After months of on-again, off-again controversy, the high-profile Middle East Fork project, proposed by the Bitterroot National Forest to reduce wildfire danger near Sula, was finalized with a Record of Decision released March 30 by Bitterroot Forest Supervisor Dave Bull. An April 3 open house brought together a few dozen people hoping to ask questions and learn about a slew of changes made to the project before its final approval.
The agency’s preferred alternative was scaled back by about 25 percent and will result in the cutting of about 11 million board feet of commercial timber. While some units have been entirely dropped from the project, decisions on others have been deferred while the Forest Service gathers more information. Nearly two dozen units were put on hold due to concerns about old-growth habitat and soil health raised by people who filed objections to the original plan, and Sula District Ranger Tracy Hollingshead says more data will be collected this summer before any further decisions are made on those units.
Meanwhile, contracts and planning will move ahead on 75 percent of the project, and work could begin as early as July, Hollingshead says.
While the final decision seems to strike a middle ground between conservationists (who proposed an alternative that would have reduced fuels in the most sensitive areas, but refrained from commercial logging in outlying units) and the logging industry (which urged more cutting on more acreage), involved parties who filed objections during the project’s long development say they still need to review the decision before offering an opinion as to whether they think the revamped project is legal. If they still deem the project illegal, the courts are the only remaining remedy, Hollingshead says.
Matthew Koehler, director of the Native Forest Network, and Larry Campbell, a member of Friends of the Bitterroot, both say they’re pleased that some of the more egregious units were dropped—which their lengthy, researched objections demanded—or put on hold, but that they’re withholding final judgment.
Further controversy arising from the project—the Friends of the Bitterroot sued the Forest Service after officials kicked members out of a press conference in September—has yet to be resolved.