Westside Project moves forward

Following a settlement agreement, a large thinning project adjacent to last summer's Roaring Lion Fire will move forward. Thinning could get underway as soon as next winter.

A project to thin over 2,300 acres of national forest lands that adjoins an area burned in last summer’s Roaring Lion Fire near Hamilton will move forward.

Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Julie King announced Friday that a settlement agreement had been reached with landowners who had sued the agency over concerns about a new road being constructed near their property.

King said the area has been identified as a high priority for treatment under the agency’s wildfire protection plan.

“The sooner we get started, the better our chances are of reducing the possibility of another high-intensity, devastating wildfire like we experienced last summer,” King said.

Last summer’s 8,700-acre Roaring Lion Fire southwest of Hamilton burned 16 homes and endangered hundreds more.

The project will thin nearly five miles of national forest lands that border private lands between Roaring Lion and Lost Horse creeks in the Bitterroot Mountains. One of the units that will be harvested was partially burned in last summer’s fire.

Fred Rohrbach and Bitterroot LLC sued the Forest Service last year over the Westside Collaborative Vegetation Management Project. The suit focused on the agency’s proposal to build a new, permanent road next to Rohrbach property and the construction of a new bridge over Camas Creek.

As part of the settlement, the Forest Service has agreed to move the location of the new road west a few hundred feet, said Bitterroot Forest Darby District Ranger Eric Winthers. The bridge will be constructed at a later date when funds become available.

In return, Rohrbach will grant access through his property on an existing road to remove timber and do additional treatments to the national forest lands.

“That will be very beneficial in making the sale more competitive and cheaper to implement,” Winthers said. “It should be a win/win for everyone.”

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While the lawsuit did slow the process down, Winthers said the thinning work envisioned in the project would not have occurred in time to impact last summer’s fire.

“We wouldn’t have been able to implement it that quickly even without the lawsuit,” he said.

Plans call for finishing the pre-design work this spring and putting the project out to bid by June. Road construction could occur this summer. The logging portion of the project may happen as soon as next winter.

The project includes commercial timber harvest, non-commercial thinning and prescribed burning. The project is expected to provide nearly 6.5 million board feet of timber to Montana sawmills.

Work on a small salvage timber sale in the vicinity of Roaring Lion and Ward Mountain trailheads was completed recently. Those trailheads are now open to the public, Winthers said.