A final decision on the Marshall Woods Restoration Project gives a little to critics who thought it went too far and not far enough.
“I have decided to authorize a mix of actions under Alternatives C and D,” Missoula District Ranger Jen Hensiek wrote Thursday. “My decision precludes commercial timber harvest and temporary road construction within the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area(.)”
Hensiek did not return phone messages or emails requesting further comment. In her cover letter on the decision, she added that she dropped plans for thinning trees on 271 acres along the main Rattlesnake trail corridor because it wouldn’t meet goals for disease, insect and fire resiliency.
“While this decision does not address what I believe to be the full extent of the ecological and wildland-urban interface issues and needs, I believe this decision strikes a balance between the social and ecological concerns,” Hensiek wrote.
The project affects 3,678 acres in the Marshall and Rattlesnake creek drainages north of Missoula. It would do some commercial logging on about 266 acres in the Marshall side on land the U.S. Forest Service acquired from Plum Creek Timber Co. And it will prescribe thinning, burning and piling on more than 2,000 acres along Rattlesnake Creek and the hillsides surrounding the upper end of the Rattlesnake neighborhood. It also calls for cutting back the conifers and boosting aspen groves around Poe and Homestead meadows – about 40 acres in total.
The project drew lengthy objections from wilderness advocates in Missoula who argued earlier versions applied illegal levels of logging in the congressionally designated national recreation area. A local forester also objected that the project didn’t do enough logging and thinning to meet the stated goals of improved fire safety and forest health.
“I think the Forest Service is doing what the community will tolerate at this point,” retired Forest Service forester Dave Atkins said Thursday. “In my objection, I described it as a church with a leaky roof and damaged rafters. We’re repairing the roof but not taking care of the rafters. I hope at least that the work on the Marshall side will show the benefits of this kind of treatment for the future.”
The wilderness advocates were less pleased with the results, although they said some of their biggest concerns were addressed.
“It’s moved more toward what we’ve been proposing,” said Mike Bader, an independent natural resource consultant working with objectors Friends of the Rattlesnake, Wild West Institute and Wilderness Watch. “They’ve removed some units and clarified there will be no commercial activity inside the NRA. That’s important. But we’re still going to go through it with a fine-tooth comb.”
Bader said the bigger problem was the Forest Service’s insistence on doing work in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area that opponents claim is counter to the rules Congress wrote for the place and what Missoulians are willing to accept. Earlier versions of the project that concentrated on the Marshall Creek side – outside the national recreation area – had received strong support from the Lolo Restoration Committee, a group of conservationists, timber companies and other stakeholders. Adding the Rattlesnake portions cracked that consensus.
“Tonight, we will have this on the agenda,” said Jake Kreilick of the Wild West Institute, who also chairs the Lolo Restoration Committee. “It appears they’ve taken out the most controversial stuff. The LRC as a whole is fine with where they’re going. As far as Wild West is concerned, I need to talk more with the members.”
That includes Cass Chinske, a Rattlesnake resident who helped get the original Rattlesnake Wilderness and National Recreation Area legislation passed through Congress. Chinske was also studying the decision Thursday, but remained concerned the Friends of the Rattlesnake might have to take legal action.
“We didn’t care what was done in the Marshall Creek drainage outside of the NRA,” Chinske said. “It was hammered by past logging, and doing restoration of roads was a good idea up there. But from the Friends of the Rattlesnake point of view, we’re not going to accept any of the types of thinning they’re proposing unless we know exactly how many trees they’re going to take out, where and how they’re going to dispose of them. This is really a very serious situation for the future of the Rattlesnake.”
Chinske said the Rattlesnake’s congressional legislation and past treatment by the Forest Service was aimed at keeping it in a wild, primitive state. Those rules give the agency very limited ability to work there, even for purported recreational or safety benefits.
“A lot of people don’t buy this idea of manipulative management, as if they’re going to restore the forest to something that was there before,” Chinske said. “Nature doesn’t do things in a neat order. It never has.”