Sheep Gap fire file

The Swamp Eddy project in Mineral County includes timber harvest, thinning and burning outside the perimeter of the 2017 Sheep Gap fire, shown in this file photo.

A proposed timber management project on 3,637 acres adjacent to the 2017 Sheep Gap wildfire and subsequent salvage sales won’t produce any significant impacts, according to a draft decision notice posted this week by the Lolo National Forest.

The Swamp Eddy project 5 miles southwest of Plains includes commercial and noncommercial harvest, thinning and burning outside the 2017 wildfire perimeter. It’s anticipated that 12 million board-feet will be hauled to mills.

In addition, the Swamp Eddy project will realign the road to the Swamp dispersed recreation site, install a vault toilet there and develop non-motorized trails to concentrate use in an appropriate area.

About 165 acres of timber harvest at the head-end of East Fork Swamp Creek has been added the initial Swamp Eddy proposal as part of the effort to address an ongoing outbreak of defoliator insects and fir engraver beetle, according to the draft Environmental Assessment decision notice. The initial plan included commercial logging and thinning on 1,766 acres.

The 2017 Sheep Gap wildfire burned across 25,000 acres, including 55% of a proposed 2016 timber management project that would have covered 28,000 acres. That 2016 plan was scrapped, and since then, the Lolo forest authorized the Black Sheep and Burnt Beam salvage sales in those burned areas. Those salvage sales harvested trees across 1,465 acres and brought about 16.6 million board-feet of burned timber to mills.

Those salvage sales also included removing hazard trees adjacent to 91 miles of forest roads, and the plans call for planting seedlings next year across 5,000 acres where natural regeneration isn’t anticipated to take place.

Plains/Thompson Falls District Ranger Erin Carey said they looked at the cumulative effects of the wildfire and the ensuing timber salvage sales when putting together the Swamp Eddy project.

“Now that salvage from the Sheep Gap fire is coming to a close, we are looking forward to implementing the originally planned activities in the unburned sections of the project area to restore forest health, support the local economy, and improve the recreation experience for the public,” Carey said.

In order to do the logging, the Lolo Forest Plan has to be amended to add 527 acres to the timber base that’s suitable for harvest. Carey said the amendment had nothing to do with the wildfire.

“But as part of the project after the burn, we did some ground truthing of the forest plan … and eventually recognized that the area is suitable for harvest and the ground and soils can support it,” she said.

Swamp Eddy also needs to get the approval of the regional forester since some of the clear cuts will be up to 224 acres, which is larger than the maximum of 40 acres allowed under the forest plan. The environmental assessment notes that the wide open spaces would mimic natural disturbance patterns.

Based on public comments included in the draft decision notice, the project has broad community support, including from the Mineral County Resource Coalition, the Sanders County Collaborative and the Mineral County Commission.

“Sanders County is one place that derives its livelihood from natural resource harvesting,” Carey said. “This supplies mills and ancillary jobs.”

The Sanders County Commissioners wrote in support of the project that as their community continues to face challenging economic times, with one of the highest unemployment rates in Montana, they appreciate the Forest Service recognizing the importance of timber management activities.

“This project you are proposing will generate jobs and wages from both the commercial as well as the noncommercial treatments they contain,” the Sanders County Commissioners wrote. “The economic benefits to the county of direct and indirect jobs for all aspects of the projects should be clearly displayed in your analysis and considered in the final decision.”

The American Forest Resource Council voiced concerns about whether the Swamp Eddy project would be economical for logging companies based on the steep terrain and concerns about damage to soil from compaction, erosion and other issues. The group suggested “not burdening” potential bidders with costs incurred by slash disposal and reseeding, adding that new high-tech logging equipment “has a very light footprint” and asked that more acres be made available.

The Forest Service responded that the rehabilitation costs after the timber sale are accounted for during the sale appraisals and are reflected in the minimum bid. While open to trying to the new logging equipment, that would be considered on a site-specific basis, depending on soil conditions.

The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation also praised the project, saying it’s important for nearby private landowners and state trust lands in the area.

“It’s critical to reduce the dense tree stocking and high fuel loading in the project area to reduce intense fire behavior and facilitate safe wildland fire operations,” the DNRC wrote in a letter of support.

Objections can be sent to the Objection Reviewing Officer, USDA Forest Service, Northern Region, 26 Fort Misosula Road, Missoula, MT 59804 or emailed to appeals-northern-regional-office@usda.gov. The deadline is Dec. 18.

Carey anticipates the project could begin as early as next spring.

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