The Bitterroot National Forest’s largest vegetative management project in recent memory became official Friday.
Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Matt Anderson signed the final record of decision for the Gold Butterfly Project on the Stevensville Ranger District.
The project proposes commercial timber harvest, non-commercial thinning and prescribed fire on about 9,500 acres along a 10-mile reach in the Sapphire Mountains, from St. Clair Creek to the south and Burnt Fork Creek on the north.
In a letter to everyone who commented on the project, Anderson said the selected alternative “would improve landscape resilience to disturbances, reduce sediment inputs into Willow Creek over the long term and restore key habitats.”
The proposed action was modified to address concerns of people who filed objections to the draft proposal, including retaining old growth, and clarification that the Bitterroot Forest would be responsible for road maintenance, including dust suppression, along the full graveled section of Willow Creek Road, Anderson wrote.
About 4,800 acres of the 9,500 acres slated for vegetative treatment will be commercially logged in four or five timbers sales that are expected to be completed over the next decade.
Bitterroot Forest Stevensville Ranger Steve Brown said the first timber sale will be advertised next spring. Located in an area south of Willow Creek, the sale will cover about 1,400 acres and produce an estimated 8.5 million board-feet of timber.
A second sale north of Willow Creek is expected to be offered later in 2020. The 600-acres it would treat is expected to produce about 3.5 million board-feet.
Both sales are also expected to provide some additional pulp, post and pole and firewood from trees that are too small to be milled.
Brown said the crews working to prep the areas included in the two sales say they are seeing a lot of trees affected by dwarf mistletoe and spruce budworm.
The crews are marking trees that won't be harvested. Brown said they are selecting those that appear to have a genetic resistance to spruce budworm and trees that have not been attacked by dwarf mistletoe.
The trees being left behind are marked with orange paint.
Initial reactions to the project being finalized were mixed.
Friends of the Bitterroot president Jim Miller said that organization was “strongly opposed” to Gold Butterfly.
“The project builds new roads when the Forest Service cannot even maintain their present road system,” Miller said. “It logs old-growth forest when there is almost none left, including large clear-cuts. It is a massive commercial logging project, a giveaway to the timber industry that will cost the taxpayer $1.6 million.
“The project was not supported by either collaborative working group, and the public overwhelmingly supported Alternative 3, which had no new road building and no old-growth logging,” he said. “The county taxpayer will also get stuck with the bill for repairing Willow Creek Road and its bridges after thousands of logging trucks cause inevitable damage.
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“It is alarming that Supervisor Anderson has no interest in what the public clearly stated that they wanted in this project,” Miller said. “He has brought his heavy-handed approach to forest management from the Tongass National Forest, and it takes us back to the era of clear-cutting and industrial logging. People in the Bitterroot love their national forests — it's why we live here, and those forests are being harmed by this kind of backward management.”
But Pat Connell — a longtime Bitterroot Valley-based forester and former state legislator — said people can look to the north end of the Sapphire Range to see what will happen without any vegetative management.
“It’s all burned,” Connell said. “That’s the alternative to vegetative management. While that work won’t guarantee there won’t be any fire, it can reduce the amount of fuels so the fires are manageable.”
Connell said he’s seen the damage that fire does to a watershed while working as a forester to analyze, appraise and purchase a fire salvage sale near Gird Point in the early 1990s. The forest in the Skalkaho Mountain area “is a jackstraw mess with antique wood, some of which is standing and the rest on the ground. There were would be no effective way to suppress any fire in there.”
Further north, Connell said he saw a forest above the Stock Farm between Hamilton and Corvallis that is overstocked with a lot of dead standing wood and a good deal of mistletoe.
“There is a mass of undergrowth that creates a situation where there is too much competition for water for the timber that’s there. That competition makes it hard for trees to thrive," he said. “I believe it’s essential for some silvicultural management for the upper Sapphire Range to protect the integrity and viability of the forest and its ability to provide a critical supply of seasonal water for uses like recreation and irrigation.”
Brown said the Bitterroot Forest has guaranteed that it will leave the Willow Creek Road in better shape than it is now.
"During the life of the project, there will be much more frequent maintenance," Brown said.
The agency does plan to implement best management practices on the roadway to lower the potential of sediment getting into Willow Creek. It also will replace a culvert that's been a barrier for movement of native trout species.
Brown said the vegetative treatments the agency proposes should protect old-growth trees that are presently in danger of being killed by fire or disease due to timbers that are overstocked.
About 90% of the project area was selected in 2014 by Gov. Steve Bullock as a priority treatment area under the Healthy Forest Restoration Act.
Brown said that some believe that vegetative treatment, including commercial logging, shouldn't be part of managing a natural ecosystem.
"They believe that people shouldn't be a part of that," he said. "But the fact is that we've already changed it by excluding fire for the last 100 years."
With overstocked stands filled with dead and diseased trees, Brown said it's impossible to reintroduce fire into an ecosystem that evolved with fire.
"As a consequence, we have to do something about it," he said. "If we address the amount of fuel that's on the ground right now, we can eventually bring fire back to its natural role."