Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) The Bitterroot National Forest has once again decided to pursue a logging project near Hamilton, but environmental groups say the decision still doesn’t follow the Forest Plan.

On Thursday, Matthew Anderson, Bitterroot National Forest supervisor, released his final decision for the Gold Butterfly Project, which includes almost 5,300 acres of commercial logging and 2,000 acres of noncommercial cuts. The treated areas are mostly along the western slopes of the Sapphire Mountains, although a few are farther back on the steep mountainsides above Signal Creek near Burnt Fork Dam.

“In making these decisions, I asked the public for comments to guide the project design and analysis. Every effort is made to develop and choose actions that best respond to the components of the purpose and need, are responsive to public and agency concerns, and maintain key resource values,” Anderson wrote in his decision.

This is Anderson’s second try at finalizing a decision on the Gold Butterfly and it turns out to be not much different than his first one, published on Nov. 15, 2019. Back then, he authorized 5,500 acres of commercial timber sales that included sections of clear-cutting, while noncommercial logging of smaller trees would occur across 4,000 acres, most of which overlapped the timber sales. The project also included 750 acres of old-growth forest that was slated to be logged using what the Forest Service calls “regeneration harvest,” aggressive cutting that eliminates a majority of the trees.

In July 2020, environmental groups Friends of the Bitterroot and Alliance for the Wild Rockies sued the Anderson and the Bitterroot National Forest, because they said the Gold Butterfly ignored parts of the 1987 Bitterroot Forest Plan that sets limits on logging to protect old-growth forest and elk habitat.

Science has shown that old-growth forests are important carbon sinks, since mature trees trap so much carbon dioxide, and provide critical wildlife habitat for a diverse array of species. In April 2022, President Joe Biden underscored the importance of old-growth by signing an executive order calling on the Department of Agriculture and the Interior Department to inventory mature and old-growth forests across the nation.

Accordingly, the Healthy Forests Restoration Act – which allows logging and burning projects near communities to reduce the threat of wildfires – requires that projects maximize the retention of old-growth stands.

The 1987 Bitterroot Forest Plan definition of “old-growth” requires that at least 15 large trees should remain per acre and the canopy should extend across 75% of the area. Old-growth stands must also be at least 40 acres.

Anderson's 2019 decision and the analysis used a different assessment of old-growth developed by Forest Service scientist Pat Green. That definition allowed the agency to reduce old-growth areas to eight to 10 trees per acre and a canopy cover of just 33%.

On Aug. 28, 2020, Anderson withdrew his first Gold Butterfly decision.

“I have decided it is in the best interest of the public to withdraw the Decision at this time. Upon further review of the project analysis, we recognized some deficiencies regarding Forest Plan compliance,” Anderson said in his Aug. 28 letter to Leann Marten, Region 1 Forester.

attachment-Gold Butterfly

Anderson directed his staff to conduct an additional analysis of the project if he gave it a project-specific amendment that reduced the requirements in the Forest Plan. They produced a supplemental environmental impact statement that went through another public comment period in 2021.

That’s what led to this second decision, where Anderson approves the same alternative - Alternative 2 - that he did in 2019, but it’s slightly modified to stipulate using a less severe “intermediate” harvest rather than a regeneration technique in the old-growth area. He also decided no regeneration or clearcut logging operation would be larger than 40 acres, however, old-growth patches could be smaller than 40 acres.

“These updates do not substantially change the effects analysis and conclusions for affected resources,” Anderson wrote. “Rather, the updates inform the public that the Bitterroot Forest has considered new or updated information.”

Anderson chose not to go with Alternative 3, which would have approved the entire project except for the old-growth logging and the construction of almost 24 miles of new road. He justified the road work, saying it would include improvements to a forest service road that regularly sends sediment into Willow Creek. He also listed timber products and jobs as being important in his decision.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined the project operations “may affect and is likely to adversely affect” bull trout and whitebark pine. But Anderson said the elimination of 47-61% of the sediment running off the road into Willow Creek would be beneficial for trout in the long run.

Friends of the Bitterroot and Alliance for the Wild Rockies have opposed this most recent decision, saying it still removes too much old-growth. They point to three other recent logging projects on the Bitterroot National Forest - Mud Creek, Piquet Creek and Buckhorn - that similarly have used “project-specific amendments” to sidestep the 1987 Forest Plan.

They say the Bitterroot National Forest is breaking federal law by amending the plan too many times. They also say the Forest Service is damaging elk winter range by not leaving enough trees for warmth and cover as required in the Forest Plan.

“The solution is not to do repeated site-specific amendments. The solution is to go through (the National Environmental Policy Act process) to amend the Forest Plan if the Forest Service no longer wants to follow the Forest Plan standard for old growth,” the groups said in their written objection to the decision. “The spirit and intent of the original Forest Plan, on the other hand, was to maintain old growth by letting it be, recognizing nature can manage these ancient groves quite nicely without chainsaws.”