The Forest Service’s Northern Region is proposing to log less than one half of 1 percent of the 700,000 acres of national forest lands that burned in Montana and northern Idaho last summer.
The bulk of the nearly 22,000 acres the agency has identified for salvage logging in the region may go through an expedited process in an effort to get the burned logs to mills while they still have value.
Before that happens, Forest Service employees will need to complete an environmental analysis on each of the proposed post-fire projects that include both proposals for salvage logging and other emergency rehabilitation work.
That effort began before the smoke disappeared, said Tami Paulsen, team leader for post-fire project on the Rice Ridge fire near Seeley Lake.
While most of that 160,000-acre fire burned on wilderness or inventoried roadless designated lands that are off limits to logging, the agency did identify 4,838 acres where salvage could occur.
At the end the initial scoping period, Paulsen’s team had received about 35 public comments that ran the normal gamut, from people wanting much more salvage logging to those who didn’t want any.
“That’s typically about the number that we get on any of our projects,” Paulsen said. “The comments themselves were pretty typical. They expressed a wide range of issues and opinions.”
In his comments, Gordy Sanders of Seeley Lake’s Pyramid Mountain Lumber suggested the agency build in some extra flexibility to allow additional areas affected by Douglas fir bark beetles to be logged.
Sanders noted that state entomologists have seen a significant increase in beetle populations following the 2017 fire season. Because about 70 percent of the area that burned is designated as wilderness, inventoried roadless or riparian areas, Sanders said there will be a good deal of ideal habitat for future insect and disease infestations.
“Our experience clearly shows this derivative mortality will continue for two to three years,” he wrote. “Therefore, developing the strategy now for incidental and/or epidemic level salvage is an appropriate stewardship action.”
Arlene Montgomery of the Friends of the Wild Swan offered 15 pages of comment accompanied by another 55 pages of scientific literature.
“We have serious concerns about fire salvage in general,” Montgomery said. “It can be really harmful to the ecosystem. Salvage logging doesn’t do anything to benefit wildlife or water quality. In fact, it can be really damaging.”
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Montgomery said her organization is concerned about the impacts of building roads on sensitive soils. In addition, those roads are expensive to build and will be a drain on taxpayers.
“If there is really no ecological reason to do it and if you’re not making any money on it … then why do it? The area is already burned and the fuels are reduced,” she said.
Montgomery opposes the agency’s decision to seek an abridged process that cuts out the objection period that typically follows the release of an environmental analysis. By doing that, she said anyone opposed to the project is forced into litigation.
The two forests plan to ask the Forest Service chief to grant an emergency situation determination for the six largest projects that account for a little over 19,000 of the 22,000 acres identified for salvage logging in the region.
That would allow the agency to bypass the objection process, which can add an additional 100 days before logging can get started. An emergency situation determination can be requested to hasten projects that threaten human health and safety or to avoid the loss of commodity values. Such a loss would jeopardize the agency’s ability to accomplish objectives related to resource protection or restoration.
Libby District Ranger Nate Gassman said that a shortened time frame at the end of the process doesn’t affect the amount of work or public outreach that occurs in developing the environmental analysis on a post-fire project.
Gassman’s district is working to complete an analysis on the West Fork that proposes salvage logging on 5,300 acres of the 20,072 that burned in that area last summer.
“We have been spending a tremendous amount of time working on the project and gathering comments to come up with a solid proposal,” Gassman said.
The hope is the environmental analysis will be released by late spring or early summer and that salvage, if approved, would get underway next fall.
The quality of the wood deteriorates quickly following a fire. Insects, stain, fungi and the weather can cause decay that can render wood useless from a structural standpoint. According to a scoping letter on the Rice Ridge fire, about 10 percent of the wood in an area is expected to deteriorate in the first year and that jumps to 30 percent or more in the following year.
“We really do have to move quickly to retain the value of the product,” Paulsen said. “We started talking about this before the fire was even out. … This is our main priority.”