The Bitterroot National Forest’s largest timber harvest, forest thinning and prescribed fire project in recent memory took a step forward Friday when it was published in the Federal Register.
That move establishes a 30-day time frame before Gold Butterfly Project becomes final with the signature of Bitterroot Forest supervisor Matt Anderson.
Located east of Corvallis in the Sapphire Mountains, the proposed project area spans a 10-mile reach between St. Clair Creek on its southern border to Burnt Fork Creek to the north. The project area included 55,147 acres.
Of that, the proposal calls for commercial timber harvest on 5,621 acres that would provide an estimated 34 million board-feet to timber. Another 1,766 acres are slated for non-commercial treatment that would include thinning and prescribed fire.
The plan calls for splitting the area selected for commercial harvest into three segments. The timber harvest could take up to eight years to complete.
About 86% of the proposed commercial harvest — about 4,843 acres — is located in the wildland-urban interface.
The plan also calls for decommissioning about 22 miles of road that’s currently part of the national forest road system. About 6.4 miles of new permanent road would be constructed and another 17.3 miles of temporary road will be used for timber hauling and other management activities.
Acting Stevensville District Ranger Steve Brown said that actual work on implementing the project probably won’t begin until next spring.
“We will begin implementation as soon as the conditions allow,” Brown said. “As far as the timber sales go, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. We are hoping the first sale will be completed in late winter or early spring.”
The restoration work proposed in the project will be dependent on funding.
The Bitterroot Forest has applied for funds through several federal programs, including the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program that would provide a 10-year funding stream. The restoration work includes decommissioning roads and replacing old culverts with culverts designed to allow for fish passage.
“By doing that, we would remove fish barriers to the upper reaches of Willow Creek,” he said. “It would allow bull trout to utilize the full length of the stream.”
The first timber sales would focus on timber stands that have already experienced a high amount of mortality, Brown said.
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“We need to get those sold as early as possible,” he said.
Deputy Regional Forester Keith Lannom held a meeting with people who filed objections to the project.
Lannom heard from people who wanted to see the project downsized and those who wanted to see more acreage thinned and harvested. The agency worked to strike a balance between those competing interests while still meeting the purpose and needs of the project, Brown said.
In response to concerns over the potential impacts to Willow Creek Road, which serves as the main thoroughfare for the logging truck traffic, Brown said the Bitterroot Forest has agreed to pursue outside funding sources to maintain and fix the road.
“We want to make sure that it’s not left in bad shape,” he said. “We have a commitment for the regional forester to help find some additional funding.”
Friends of the Bitterroot’s Jim Miller said that organization has some concerns over the proposal.
“The project involves a lot of road-building and logging in old-growth forest,” Miller said. “We have bull trout in the area and there are already sediment problems there. There is a lot of concern that the cost of road maintenance will be passed onto the taxpayer.
“Once again, this is another deficit timber sale that will cost the taxpayer a lot more money than what it brings in,” Miller said. “The Forest Service needs to let go of this myth that logging old-growth and commercial logging will somehow protect the forest from wildfire. Instead of going backward, they need to start looking ahead for a more positive route in terms of taking care of public national forest lands.”
But Pat Connell — a longtime Bitterroot Valley-based forester — said the original act that created the U.S. Forest Service included provisions of managing vegetation and protecting the flow of water from timber-covered watersheds.
Over the last 20 years, Connell said many of the watersheds on the Bitterroot Forest have burned in large wildfires. That’s affected the public land’s ability to store water and release it slowly into the watershed.
If the discussion on how national forest lands should be managed recognized the need to protect those landscapes' viability to maintain late-season water flows, “it could substantially change the dynamic of the discussion,” he said. “Water flows should overarch many other issues that often end up in the forefront.”
The focus on the protection of old-growth is a double-edged sword.
“Lodgepole can be considered old growth when it’s 60 years old,” he said. “We have lodgepole stands in the Sapphires that date back to the burns of the 1880s. Some people don’t want to see any large trees cut. By not allowing any kind of harvest, you jeopardize those same old trees that you’re trying to save.”