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After Montana wildfires, elected leaders, environmental groups spar over forest management

HELENA – Off Cabin Gulch Road, in the Big Belt Mountains east of Townsend, you can see signs of change in parts of the forest: tree stumps, brush piles and orange blazes on the trunks.

Since May 2014, the U.S. Forest Service and its contractors have been conducting the Cabin Gulch Vegetation Project, a large-scale forest management project, in this area. It includes hundreds of acres of logging, along with prescribed fires.

“When it’s all said and done, the goal really is just to have a landscape that is more resilient,” said Corey Lewellen, the district ranger in Townsend for the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.

The project area covers more than 15,000 acres north of U.S. Highway 12. Lewellen said the Forest Service conducted analysis across that area and identified about 1,900 acres that would benefit from treatment.

RY Timber, of Townsend, conducted most of the logging work. More than 300 acres underwent full “regeneration harvests,” where the majority of large trees were removed. The rest included various levels of forest thinning.

“We could look at a prescription where, as an example, there’s 300 trees per acre, and then when we’re done we thinned it down to 100 trees per acre,” Lewellen said.

The Forest Service also planned prescribed burns on about 600 acres that weren’t logged.

Lewellen said, after the project is finished, Forest Service officials hope to leave a forest that is healthier and better able to react to changes in the environment.

“That change could be fire, it could be insect and disease, it could be other large events – maybe climate change,” he said. “We just want a landscape to stay resilient so that it can provide its ecological functions through time.”

The Forest Service set out four main goals for the Cabin Gulch project: improving the forest’s composition, reducing sediment flows into Deep Creek, providing a sustainable supply of timber for local mills and reducing the risk of severe wildfires by removing fuels.

“Not that it’s going to stop fire, it’s going to just change the severity of the fire when it does burn through those areas,” said Mike Kaiser, fuels planner for the Forest Service’s Helena and Townsend Ranger Districts.

Kaiser said the Forest Service used fire behavior models to predict how a wildfire would travel through each part of the project area, under current conditions and after proposed treatments. They used that information to determine which areas to focus on.

“We can’t treat the entire forest, so we have to look at what areas make sense,” he said.

According to Kaiser, increasing open space can reduce the chance of a fire in one tree or small group of trees spreading into the neighboring forest. He says removing heavy brush and fallen logs makes it less likely for a fire to move upward, into the crown of the forest.

Once a fire spreads into the tops of the trees, Kaiser says it’s much easier for heavy wind to carry it – and much harder for firefighters to slow it down.

“If we’re able to keep that fire on the ground, it can only move so fast,” he said.

The Cabin Gulch project went through several years of planning and consideration before the Forest Service made its final decision to move forward in March 2012. Later that year, environmental groups, including the Helena-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies, filed suit over the project.

“We sue on projects that we feel violate federal environmental laws and threaten habitat for species in decline,” said Mike Garrity, the group’s executive director.

The plaintiffs argued that the Forest Service’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious” and that it violated laws like the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. They claimed the agency didn’t do enough analysis about how the project would affect species like elk, grizzly bears and the threatened Canada lynx.

U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen dismissed most of the environmental groups’ claims, but agreed with their argument on lynx. In June 2013, he put an injunction on the Cabin Gulch project and ordered the Forest Service to complete additional consultations on how the species might be affected by the work.

After the Forest Service completed the additional work and reported no further predicted effects on lynx, Christensen lifted the injunction and allowed the project to move forward.

The Cabin Gulch lawsuit was just one of many the Alliance for the Wild Rockies has filed against Forest Service vegetation projects. As of Nov. 7, the group had active litigation against six projects in Montana:

 

These lawsuits received attention from some elected leaders after Montana’s historic wildfire season, when more than 1 million acres around the state burned. In July, lightning sparked the Park Creek and Arrastra Creek fires in the Stonewall project area. The fires eventually grew together and burned 18,000 acres over the next two months.

During a visit to Helena in September, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte held a roundtable focusing on the Stonewall project. He argued the project could have reduced the danger from the fires north of Lincoln, and criticized the lawsuit that delayed it.

Garrity doesn’t believe the lawsuit did lasting harm.

“This was a fire that benefited the forest, and it did what the Forest Service was going to do with taxpayers’ money with their planned prescribed fire,” he said.

Garrity also denied claims that the Alliance’s litigation is frivolous. He said most of the suits the group has filed have been successful.

“Judges don’t rule in favor of frivolous lawsuits; frivolous lawsuits are thrown out by the courts and the lawyers are sanctioned,” he said. “We’re winning because the Forest Service is violating the law.”

Now, members of Montana’s congressional delegation are proposing changes to those laws, to make it easier for forest management projects to move forward.

“We have to address the underlying issues,” Gianforte said during a House debate last week. “We have to reform how we manage our forests; we have to make our forests healthier and our wildfires less severe.”

Gianforte is a cosponsor of H.R. 2936, the Resilient Federal Forests Act. The bill would reduce the amount of environmental analysis required on forest management projects, and it would require some challenges to those projects to be settled through arbitration instead of litigation.

H.R. 2936 passed the House last week, 232-188.

Sen. Steve Daines is cosponsoring S. 2068, the Wildfire Prevention and Mitigation Act. The legislation, introduced by Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, includes language to overturn the so-called Cottonwood decision. That ruling, by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, required the Forest Service to do a large-scale analysis of how it addresses lynx, after new critical habitat for the species was designated.

Daines argues the decision is delaying timber projects.

“Republicans and Democrats alike are very concerned by these extreme environmental groups that are holding up common-sense forest management projects in Montana,” he said.

Sen. Jon Tester also wants to see the Cottonwood decision overturned, but he says changes to forest management policy won’t be enough unless lawmakers address the Forest Service budget. He says the Forest Service won’t have enough money to implement new vegetation projects, because it has to spend too much on fighting fires.

“We need to make sure the agency functions as a land-management agency and not a fire-fighting agency,” Tester said in a statement.

Daines says he’s hopeful that this year’s devastating fire season could build support for reforming forest policy.

“I think we stand one of the strongest chances of getting forest management done in this Congress, probably in the last five years,” he said.

Whatever Congress eventually decides, the Forest Service will keep working on vegetation projects.

In Cabin Gulch, there are still several areas scheduled for prescribed fires over the next few years. Then Lewellen says crews will keep monitoring the project area for several more year, to make sure their objectives are being met. He says, from the first analysis to the final result, the project will last well over ten years.

After Cabin Gulch, Lewellen says Forest Service leaders will start planning for the next vegetation project.

“These projects are driven from site-scale conditions and surveys and research,” he said. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”