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Prescribed burn

A prescribed burn

A proposed 85,000-acre project on public lands south of St. Regis is one of the largest projects in recent years for the Lolo National Forest and includes logging in an inventoried roadless area.

This broad landscape-size treatment also could include treatments that create temporarily treeless areas of more than 40 acres, which is larger than what's allowed under the current Lolo forest management plan.

Yet it's meant to enhance bull trout habitat and recreational use while reducing wildfire fuels and broadening tree species. Overall, the proposal is meant to touch on multiple resources in an integrated approach that’s expected to take at least 10 years to complete, notes Pat Partyka, the planning coordinator for the west side of the Lolo forest.

“For the Lolo, this is a big one. It’s probably a 10-year-plus project because it’s so large to implement,” Partyka said. “It has a lot of timber sales, and post-timber sale replanting. … There’s a lot of interest in this project and I think we can get the funding needed.”

It’s been in the works since 2015, when the Forest Service began field assessments on what’s being called the Redd Bull Project to determine the existing conditions of the wildlife and aquatic habitat, the vegetation, the soils and recreational use. The federal agency started a public collaborative process in 2016, holding six meetings and hosting two field trips before developing what’s called an “integrated development management plan” that will be discussed during an Aug. 27 meeting in St. Regis.

“There was a lot of local interest, as well as from people from Missoula,” Partyka said. “We’re feeling pretty good about where we’re starting from, even though this is just a starting point.”

The project has six objectives, according to the scoping document: to restore native fish habitat; restore resilient vegetative conditions; reduce wildfire fuels; improve elk habitat; provide diverse recreation opportunities; and support the economic structure of local communities. The project area is south of St. Regis between I-90 and the Montana/Idaho border within the Dry, Cold, Little Joe, Twomile, and Ward creek drainages.

Mineral County Commissioner Roman Zylawy said the community is looking forward to various portions of the project, including removing some roads, doing controlled burns to remove forest fuels, and some logging.

“There’s lots and lots of vast acreage that hasn’t been treated for a long time. In some areas the downfall and dead trees are so thick the wildlife can’t travel through it,” Zylawy said. “It’s impossible for a bull elk to get through that terrain.”

Vegetative Management Activities

Reducing wildfire fuels, improving the elk habitat and restoring resilient vegetative conditions all involve managing the trees and shrubs. Commercial logging is proposed for 13,394 acres, and another 13,784 could be treated by non-commercial thinning and prescribed burns. The work overlaps on about 3,100 acres.

Some of the timber harvest would involve removing smaller trees from the lower and main canopy, while retaining larger fire-tolerant and disease-resistant species on about 3,342 acres. Another part of the logging includes removing commercial-sized trees on 578 acres in order to favor fire-tolerant western larch and Ponderosa pine.

Openings of up to 10 acres may be created where root disease is present, and Ponderosa pines and western larch would be planted since they’re fire- and disease-tolerant.

A larger regeneration timber harvest on about 9,500 acres intends to replace existing stands with those that are more resistant to insects, disease and blowdown. That regeneration project could prove to be controversial, since some of the treatments would cover more than 40 acres, which exceeds the region’s opening size limits.

But these wouldn’t be 40-acre clearcuts, the scoping document notes, since “varying densities of trees will be retained within these areas, from scattered individuals to groups consisting of the largest, healthiest trees. However, compared to intermediate harvest treatment areas and untreated forests, regenerated areas would appear as openings until new trees grow to fill the site.”

Partyka notes that during the past 100 years, less than 5% of the Redd Bull area was burned in a wildfire, which has created high tree densities that are less diverse, which makes them more susceptible to insects, disease and drought. In particular, they’re trying to remove much of the Douglas fir in areas where root disease has become more aggressive and widespread.

“This area has a lot of root disease … and we’re trying to get more resistant species,” Partyka said.

Some of that regeneration harvest and commercial thinning work could occur on 1,425 acres within the 12,600-acre Marble Point Inventoried Roadless Area (IRA), which is adjacent to structures and south of St. Regis. Prevailing winds flow through the project area toward the private land and residences, according to Forest Service documents.

“The Inventoried Roadless Area needs that work; in terms of the vegetation it’s not different from the rest of the forest,” Partyka said. “The lines on the map don’t mean the ecological needs are different. And because it’s adjacent to the community, we’ve been working with a local public collaborative; they were concerned about fuels and forest health.”

The regional forester would need to personally sign off for that work to take place in the IRA. Partyka said existing historic roads could be used for some of the work.

Prescribed burns also would be used across 12,000 acres involved in the non-commercial logging treatment areas.

Road proposals

Moving some roads away from streams, replacing 23 culverts with larger structures and closing 215 user-created roads while temporarily or permanently constructing 25 miles of road are meant to enhance fish habitat and recreational use.

While the aquatic restoration of native species in numerous creeks within the project area is part of the project, the focus is on Little Joe Creek where bull trout spawn. Their population currently is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

“We’re talking about trying to restore and protect the cold, clean and connected water. That basically benefits all species,” said Paul Parson with Trout Unlimited. “There are certain things we can do that also work side-by-side with timber sales and forest health, like possibly moving roads out of the floodplain, which will reduce sediments and allows the stream to function naturally.”

Roads that parallel streams also contribute to sediments in the water. Moving segments of the South and North forks of Little Joe Road farther from the stream are meant to both remove sedimentation and reactivate the floodplain. About half a mile of Moore Lake Road also would be relocated to eliminate two stream crossings.

About 230 miles of user-created roads would be closed, but 159 miles of those would be blocked but left intact for future use.

Another 25 miles of new roads would be constructed, although only 13 miles in segments ranging up to 3.7 miles would be permanent. All but two miles of the new road construction would be closed to public motorized use. Twelve miles of new roads would be temporary for logging purposes.

Eight miles of the Stateline Road 738 will be opened to motorized use to be consistent with the Idaho Panhandle National Forest designation.

Recreation

The proposal also calls for modifying and improving 15 current dispersed camping sites, closing three and developing five.

In addition, the Forest Service wants to expand parking at Diamond and Moore lakes, as well as address dead trees in the lakes to provide access to the water.

They’re also calling for creating a loop road and designated camping sites at the Little Joe Campground; developing a year-round shelter on Newman Ridge; and creating vista points in certain locations by removing vegetation in less than a 100-foot radius.

“We are getting more and more visitors from other areas that are coming to Redd Bull to recreate. There’s lots of trails, lots of things that interest people,” Partyka said. “This helps support the local economy, it will provide lots of jobs whether it’s cutting timber, running an excavator for the roads or installing recreational facilities.”

Mineral County Commissioner Zylawy added that’s a big deal for his community, which has deep roots in the timber industry, and he’s urging the Forest Service to move quickly.

“We always worry that as time goes by on big projects like this, we will lose the people and machinery and know-how to do it,” Zylawy said. “We want something to come down the pike to keep people working, so their kids and grandkids learn how to run a dozer and fell hazardous trees.”

The Aug. 27 meeting runs from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the St. Regis Community Center. It includes a short presentation followed by an open house. More information is available online at fs.usda.gov/project/?project=56574. Comments can be emailed to comments-northern-lolo-superior@usda.gov or sent by regular mail to Redd Bull Project Leader, USDA Forest Service, P.O. Box 429, Plains, MT 59859. Comments are due by 5 p.m. Sept. 9.

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