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Building a Better Forest

Feds unveil their plan for the fire-ravaged Bitterroot Forest

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The Bitterroot National Forest, fire-scarred beyond recognition in some places, will undergo an even more radical facelift in the coming years if a U.S. Forest Service proposal for fire recovery and land rehabilitation is ultimately approved.

The Bitterroot National Forest, referred to privately by some its own employees as “a poor forest” because federal tax dollars don’t trickle down to it, has mustered its relatively small work force to review last summer’s fire damage and make recommendations for recovery—a massive project by almost any standard.

Earlier this month the Bitterroot National Forest completed a review of potential actions that can be taken to repair the damage done to 356,000 acres of federal, state and private forest lands burned in last summer‘s five-week firestorm. A draft Environmental Impact Statement will come out of this preliminary review and will be released for further public comment in May. A final decision on what to do with hundreds of thousands of burned acres will be made in September or October. And if all goes according to plan, rehabilitation would begin in the fall and winter of this year.

Emergency work was done last fall immediately following the fires, and included things like seeding, replacing culverts and placing straw bales to catch spring run-off. Now the real, almost overwhelming, work of rehabilitation is ready to begin.

The recently completed review lists a number of rehabilitation projects that were identified as priorities by the Forest Service and local folks who voiced their opinions at several Forest Service-sponsored meetings. Both the public and the agency identified three needs as top priorities: fuel reduction, watershed improvement and reforesting. Two other critical needs, weed management and restoration of fire-damaged roads and trails, merit their own reviews and will be addressed in a separate document.

When trees burn in dry western forests they tend not to rot, unlike burned trees in moister eastern forests, which break down quickly and build up the soil. Instead, western tree species that burn eventually fall and pile up on the forest floor like a giant’s game of pick-up sticks, and become fuel for the next big fire. Fire suppression was a priority for most of the 20th century, and as a result, fuel—i.e. dead trees—had built up to alarming levels even before last summer’s fires.

With the many new homes along the forest boundary—the urban interface—the top priority is to remove those trees using four different methods: traditional timber sales of marketable trees, paying loggers to simply take out trees with lesser or no market value, firewood gathering and prescribed burns.

Altogether, the Forest Service proposes to reduce the fuel load on more than 65,000 acres of burned land from the urban interface to higher elevations. Homes would be made safer by thinning the forest around them, and other problems that plague the forest, like Douglas fir bark beetles and reforested clearcuts would also be addressed at the same time, according to BNF public information officer Cass Cairns.

The watershed also would see some rehabilitation work. Six hundred miles of forest roads that threaten to erode into streams would be improved, and 130 miles of previously closed roads would be rehabilitated. Cairns says motorized use of 12 miles of road would be limited. Trees would be planted in burned-over riparian areas and fish habitat would be generally improved. The third priority, reforesting, calls for 25,000 acres to be replanted with tree seedlings.

The final EIS will be released in September. A 45-day public comment period will follow.

Cairns says commercial timber harvest would be restricted to either helicopter logging or winter logging when the ground is frozen to minimize damage.

The Forest Service has based its logging proposals on acres, rather than on the number of board feet harvested, as is typical.

But nothing about this proposal or last summer’s fires is typical. Jeff Amoss, a BNF resource staff officer, estimates that the logging sales could yield anywhere from 120 to 180 million board feet—a whopping increase for the BNF which sold a total of 75.2 million board feet between 1990 and 2000.

Though some local loggers complained last year that the Forest Service was moving too slow on the post-fire Environmental Impact Statement, and that time would decrease the market value of the standing dead timber, BNF officials point out that they are bound by a strict and time-consuming environmental process. Amoss says the timber shouldn’t lose much of its value, but it may lose some.

“There will be a difference in value between last October and October 2001,” he says. “It depends on species, size and how heavily it was burned. In very general terms, the smaller diameter of tree, the greater the value loss. Values also depend on how much wood there is out there in the timber market.”

And therein lies the rub for the timber industry.

Whether those potential timber sales actually sell remains to be seen, says Amoss. A recession may cause housing starts to drop, which would further depress the already-depressed lumber market. Plus, the U.S. and Canada are currently haggling over Canadian lumber exports, which American timber companies complain are subsidized and are harming the U.S. industry. Whatever comes of those negotiations also could have an impact locally.

Even if there are enough mills left in western Montana to bid on a number of separate timber sales spread out over 65,000 acres, and assuming the market can absorb the glut of timber, the logging won’t be done in short order. But how long it takes to get 120-180 million board feet off the forest, Amoss says, “depends on a whole variety of factors including size of the timber sales and ability of the operator to move the wood, and that whole market situation.”

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