FLORENCE — The Forest Service is moving ahead with plans for a logging and forest management project encompassing 144,000 acres in Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest.

Billed by the Forest Service as a “fuels reduction, vegetation management, and forest health improvement” effort, the Bitterroot Front Project will focus on national forest west of the Bitterroot River along the face of the Bitterroot Mountains, from northwest of Florence and south to Conner and Trapper Creek. 

The Forest Service called the project a “landscape-scale” proposal to promote forest restoration and address wildfire risk using tools such as tree thinning, logging and prescribed burning. Initial documents for the project show where different management techniques may be used in “opportunity areas,” including 55,000 acres where commercial timber harvesting may take place. 

The project, which is in the planning phase, involves Ravalli County, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and other federal agencies.

Documents from the Forest Service say the project aims to reduce fuels, improve resilience to disturbances such as insects, diseases and fire, improve wildlife habitat, and contribute to the local economy and timber industry.

“None of the treatment types or areas have been determined, but fundamentally, this project is about reducing wildfire risk and ecological restoration, and not simply logging,” said Stevensville District Ranger Steve Brown. 

Brown said the landscape was historically managed via natural fires and Native Americans who practiced prescribed burning and eliminated fuel buildups on the ground. 

“The goal is to get the landscape back to the point where we can use prescribed fire as a low-cost maintenance tool,” Brown said. 

A coalition of conservation organizations have stated their opposition to the project, which they argue goes against the Bitterroot Forest Plan, a plan adopted by the Forest Service that guides natural resource management for the Bitterroot National Forest.

“As usual, the Forest Service is pretending timber production isn’t driving this proposal,” Jeff Juel of Friends of the Clearwater said in a press release. 

The coalition includes Friends of the Bitterroot, WildEarth Guardians, the Montana Chapter of the Sierra Club, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Western Watersheds Project, and the Montana Ecosystems Defense Council.

The groups argue that logging old-growth forests will not lessen the risk of fires and that building new roads to access some of the forest for logging would harm the wilderness.

“Treating and logging the forest miles away from communities is not going to stop wildfires,” said Jim Miller, president of Friends of the Bitterroot. “You need to concentrate on the areas immediately adjacent to communities.” 

Brown said that both lessening the threat of fire around homes and forest management through logging, thinning and prescribed burning are needed. 

“We have decades of science that show the effectiveness of fuel treatments in affecting fire behavior,” Brown said. “Nobody says that by doing treatments we’re going to stop fire. Fires are going to happen. The question is: What sort of behavior are you going to get when you have a fire?”

“Treating and logging the forest miles away from communities is not going to stop wildfires.”

Jim Miller, president of Friends of the Bitterroot

Most of the project area falls within what communities and federal standards designate as the Wildland Urban Interface and the Community Wildfire Protection Zone, which identifies where hazardous fuel conditions put communities and private land at high risk of damage from wildfire. The Montana State Forest Action Plan identifies the project area as a “high priority” for fuels reduction.

“We have a tremendous amount of fuel buildup and we have a lot of homes being built in the WUI, so when we have fires we risk catastrophic results whether it’s to people or to property,” Brown said. 

Mark Finney, Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory Research forester, researches how fires spread. He said that, generally, many forests today are “severely overgrown” due to fire suppression over the last century. 

“Logging or thinning or some kind of mechanical activity is often necessary in order to establish a forest structure that you can manage into the future,” Finney said. 

Finney said logging usually isn’t sufficient to change fire behavior unless it’s followed by prescribed burning, which Brown and the Forest Service said is the goal of the Bitterroot Front Project. 

“Prescribed fires are super important not only to follow up on the initial logging, but also to maintain the fuel,” Finney said. “If you just wait 20 years, stuff grows, and you’re right back where you started.”

Brown stressed the importance of burning in the future, especially due to the density of ponderosa pines that produce needles that could provide enough fuel for even a ground fire to scorch all of the trees.

The coalition of conservation organizations also expressed concerns about giving blanket approval to the project because the Forest Service has not yet stated specific plans for the opportunity areas or roads. 

“They’re using condition-based analysis, which allows the Forest Service to essentially broadly define a project and then just say, ‘Well, we’ll tell you the details later,’” said Miller, with Friends of the Bitterroot. “And that’s just cutting the public out of the process. They should be required to disclose the impacts of this project.”

“Nobody says that by doing treatments we’re going to stop fire. Fires are going to happen. The question is: What sort of behavior are you going to get when you have a fire?”

Stevensville District Ranger Steve Brown

The coalition argued that the project is inadequately defined and vague, and added that the forest service’s use of a condition-based approach violates the National Environmental Policy Act. The organizations have asked the Forest Service to disclose the intensity and extent of logging and road construction, and the projected impact to wildlife, among other things. 

Brown said the Forest Service is currently going through public comment and determining any issues it will need to address in its analysis. Brown also said the Forest Service will still publish a draft analysis of the Bitterroot Front Project, an analysis and an environmental assessment that will provide another opportunity for the public to comment. 

The Forest Service will also host some public field trips this summer.

“We’ll show folks the conditions on the ground, the conditions that need to be changed, and look at some areas that we’ve done this kind of work already so folks get an idea of what to expect,” Brown said.

The public field trips will also include visits to some areas that have not been managed to see the impacts of fire suppression following the Lolo Peak and Roaring Lion fires. 

Brown pointed to timber thinning by the Forest Service on about 1,000 acres near the Bass Creek Recreation Area that fire teams burned prior to the Lolo Peak fire without any catastrophic result. But burning off an area above Bass Creek, where there hadn’t been any thinning, killed all the trees in the area. 

“When you go to Bass Creek today, it’s a beautiful place,” Brown said. “It didn’t kill off all the trees even though it was instrumental in the stand against the Lolo Peak fire and halting its progression.”

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Cameron Evans is a freelance journalist based in Missoula. Cameron is a graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism and worked for the Missoulian. Her work has appeared in USA Today, Kaiser Health News, Business Insider and INSIDER. Find her at cameronevans.me or follow her on Twitter.