Bitterroot National Forest officials are hoping to have the final issues resolved in the next few weeks on a proposed project to thin about 2,300 acres southwest of Hamilton.
“We would like to have the final decision out within the next few weeks,” said West Fork District Ranger Ryan Domsalla. “Beyond that, it would be subject to litigation from anyone who might feel the need.”
The Westside Collaborative Vegetation Management Project proposes to thin national forest lands along the wildland/urban interface between Lost Horse and Roaring Lion creeks.
Once that project is completed, nearly all of the national forest lands that border private ground on the west side of the Bitterroot Valley will have been thinned.
Before that can happen, the Bitterroot Forest has to resolve several issues raised by local residents during the objection process.
Forest Service Deputy Regional Forester David Schmid recently released a letter responding to those issues and in some cases ordering Bitterroot Forest officials to take some additional steps to mitigate concerns.
One of the main concerns focuses on the estimated 150 loads of logs slated to come down Blue Jay Lane. The county road is maintained by a handful of residents who use the lane to access their property. They worry about the potential damage to the road.
Schmid instructed Bitterroot Forest officials to work with the county and adjacent landowners to resolve the road maintenance issues on both Blue Jay Lane and Hayes Creek Road.
Before the project can move forward, Domsalla said the Bitterroot Forest will need to have a maintenance agreement in place with the county on how the two roads will be maintained during and following the log hauling.
Commissioner Jeff Burrows said he was confident the county and the Forest Service would eventually come to an agreement, but he would have preferred seeing some kind of written proposal at this point.
“Anytime that you don’t have anything in writing, it’s a concern,” Burrows said. “Right now, we’re going more on a handshake and head nod. They have assured us verbally numerous times that the road will be maintained. It’s concerning when we don’t know what they have in mind.”
This project was the Bitterroot Forest’s first under new rules that allowed for an expedited process offered under the Healthy Forest Restoration Act. As a result, it was the first time the commission and others had taken part in the objection process, which included an opportunity to get everyone in the same room to air concerns.
Burrows said he would have liked to have seen more details on how to resolve issues offered in Schmid’s recent letter.
“This was the first objection process that the county has been through,” he said. “It seemed like he just acknowledged everyone’s objection, but didn’t really provide any answers on how to address them. It didn’t really resolve very much.”
Overall, Burrows said the commission is supportive of fuels reduction projects like the Westside project and would like to see more of them.
“We absolutely support the vegetative management portion of this,” he said.
Besides Blue Jay Lane, people also voiced concerns about proposed construction of roads and a bridge, the placement of some harvest units, decommissioning roads and marking trees and other preliminary work completed before the project was finalized.
Domsalla said that some people urged the Forest Service to require the use of helicopters to remove some of the merchantable trees to save on both established roads and the construction of new ones.
While the agency’s analysis showed that wouldn’t be economical, Domsalla said that if a helicopter logging company came in and placed the winning bid, changes could be made.
The proposal calls for building 3.8 miles of new road. Another 5.2 of road would be decommissioned.
Domsalla said the “vast majority” of the road that would be decommissioned is already in a state that it is impassable to motorized vehicles.