Bitterroot National Forest

Pyramid Mountain Lumber of Seeley Lake works on a winter logging operation on the Bitterroot National Forest in the Sapphire Mountain Range in this file photograph.

The Bitterroot National Forest is seeking public input on its second stab at working alongside the state to implement a timber project under the federal Good Neighbor Authority program.

The Buckhorn Good Neighbor Authority Project proposes to thin about 1,300 acres along the Gird Point Road at the headwaters of Coffee, Tenderfoot and Fullerton gulches east of Hamilton. At the same time, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation would treat about 400 acres of state lands adjacent to the national forest.

The goal of the project would be to improve forest health, reduce hazardous fuels in the wildland/urban interface and provide forest products, jobs and income to local communities.

If the project is approved, it will be the second time that federal and state land managers have worked together under the Good Neighbor Authority in the Bitterroot.

Earlier this year, the two land managers partnered on a project to thin about 1,740 acres in and adjacent to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Threemile Wildlife Management Area northeast of Stevensville. That project is slated to go out to bid for the second time on Friday, Nov. 8.

The Good Neighbor Authority was created by the 2014 Farm Bill. It allows the state to contract timber sales on national forest lands, with some of the proceeds being dedicated to restoration projects and improving fish and wildlife habitat.

The state’s Good Neighbor Authority program manager Neil Simpson said in a traditional national forest timber sale, the proceeds would go back to the U.S. Treasury and may not return to the same national forest.

“That’s one of the key components of the program,” Simpson said. “The state can retain the receipts, which allows for more restoration work to get done on the ground.”

Sharing state resources with the U.S. Forest Service can also help speed up the process of getting timber projects accomplished. On the Buckhorn project, the state contracted some botany work necessary to complete the environmental analysis.

“The Forest Service didn’t have the capacity to accomplish that,” Simpson said. “It’s a coordinated effort to treat the landscape.”

In the case of the project at Threemile, the Bitterroot Forest had inholdings surrounded by state land that would have been too small to pay for a thinning project. Combining those parcels with the larger state project made it economically feasible.

A bid for the Threemile project was let for the project earlier this year, but the cost of road improvements made the timber sale too expensive for nearby mills at a time when they were already flooded with wood from salvage sales from the fires of 2017.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife habitat biologist Jason Parke said the proposed sale was reworked and some additional funding was found to help pay for the necessary upgrade to the road.

“The way it’s set up now, it should be more competitive,” Parke said. “The work wasn’t going to happen this year anyway. There is a fairly long timeline to complete the project.”

When the Threemile project was initially considered, log yards at regional mills were being filled with salvage timber from the 2017 fire season.

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Gordy Sanders of Seeley Lake’s Pyramid Lumber said that mill had timber coming in from four different salvage timber sales through last spring and summer, but the mill is again actively looking for new sources of timber.

“We’ve kind of got the bulk of that salvage behind us,” Sanders said. “While I understand that some mills up north still have a lot of logs from salvage sales, that’s not true with us. … We worked through the salvage fairly quick.”

While some products in today’s lumber market are sliding a little in value in part due to the expected slow-down in construction through the winter months, Sanders said the general expectation is the market will settle out and gradually improve.

Several Montana mills — including Pyramid — are making investments in their facilities. Pyramid is adding an automatic grading machine that streamlines the processing of boards. The mill is also installing some sorting trays in the planer room.

“Rather than individuals pulling every board from the dry chain, the boards will now be sorted individually into trays,” Sanders said. “The improvements will free up those individuals to work in other positions in the mill in a move that will increase the mill’s productivity.”

That increase in productivity at regional mills should translate into future markets for timber sales like those being produced by Good Neighbor Authority projects that are becoming more common in the region.

Simpson said the state is currently working with Bitterroot Forest officials to look at other possibilities for future GNA projects.

The Bitterroot Forest’s Buckhorn project proposes to use a combination of commercial timber harvest, non-commercial thinning and prescribed fire to treat overstocked national forest lands on the Darby Ranger District.

The project would use the current Forest Service road system as a haul route for logs from both national forest and state lands. No additional permanent roads would be built. Temporary roads would be decommissioned after the project is completed.

A Bitterroot Forest press release said the proposed treatment area is primarily a mix of Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir that has not burned in a long time.

“The high number of trees per acre has resulted in competitive stress through competition for growing space, water, nutrients and sunlight,” the release said. “The current conditions are more likely to support stand-replacing fires which would threaten the wildland-urban interface.”

The proposed project is within a designated priority landscape. The environmental analysis would be conducted using the categorical exclusion authorities established in the 2014 Farm Bill.

Public comments are due by Dec. 3. For additional information, people can contact Darby District Ranger Eric Winthers at 406-821-4244.

To learn more about the project and to view maps, people can visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=56927.