Roads and old growth were at the center of many of the 17 objections the Bitterroot National Forest received on the largest timber harvest, forest thinning and prescribed project it’s proposed in more than a decade.
Located east of Corvallis, the proposed Gold Butterfly Project spans about a 10-mile reach between St. Clair Creek on its southern border to Burnt Fork Creek on its north. The project area includes 55,147 acres.
If the current proposal is approved, about 5,621 acres of timber would be commercially harvested. That harvest is expected to produce an estimated 34 million board-feet of timber that would be hauled to mills in thousands of truckloads down Willow Creek Road.
The deadline to file objections was Friday, Aug. 2.
“The main concerns that people had were road building and vegetation treatment in old growth,” said Bitterroot Forest environmental coordinator Amy Fox. “There were a number of topics, but those two seemed to be the ones that appeared most often.”
The objection with the most pages was filed by Friends of the Bitterroot, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, WildEarth Guardians and local landowners Steven and Gail Goheen.
Friends of the Bitterroot’s Jeff Lonn of Hamilton said that organization believes the project was too large to analyze at one time.
“It’s the biggest project the Bitterroot Forest has proposed probably in a couple of decades,” Lonn said. “It certainly has the greatest amount of timber harvest and by far the most road building.”
While Bitterroot National Forest officials attempted to work on the project through a collaborative process, Lonn said the alternative that was selected ignored the public’s requests to avoid commercial logging or building new roads in areas of old growth.
“The public asked for no commercial logging or road building through old growth, but they are still going ahead with that,” he said. “There is something like 10 miles of new road being built through old growth. The collaborative efforts seemed to be kind of disingenuous. That’s one of our main concerns.”
The proposal also calls for 14 clear cuts larger than 40 acres.
“That’s something that’s not been done in a lot of years either,” Lonn said.
The groups also have concerns about impacts on wildlife, habitat fragmentation and the loss of public access to the area off the Willow Creek Creek road while the work is being completed.
“They are going to be building roads in an area where they admit they have had problems keeping what they have maintained,” he said. “In May 2017, a debris flow took out a portion of the Willow Creek road. They can’t maintain what they already have.”
Maintenance on the Willow Creek Road is an issue that concerns the Ravalli County Commission too.
In its objection, the commission said that while it supports the purpose and need for the project, it does have concerns about the impacts that heavy machinery and logging trucks will have on the county’s portion of Willow Creek Road.
“Due to resource and financial limitations, Ravalli County would not be able to accommodate the necessary maintenance during the project, nor the rehabilitation of the road after the project is complete,” the county’s objection read. “Ravalli County objects to shifting financial burden of the Gold Butterfly Project to Ravalli County and believes it is contrary to current law and existing agreements.”
The commission’s objection said the Forest Service should be required to complete an agreement that would mitigate those impacts before the project is approved.
The commission also asked the Bitterroot Forest to increase the amount of commercial timber harvest, including in some units located in an Inventoried Roadless Area. The county said that area was included in an earlier version of the project to benefit whitebark pine stands.
“The Forest Service said it was going to do this project based on sound science,” said Commissioner Greg Chilcott. “We were told the area needed to be treated to protect the whitebark pine stands, but because it was in an IRA, there were a lot of objections and that area was dropped. We feel like that’s in conflict with the idea that this was going to be based on sound science.”
Overall, Chilcott said the commission was an advocate for the project, but it would like to see more vegetation management and commercial harvest.
The objections were filed with the Forest Service’s regional office in Missoula and will be reviewed by a deputy regional forester. Since the project was completed under the Healthy Forest Restoration Act Authority, the review will be completed in 30 days.
Once that’s done, Fox said the reviewing officer will either issue a determination that the Bitterroot Forest sufficiently covered the matters or will issue a letter outlining areas it needs to address. When that process is completed, the Bitterroot Forest supervisor will sign a final record of decision and the project can begin.
If the proposal is approved, the project will take years to complete.