The Bitterroot National Forest has received objection letters from the county commission and a state senator on a proposal to thin about 3,200 acres of national forest land surrounding two communities in the southern reaches of Ravalli County.
Neither was opposed to the fuel reduction aspect of the proposed Meadow Vapor project.
The commission urged the Forest Service to reconsider decommissioning unused roads in the project area. The board was especially concerned about the impacts of re-contouring and obliteration of the old roads.
Sen. Pat Connell of Hamilton asked the agency to consider adding additional acreage to the fuel reduction project.
The proposed project surrounds the Springer Meadow and Bonanza Lands communities near Sula. Both communities are located in drainages that hold dense pockets of dead and dying trees killed by insects or damaged by an outbreak of wester spruce budworm.
The 11,000-acre area the agency considered in developing the proposed project had been identified as a high priority for fuels reduction in the Bitterroot Community Wildfire Protection Plan.
In his letter, Connell said the Forest Service was obligated under state and federal laws to expand the area it plans to treat to protect the watershed in order to maintain late-season flows for senior water right holders downstream in the Bitterroot Valley.
By excluding watersheds of Paint, Moose and Martin creeks now, Connell said there was little likelihood that Bitterroot Forest officials would have the funding to target those places later.
“There appears to be a lapse in recognition of the critical importance to protect this watershed from major degradation due to post-wildfire effects,” Connell wrote.
He also said expanding the project to reduce accumulated beetle-killed trees in the roaded portions of the headwater drainages would also benefit wildlife.
“Since 2000, the general area of the Meadow Vapor project stands as the last timbered area not impacted by crown fire that produces much better cover conditions than the surrounding burnt zones,” he said. “This approach is not beneficial to Montana’s elk herds that both migrate annually into this area, as those who reside here year around.”
Commissioner Greg Chilcott said the commission supports the fuel reduction aspect of the project, but didn’t believe the decision to spend money to decommission old roads through obliteration and re-contouring was wise.
“We think the money is better spent maintaining the road infrastructure,” Chilcott said.
Many of the old roads have already filled in with new growth. Obliterating and recontouring those roads at this point creates a visual scar that can be visible for miles, the commission’s letter read. The disturbances also create prime locations for weed infestation, erosion and impacts to water quality.
Some of the roads slated to be decommissioned may be protected under RS 2477 – a law enacted by Congress in 1866 to encourage settlement of the west by a development of system of highways.
RS 2477 was repealed in 1976 under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. That repeal allowed roads already in place to remain.
The commission’s letter said eight roads slated for decommissioning fall under the RS 2477 protection.
Chilcott said Bitterroot Forest officials have listened to the commission’s concerns and made adjustments based on its comments.
“We were really happy that the forest looked at our comments on the draft decision and made those adjustments,” Chilcott said. “We are just asking them to change the treatment on additional roads and put them in storage rather than decommissioning them.”
Darby District Ranger Eric Winthers said the objection period on the proposed project continues through next week.
“Once that’s completed, we will review the objections and attempt to work out differences,” Winthers said. “There are probably going to be certain things that we’ll have to agree to disagree.”
The hope is the final environmental analysis will be completed this summer, with the bids going out this fall. Work could begin on the project as early as next winter, Winthers said.