A quartet of forest watchdog groups released an 18-page analysis Wednesday that “adamantly opposes” plans for commercial logging in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area.
The comments were delivered one day before the deadline for public comment on the Missoula Ranger District's plan to remove about 80 truckloads of logs from a 225-acre area along Rattlesnake Creek.
The so-called Marshall Woods project also includes thinning, prescribed burning and other restoration work on an additional 4,000 acres in the Rattlesnake and Marshall creek drainages north of Missoula.
Local natural resource consultant Mike Bader wrote the report for Friends of the Rattlesnake, Wilderness Watch, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and WildWest Institute.
“At this point, our preference is that the Forest Service pull the project and if desirable, reboot with a scaled-down, socially acceptable and scientifically sound proposal that spreads the treatments out over time,” Bader wrote.
He added that if the Missoula Ranger District intends to go ahead with the logging, it should prepare a full environmental impact statement instead of the expected (and less rigorous) environmental assessment.
Lolo National Forest spokesman Boyd Hartwig said U.S. Forest Service analysts hadn’t had a chance to read the comments, so could not respond to the critique.
“We’re paying attention and listening,” Hartwig said of the public input process. “We appreciate the time and effort folks have put in to share their concerns. A decision hasn’t been made.”
Thursday's deadline is an extension of the original public comment period, which was supposed to end April 6. While much of the project has wide support, the logging component has drawn serious debate.
In the analysis, Bader challenged the Forest Service’s legal authority to do any “mechanical, commercial removal of trees” or modification of the old logging road along Rattlesnake Creek to accommodate modern logging trucks and heavy equipment.
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“The Congressional Report language (designating the Rattlesnake NRA) clearly states the area is ‘unsuited for timber harvest’ and the (Lolo Forest Plan) standard clearly states the area is ‘unsuitable for timber production,’ ” Bader wrote. “Timber harvest and timber production are explicitly prohibited within the (National Recreation Area). Trees cannot be harvested, removed or exchanged for commercial value under any scenario.”
The Missoula Ranger District plan has offered four alternatives, with Alternative B being its lead option. Alternative B includes commercial tree cutting, log hauling, and improvements to roads and trails in the main Rattlesnake corridor, Woods Gulch and Marshall Canyon, as well as small-tree cutting and prescribed fire.
Alternative C includes commercial tree harvest and log hauling and improvements to roads and trails in the Marshall/Woods Gulch area only, with small-tree cutting and prescribed fire in the main corridor.
Alternative D includes small-tree cutting and prescribed fire only to treat forest fuels, with no commercial tree harvest. Alternative A is no action beyond current management activities. Any roads built in alternatives B and C would be obliterated and restored to natural conditions.
Bader’s analysis challenges the Forest Service on numerous other points. It notes the plan violates the Rattlesnake Recreation Area’s “limits of acceptable change” by expanding the trail from 10 feet to 14 feet wide to accommodate heavy equipment.
It claims the plan’s argument for providing wildfire protection for houses is flawed because it includes places like the Five Guys Burgers and Fries restaurant beside the Interstate 90 exit within its wildland-urban interface acreage.
It argues that the logging and thinning along Rattlesnake Creek would harm threatened bull trout spawning habitat in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act. And it faults the ranger district for failing to present any detailed analysis of how the project might affect recreation use and urban traffic in the area.
“The proposed action will likely create the need for repeated entries to maintain the environment it claims it will create, thereby committing the public to a long-term, expensive management regime,” Bader’s report concludes. “A much less expensive strategy that focuses on protection of structures would be better suited to this landscape.”
Missoula District Ranger Jenn Hensiek has said she hopes to release a draft record of decision on the project this summer, followed by an objection period.
A final decision could choose any of the four options or a combination of two or more. That could be ready this fall. Only people and groups that have commented before the April 30 deadline are allowed to participate in the objections process, including any legal challenges.