The Bitterroot National Forest has spent more than $160,000 marking trees for a timber cut designed to reduce hazardous fuels, even though a final decision on the logging project hasn't been reached.
The figure of $161,940 was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request sought by the Native Forest Network, which opposes the forest's preferred alternative for the Middle East Fork hazardous fuels reduction project in the southern end of the Bitterroot Valley.
"We find it incredibly disingenuous that during the public comment period, a period where they said they would take the public's comment and incorporate it into their plan, they were just moving ahead with the plan that they apparently already have chosen," said Matthew Koehler, director of the Native Forest Network.
The Middle East Fork plan is the first Montana project to move ahead under the Healthy Forest Restoration Act approved by Congress in 2003.
Koehler's group is adamantly opposed to the Bitterroot forest's preferred alternative for the project, which calls for logging roughly 4,000 acres, and instead favors a citizen-initiated proposal that would log less than half that total.
Friends of the Bitterroot, another group opposed to the Bitterroot's preferred plan, also decried the money spent to identify the timber cut.
"It is an indisputable fact that as the public was asked to study and comment on several alternatives contained within the draft (environmental impact statement), the Forest Service simply went ahead and spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars marking the logging units for their alternative," said Larry Campbell.
According to information provided by the forest, $135,000 was spent on a crew that marked trees and boundaries, plus gas and maintenance. Another $20,000 was spent on paint, flagging and other supplies, while $5,940 was spent on salaries for four people administering the project.
Those expenses occurred between April 20 and Aug. 15.
Dixie Dies, spokeswoman for the Bitterroot forest, said the marking work was done so the agency would be ready to move quickly with the project if the preferred alternative is chosen when the final EIS is released on the project later this month.
"If we didn't get started working on it now, maybe it would be another year before we could do anything," Dies said Monday. "This is a hazardous fuels project, so it's a priority and it's something we want to move quickly on."
Dies and Koehler had widely different views on what the public thinks of the logging project. Koehler noted that another FOIA request yielded information that of the more than 10,000 comments received on the fuels reduction plan, 98 percent of them oppose the Bitterroot's preferred alternative.
"I know they'll say this is a response that was generated by protection groups, but it's still very important that so many people would speak out on the project," Koehler said.
In fact, that's precisely what Dies said, at least in part.
"Most all of the comments we got on this are form letters, so we take that into account," Dies said. "Besides, we feel like we have very good community support on this, since it was the community that worked on this alternative, including people in the Sula area and the Bitterroot Community Wildfire Protection group."
Koehler said the alternative put together by forest protection groups is much less expensive than the forest's plan, and will do a better job of protecting homeowners in the area.
"They've spent nearly half of what our proposal called for just on marking trees," Koehler said.
Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or at firstname.lastname@example.org