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In wake of 2003 wildfires, district rangers consider smaller areas for logging projects

Still stinging from their ill-fated attempt to log trees burned during the 2000 wildfire season, Lolo National Forest officials have proposed limited salvage logging in the wake of the 2003 fires.

The Missoula Ranger District wants to cut blackened trees on 35 acres in the upper end of the Howard Creek drainage and on 250 acres in upper Gold Creek.

The Seeley Lake Ranger District plans one post-fire timber sale - on 240 acres burned by the Boles Meadow fire south and west of Seeley Lake.

"In contrast to 2000, we decided to look at much, much smaller areas and determine if there were opportunities to salvage logs for people's use without having negative effects on other resources," Lolo Forest Supervisor Debbie Austin said Tuesday.

"We want to keep the process fairly simple," said Missoula District Ranger Don Carroll. "We're staying away from doing the big-picture, big-watershed kind of approach."

For one, the 2003 wildfires burned less merchantable timber than did the 2000 fires - and burned more in areas of intermingled public-private ownership.

So there's not as much timber to salvage, Austin said.

Then, too, it's probably not worth taxpayer dollars to propose a big-acreage, big-ticket salvage sale that's likely to be challenged in court, she said.

After the 2000 wildfire season, the Lolo forest spent more than $1 million on an environmental impact study of its proposed post-burn project - a combination of salvage logging and forest restoration work.

The resulting lawsuit stopped the logging and virtually all of the restoration - and may never come to pass because of the rapidly deteriorating condition of the burned timber, she said.

By proposing small timber sales this time around, the Lolo forest can employ a "categorical exclusion" - a process that allows a salvage sale to proceed with limited environmental review.

Critics cannot file an administrative appeal of a timber sale offered as a categorical exclusion, although they can still take the Forest Service to court.

On the Missoula Ranger District, Carroll said the salvage sales have but one purpose: "To contribute a sustained yield of timber to support local communities and provide wood for regional and national needs."

"We are still guided by our mission, and supplying wood to the nation is part of our mission," he said. "It is still part of our forest plan."

The Missoula district's projects are in areas of the Lolo designated for timber cutting under the forest's management plan.

"We focused our energies on areas with the highest opportunity for salvage with the least amount of work required to get through the process," said team leader Bruce Higgins. "We looked for areas where we had a road system in place and where we didn't have concerns like endangered species."

Foresters were careful to avoid too much logging in tracts alongside Plum Creek Timber Co. land burned by the fires, Austin said.

Plum Creek began salvage logging on its burned acreage shortly after the fire season ended and has continued with an aggressive salvage program.

In some cases, Austin said, that means the Forest Service has to back off to avoid too much timber cutting in one burned drainage.

Overall, the Lolo's salvage plans are quite limited, said Love. The Boles Meadow fire, for example, burned 4,000 acres, but only 240 acres are planned for logging.

It was important to recapture at least some of the value, though, he said. "Rather than just letting the wood deteriorate, we try to capture some of that value for the government."

At Boles Meadow, the plan is to salvage pine and spruce and to do so this summer - before bugs get into the dead trees.

"If we can't get it done this summer, we'll lose the economic value," Love said. "That's what we want to recover: some of the value."

As is true on the Missoula Ranger District, Love's salvage plan would require no new roads and no clearcutting. None of the stands are considered old growth.

Smallest of the Lolo's salvage sales is the 35-acre North Fork Howard project, where three cutting units would be located along Wagon Mountain Road No. 33 outside Lolo.

Mountain pine beetles are already active in the area, so foresters hope to log the trees this winter, Carroll said.

On one cutting unit, loggers would take dead ponderosa pine trees averaging 20 inches in diameter; they would leave 15-20 trees per acre.

The other two units have lodgepole pine and Douglas fir roundwood of little monetary value. If the purchaser removed the roundwood, all larch and ponderosa pine would be left, along with any Douglas fir greater than 12 inches in diameter.

Likely the most controversial of the Lolo's proposed salvage sales is along West Fork Gold Creek Road No. 4323 north and east of Missoula.

Burned in the Mineral-Primm fire, the acreage is alongside large tracts of severely burned Plum Creek Timber land.

In Unit 1, which borders West Fork Gold Creek, dead spruce, lodgepole pine and subalpine fir with burned root collars would be logged. All live and dead larch, and any green trees with live crowns greater than 30 percent, would be left.

All the trees in Unit 2 are dead, so any merchantable volume would be removed, with 16-60 snags left per acre, including the larger Douglas fir trees.

Units 3 and 4 were also severely burned and would be logged in a similar manner.

On Tuesday, the environmental group that successfully stopped the Lolo's plans to salvage some of the timber burned in 2000 filed its comments on the 2003 salvage plan.

In a letter, Ecology Center conservation director Jeff Juel said post-fire logging "can and often has resulted in significant damage to soils, streams and wildlife."

"The proposed logging may seem to be limited in size and duration, but please take a good hard look at the significance of impacts of all past, presently ongoing, and reasonably foreseeable proposed and future activities," he said.

The Lolo also ought to analyze the impact of wildfire suppression on the forest, said Juel, who also wrote on behalf of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

"Often, fire suppression efforts cause more damage to the landscape than the actual fires," he said. "We believe that removing the impacts of fire suppression, rather than logging trees, is the most justified form of restoration work."

West Fork Gold Creek is of particular concern because of the long history of corporate logging in the drainage, Juel said.

But will the Ecology Center sue to stop this post-fire effort, as it did in 2000?

"We watch a lot of areas and Forest Service proposals, and we cannot litigate them all," Juel said. "We have to look first at the areas with the greatest ecological values."

In this case, he said, "I hope the forest will reconsider and reprioritize their work."

Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at sdevlin@missoulian.com

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