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Missoula District Ranger Jen Henseik, right, and silviculturist Sheryl Gunn, say a thinning project in the popular Rattlesnake drainage will preserve much of the mature and mid-size trees while removing the ladder-fuel understory. 

The Missoula Ranger District has dropped plans to commercially log a busy stretch of the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area in its effort to improve forest health along the city’s northern border.

“I was incredibly humbled at the response that we got about the national recreation area,” District Ranger Jennifer Hensiek said Monday. “It opened my eyes a lot about how engaged the community is. What drove it for me was talking about recreation values and ecological concerns, and what is that balance. We’ve come to a good compromise.”

The Marshall Woods project proposed several options for improving old logging scars, removing hazardous fuel build-ups and restoring meadows in the hills above the Rattlesnake and Marshall canyons.

But public opposition rallied around a component that included logging about 80 truck loads of timber from 225 acres along Rattlesnake Creek, in the most-traveled part of the recreation area’s trail network.

Hensiek released a draft decision notice Monday combining alternatives C and D of the project.

The modified plan still has commercial logging on about 266 acres in the Marshall Canyon area, but otherwise depends on non-commercial thinning, hand-piling and burning slash, or prescribed burns to reduce hazardous fuel loads elsewhere in the 3,949-acre project area. 

The project will also provide noxious weed treatment, road and trail maintenance, and efforts to preserve meadows and aspen groves in the forest.

“After six years of collaborative deliberations within the Lolo Restoration Committee (LRC) and following the extensive public comment received by the Forest Service, I'm pleased that the Marshall Woods project is moving closer to reality,” Lolo Restoration Committee chairman Jake Kreilick said in an email statement. “The project will combine commercial and non-commercial thinning, prescribed fire, weed treatments and road decommissioning to accomplish necessary fuel reduction in a vulnerable portion of Missoula's Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) and also foster long-term forest restoration on two sections of industrial timberland.”

Kreilick was one of many longtime participants in the project’s public review, and was strongly opposed to an updated Alternative B last fall that called for heavy logging in the Rattlesnake Creek trail corridor.

Before the Missoula Ranger District’s public comment deadline at the end of April, it had received 207 letters raising 227 concerns.

The project now goes through a 45-day objection period. Only people who participated in the earlier public comment process are allowed to raise objections.

“It’s not a particularly aggressive treatment, which is probably unfortunate for the ecosystem long term,” said Matt Arno, a former chairman of the Lolo Restoration Committee and now coordinator for its overseeing Montana Forest Restoration Committee. “But there will be some good work done. Some of the folks who were really concerned about things will see the Forest Service was trying to do the right thing, and maybe there will be some more trust built.”

Alternative C includes commercial tree harvest, 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 Rattlesnake 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.

Assuming the draft project clears the objection process, work could begin late this fall or early next summer.

Work crews would thin and burn small understory trees on about 1,101 acres of the project. They would light prescribed fires on another 467 acres of young tree stands, and hand-pile and burn slash on another 896 acres.

They would restore the Homestead and Poe meadows by removing little confier stands and encouraging regrowth of native aspen groves.

The proposed project would also decommission about 7.4 miles of old road and convert another 1.4 miles of road to trail. It would also restore about 6.7 miles of road and complete maintenance on the Spring Creek Bridge, Trail 515 and Forest Road 2122.

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