Over the past 20 years, more than 90% of all new homes in Ravalli County have been built in areas deemed a high hazard for wildfire, according to a study released last year.
The Bitterroot National Forest is proposing a project that will take a hard look at about 150,000 acres along that wildland-urban interface from Darby to Stevensville that could be treated to reduce the risk to those homes and others.
“This landscape just screams risk,” said Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Matt Anderson. “This project is all about doing the right thing on the landscape at a scale that matters, protecting homes, property and lives, and restoring the ecosystem for a host of resources.
“This is expensive, tough ground to treat and I’m asking our partners, neighbors and community members to work together on a long-term risk and restoration strategy,” Anderson said.
Starting on Thursday, Oct. 10, Bitterroot National Forest officials will join with Bitter Root Resource Conservation and Development community forester, Byron Bonney, to host a series of meetings to explain the proposal and gather input from the public. The first meeting will be held from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Darby Community Clubhouse, 106 N. Main St. in Darby.
In general, the “Bitterroot Front Project” aims to increase landscape resilience, provide for public's and firefighters' safety, reduce fire risk to communities, improve wildlife habitat and contribute to community viability with forest products and jobs, as well as enhance recreation opportunities.
The project area runs from near Trapper Creek on the Darby Ranger District north to the national forest boundary at near McClain Creek on the Stevensville Ranger District. It includes about 50,000 acres within the wildland-urban interface.
When completed, the Bitterroot Front Project will include multiple on-the-ground projects that will be implemented over several years.
Darby District Ranger Eric Winthers said the agency is in the process of identifying those specific projects, and public input would be considered as it moves forward.
Looking at a larger landscape is not only more economically efficient, but Winthers said it also allows the agency to put together projects that will have the largest impact on both public and private lands in the wildland-urban interface.
Winthers expect the Bitterroot Front Project will go out to “scoping” in February, with a final decision signed sometime 2021.
The meetings are designed to give the public a general idea of “where we are and what we are looking at doing,” Winthers said.
The primary focus will be on reducing fuel in the wildland-urban interface. Winthers said the agency will take a look at the existing condition of the timber stands within the project area as compared to what the desired condition would be, and then develop a list of potential treatments that could be deployed.
The plan is promote a “shared stewardship approach” that would allow the work to occur across public and private boundaries. Winthers said the Bitterroot Forest will work closely with the NRCS, DNRC and Bitter Root RC&D to accomplish that goal.
“We are encouraging people to come to the meetings,” he said. “We will also be looking at recreational opportunity and travel management issues as well.”
Since 2001, Bonney has helped private landowners take advantage of a cost-share program to thin over 7,000 acres of private lands in Ravalli County.
He’s encouraged about the Bitterroot Forest’s proposal that focuses on the wildland-urban interface along the valley’s western edge.
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Bonney was presented with the 2019 Wildfire Mitigation Award for the work he's accomplished in Ravalli, Missoula and Mineral counties in helping private landowners reduce risk of fire on their properties. The award was established in 2014 by the National Association of State Foresters.
“I think this proposal certainly could mean more projects getting done on private land,” Bonney said. “On many occasions, I’ve been told by landowners that ‘I’d like to do something on my land, but when is the Forest Service going to do something to help protect our neighborhood?'"
When that work does occur on national forest lands, Bonney said he’s seen landowners get on board and thin their properties.
In Canyon Creek, after 90 property owners signed a letter that ended up with a Bitterroot Forest project that thinned 240 acres, Bonney said quite a few private landowners stepped forward and followed suit on their properties.
“When I get out and start looking around on adjoining national forest lands, there is a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done,” Bonney said. “There’s also still a lot of work that needs to be done on private lands. I can show you areas that haven’t been treated at all throughout the country within the urban interface.
“I think by working together, the Bitterroot Forest will have more a better chance of selling their projects at the regional level,” he said. “It could help them get more funding to do projects.”
Even though this summer wasn’t busy on the fire front, Bonney said it was one of the busiest years that he’s seen for the cost-share program.
“After 2016, 2017 and 2018, there were a lot of people interested in getting some work done on their land,” he said. “We were busy in all three of the counties we work in.”
Bonney said he’ll offer a presentation of the cost-share program’s history in the Bitterroot Valley and offer people information on how they can obtain grants.
The other four meetings will occur:
• Tuesday, Oct. 22, at the Stevensville Westside Fire Station, 156 Kinsman Drive, Stevensville.
• Tuesday, Oct 29, at the Corvallis Fire Station, 317 Woodside Cutoff Road, Corvallis.
• Tuesday, Nov. 5, at the Florence Carlton School’s old gym, 5602 Old U.S. 93, Florence.
• Tuesday, Nov. 12, at the Bitterroot River Inn’s Tammany Room, 139 Bitterroot Plaza Drive, Hamilton.
All meetings run from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
For more information, contact Winthers at 406-821-4244.