An order to remove wildfire fuels on 1,725 acres in the Pattee Canyon Recreation Area this fall will be implemented without a current environmental assessment, which is allowed under legislation passed earlier this year.
The massive 2018 Omnibus Spending Bill contained an amendment to the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which allows for “categorical exclusions” that don’t need to go through the full-blown and lengthy environmental impact statement process or the smaller environmental assessment effort for two reasons. The projects must be for fuel reduction purposes on less than 3,000 acres, and be within the Wildland Urban Interface.
“Because of the presence of homes and development, these areas are priority fuel reduction locations for the Missoula Ranger District,” Boyd Hartwig, a communications officer, wrote in a press release. “Reducing fuels mitigates the potential for costly and high-intensity wildfire and can also reduce the exposure to firefighters during future fire events.”
Residences and private property border the Pattee Canyon Recreation Area to the east, south and west. The plan calls for thinning the forest using chain saws and burning the slash piles once they dry out, probably next spring. In addition, some under-burning will be used to treat the fuels to “enhance public safety by reducing the potential for uncharacteristic, severe fire behavior.”
No commercial logging is being proposed, and a letter was sent to interested parties in June that invited them to a public meeting for a presentation on the project.
Mike Bader, an independent natural resource consultant, isn’t a fan of the project or of categorical exclusions. He doesn’t believe it’s up to taxpayers to protect the homes of those who decide to live in forested terrain, adding that what people do within 100 feet of their homes is what provides defensible space in case of a wildfire.
He points to research by Jack Cohen, a retired scientist with the Missoula Fire Sciences Lab, which shows that removing pine needles and leaves from gutters, roofs, and wooden steps and decks, and taking off the lower limbs of trees within 100 feet of a home can make the difference between one that burns down and one that’s fire resistant.
“What you do half a mile away from your home does nothing for the survivability of that home, so they’re doing this under false pretenses,” Bader said.
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Bader also is concerned that the U.S. Forest Service could finish a small project like this, then move on to an adjacent small parcel to do the same type of work in an effort to get around public comment and environmental analyses.
“They’ve already done a lot of fuel reduction up there. With another 1,800 acres, they’re swallowing up the entire recreation area,” Bader said. “They’re turning it into a city park by logging the national forest aspect of it. The Forest Service didn’t ask anybody to build next to the forest and nobody thought about the risk.”
Hartwig disagrees, calling this “a good project.”
“I certainly understand Mike’s desire for protection of the resources, and we share that desire,” Hartwig said. “He’s welcome to come in at any time and look at the project. It’s going to do good things. It’s important work for this community.”
That greater Missoula community already is participating by seeking grants and matching funds to help with wildfire mitigation projects, Hartwig said, and this is the Forest Service’s way to carry its part of the burden.
He added that the Forest Service could theoretically finish one project as a categorical exclusion without comments or analyses, and move onto something similar right next to the first project. However, that probably would impact wildlife, fisheries or soils, which is something the Forest Service regularly monitors. This monitoring acts as a check to balance the work that’s done.
“If we did that there would be a cumulative impact across the landscape, and that would prevent you from doing that,” Hartwig said. “It sounds like that’s something we could do, but that’s a very simplified way to portray what’s intended.
“I can tell you that we have our forest plan and all the appropriate laws and policies that we have to follow. The decision memo talks about recreational impacts, hydrology, and the initial analysis — it’s not detailed like an environmental analysis, but we can’t go out and violate the law by doing a bunch of categorical exclusions.”