each area had a local forest restoration committee made of lumber workers, recreationists, state and federal land managers and other stakeholders who proposed and debated what kind of work deserved priority.

The monitoring component will be a new addition as well, Austin said. It means there will be researchers who check not only if what was planned got done, but if what got done had the results the planning called for.

Under the congressional act, the Southwest Crown Collaborative should run another eight years. The general outline of work for those years has been drafted, but the specific projects still await planning. The Forest Service must spend out of its regular budget for that work, and also come up with matching funds for the landscape projects, Austin said.

"There will be some of everything, depending on the status of the forest we're working in," Austin said. "Much of the work is thinning from below, taking out smaller trees and undergrowth for biomass and chips, but there will also be some medium trees removed as well for lumber. The intent of the act was to provide ecological restoration, decrease hazardous fuels and fire suppression costs, and improve local economic conditions."

The public can track where the Southwest Crown projects are located and their progress at www.swcrown.org.

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