The Lolo National Forest will log almost 500 acres this winter in an area that burned in the 2017 Liberty fire southwest of Seeley Lake.

On Monday, Seeley Lake District Ranger Quinn Carver announced plans to log trees on another 484 acres within the Liberty Fire burn area west of Placid Lake. However, because the proposal is excluded from requiring the usual public process as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, Carver is allowing only seven days for public comment and any comments won’t have as much bearing on his decision.

The 2014 Farm Bill gave the Forest Service the authority to harvest up to 3,000 acres of trees subject to insect or disease infestation without a full public process.

“Even though it’s a categorical exclusion - it’s the lowest form of NEPA - public comment could change the proposal. It may not. It just depends on what (the comments) are,” Carver said.

Last summer, former Lolo National Forest Supervisor Tim Garcia took a similar approach when he approved the logging of 250 acres in five plots along the east and west edges of the Liberty burn. 

Garcia’s project focused on taking down fire-killed trees while Carver is targeting trees that the Forest Service says were weakened and are now infested with insects in plots surrounding the original 250 acres. Garcia also proposed to replant 6,600 acres, including the area that Carver proposes to log.

Carver said it was important that his project be completed in a timely manner, because dead or diseased trees lose their value as lumber after about two years.

“After a few years, it reaches its shelf life,” Carver said. “The idea is to clean it up, and we’ll plant behind and get it growing into a green forest more quickly. And then hopefully capturing some of the bugs before they hatch and become a bigger problem elsewhere.”

So this winter, the logging company with the winning bid will use tractors to log all but 90 acres where a skyline will be used because the terrain is steeper. In a few plots, using another exception, Carver will allow clearcuts to exceed the 40-acre limit.

However, trees that aren’t marketable because they’re rotten or too small will be left in place.

"With this project, we are trying to reduce the risk and extent of potential infestations in the Liberty fire burned area," Carver said. "By harvesting fire-weakened trees, we can clean up the forest, make way for a new, healthy tree stock, and at the same time recover the economic value of forest products to contribute to the local economy."

The lightning-caused Liberty fire spread across more than 28,000 acres in the Mission Mountains on both sides of the national forest boundary with the Flathead Indian Reservation. The majority of the burned area is on the reservation, so a lot more work would be required to “clean up the forest.”

Not everyone agrees that such forest management is necessary.

The Southwest Crown Collaborative and the Blackfoot Challenge support the project. They helped develop it using a collaborative process where part of the focus is on jobs and the local economy. 

But some argue that claims of “forest health” and decreased opportunity for public input show that the Forest Service is pushing logging projects through, giving resource extraction and monetary value priority over wildlife and the best available science.

When the Wildwest Institute’s Matthew Koehler learned about Carver’s proposal, he was disappointed in the lack of public process and notification. 

“The Forest Service is giving the public a whopping seven days to comment on their plans to log almost 500 acres – that’s laughable,” Koehler said. “We have seen a slow and steady winnowing away of public process and meaningful citizen participation when it comes to resource extraction on our public lands.”

Koehler said he’s repeatedly asked various national forests to send him project information, as they do with other stakeholders, but they haven’t. 

A time-consuming collaborative process was apparently carried out, but the Lolo Forest provided no hint of the project until Monday, so the public was not included, Koehler said.

“If you’re not part of the in crowd, you don’t get to participate. Where are the meeting notes?” Koehler said. “I appreciate that some people may not agree with our position or that of other environmental groups. However, we always stand up for democracy, the right of all Americans to fully participate in open, inclusive and transparent processes as required by our bedrock environmental laws.”

Koehler said federal agencies shouldn’t be allowed to approve resource extraction projects without public participation, which is required by law. It’s allowing an insidious corporate takeover of federal resources where businesses benefit but not the American public, Koehler said.

The economy does play a major role in Carver’s decision, because the Lolo National Forest Plan already identified about 60 percent of the 9,400 acres of national forest that burned as suitable for timber production. 

Previously, Garcia said the forest plan made timber production an appropriate thing to consider. He added that it was important to “recover the economic value of forest products in a timely manner.” 

Carver echoed Garcia in his scoping letter, adding: “Most Montana mills are operating at less than full capacity and require an adequate supply of timber to remain viable and meet market demand.”

To submit comments by Sept. 30, mail them to John Slown, Acting Forest Planner, 24 Fort Missoula Road, Missoula, MT 59804, or send an email to comments-northern-lolo-seeley-lake@fs.fed.us

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.