Locals say Gold Creek logging project had limited public input
(Missoula Current) After an abbreviated public process, the state of Montana is poised to approve a logging project in the Gold Creek drainage.
On May 1, the Missoula Unit of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation announced it’s decision to start the Goldielogs Timber Sale on state land about a mile up Gold Creek in the lower Blackfoot River drainage. That has disappointed some locals, who said the public process was very limited.
The DNRC has given the public just 15 days to comment on a 212-page final decision and environmental assessment. The reason is the DNRC wants to get approval for the project from the state Land Board, which meets on May 15.
Missoula resident Tarn Ream said she is asking for another 15 days on the comment period and was shocked that DNRC Missoula Unit manager Amy Helena hadn’t published a draft environmental assessment before issuing the final decision. In the past, Montana agencies had public comment periods lasting 30 days, and the public was allowed to comment during initial project scoping and after an initial draft of an environmental study was published.
In this case, there was no initial draft. During a tour of the project on Wednesday, Ream asked Helena why she’d bypassed issuing a draft document.
“She said she felt she gathered enough information from the scoping process to go forward with a final EA instead of doing a draft EA, even though (during scoping) they didn’t have the whole plan - what they were logging, where they were logging, how they were logging. None of that was in place. It was just ‘We’re logging and we want some feedback,’” Ream said. “I said that takes out the public process. If you didn’t have a full plan in place when you were scoping, then how can people respond properly?”
Helena confirmed with the Current that she was comfortable making her decision without going through an initial draft. She said her office would be having an internal discussion Tuesday about whether they would extend the public comment period past May 15.
“Based upon the comments we received (during scoping) from the public and within our agency, I felt like everything we discovered we could analyze for,” Helena said Tuesday. “(The Montana Environmental Policy Act) is scalable. It’s common for us, if we have limited comments, to not do a draft.”
Ream, her mother, Cathy, and others have been concerned about the logging project since they discovered the DNRC’s plans in September 2020. The state land section up Gold Creek is popular with several locals who regularly spend time there throughout the year. Tarn and Cathy were taking one of their almost daily walks that autumn when they saw fresh spray paint on some trees, indicating that trees were to be logged.
Three months later, the DNRC proposed the Goldielogs Project. The Dec. 2 announcement said the DNRC intended to log 2.5 million board-feet out of the 570-acre parcel. Existing roads would be upgraded, and 1.5 miles of road would be rebuilt while up to a half-mile of permanent road would be built. But that’s all the information the public had to comment on.
Now, the final decision says the DNRC will log an estimated 3 million board-feet from approximately 501 acres during a three-year window. It would still build a half-mile of new road and rebuild about 0.7 miles of road. The purpose of the project is to make money for the school trust and “improve forest health, productivity and biodiversity.”
The DNRC is managing the area for the department’s desired future condition, which would prioritize larch and Ponderosa pine. So crews have marked which Douglas Firs are to be removed and which larch and Ponderosa Pine are to be spared.
Both Tarn and Cathy are biologists, and Cathy disagrees with the biological conclusion of the environmental assessment, which says the project will have only minor impact.
“I told (the biologist) you did a really good job, but I disagreed with your conclusion. He said this will only impact the elk and predators for 10 to 30 years. The way things are going, they may be gone by then,” Cathy said.
The DNRC already logged part of the area a decade ago as part of the McNamara Landing timber sale, but didn’t have the equipment to log the steeper slopes. So now, the plan is to have logging companies thin the slopes using skyline yarding, where a cable strung between towers at the top and bottom of a slope hoists the trees to a landing where they can be trucked out.
Some of the slopes lead down to Warm Springs Creek, a tributary of Gold Creek. A forester working on private land nearby said the Goldielogs Project was removing too many trees all at once from the slopes and told Tarn to request that they leave a few more larger trees to retain shade and habitat.
Tarn had dreaded the McNamara Landing sale, and the result seemed pretty severe right after the sale. But over the years, she's gotten used to it, Tarn said.
But young pine trees haven’t been filling in as the foresters expected, and Tarn thinks the loss of shade has caused the area to dry out so seedlings can’t get a start. The past three years of drought haven’t helped. So she’s questioning why the Goldielogs Project is also removing even more large trees from the previously logged area.
“What’s the point of leaving trees if you’re just going to come in and cut them down 10 years later?” Tarn said.
Helena said the environmental assessment is final and can’t be changed.
“We analyzed for the soil conditions and vegetation. So our analysis covered everything we needed to cover,” Helena said. “There are some pockets of more shade tolerant species. There are places where we’re getting nothing and there are places where we’re getting Douglas Fir. But we’re trying to mimic historical conditions. We want western larch and Ponderosa pine and to get regeneration in those species, we need to open up the stands more.”
The one thing that did grow well after the McNamara sale was weeds. Crews are supposed to treat weeds at the conclusion of the Goldielogs Project. But after logging crews wrapped up the McNamara project, they neglected to treat weeds along the logging roads.
Finally, last summer, crews came through and sprayed with a toxic herbicide that not only killed weeds but also everything else, including the few larch seedlings that had managed to emerge along the road and for 30 feet to either side.
The crews didn’t post signs warning that chemicals had been applied. So Tarn and Cathy realized too late that they had walked right into the treated area. They can’t prove the chemicals were the reason, but a few months later, both were found to have breast cancer. Both are currently undergoing cancer treatment.
Part of the problem, Tarn said, is that the DNRC often doesn’t monitor projects once they’re approved.
The Reams and others would have made these comments and many more if they’d been given the chance. But now, the project seems to be a given, Tarn said.
“In the last 10 years or so, the Legislature has basically gutted a lot of the (Montana Environmental Policy Act) stuff that applies to state land and projects,” Tarn said. “There’s less public input opportunities. There’s less opportunity for a lot of things.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.