Lolo National Forest proposes salvage logging in 5 burned areas

Sawyer cutting slash and moving it to cover a dozer line as part of fire suppression repair work on the Rice Ridge fire outside Seeley Lake. The slash in the bulldozer-created fire break will slow water runoff and help plants become established. (James Stone/inciweb)

With 10 percent of the Lolo National Forest’s 2 million acres burned in this summer’s wildfires, agency officials on Monday announced plans for salvage logging, tree planting, culvert replacement, road repairs and weed control.

Crews are trying to complete as much of the work as possible this fall in areas burned by the 53,902-acre Lolo Peak fire, the 160,187-acre Rice Ridge fire, 26,310-acre Sunrise fire, the 48,417-acre Highway 200 Complex fires and the 43,733-acre Sapphire Complex-Little Hogback fires.

Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) teams identified five areas for possible salvage logging, where Lolo forest officials want to recover some of the economic value of the burned timber before it deteriorates, said forest supervisor Tim Garcia.

Salvage sales are proposed for parts of these fires: Sunrise, near Superior; Sheep Gap, near Plains; Moose Peak, near Thompson Falls; and Rice Ridge and Liberty, near Seeley Lake.

Garcia said based on the Lolo Forest Plan and past experience, “we can expect around 10 to 15 percent of the areas that burned to be identified for salvage.”

He said forest officials contacted timber industry managers to determine milling capacity and the availability of loggers and equipment that would be needed to cut the merchantable timber in the relatively brief window before it deteriorates and loses value.

Timber will not be cut in inventoried roadless areas, wilderness or riparian buffers.

“A host of salvage opportunities are available across the forest,” said David Haupt, the Lolo forest’s timber management officer. “However, some of the opportunities are not feasible due to the lower quantity or quality of timber.  In addition, in the areas that we have identified for salvage, it is likely that only a portion of them may actually be harvested due to road access or other resource considerations.  However, it still appears there is a substantial amount of burned timber available for local mills.”

Chris Partyka, the forest’s environmental coordinator, provided assurances that the logging will be conducted while protecting the forest’s other resources.

“The primary intent of salvage is to capture the economic value of the burned timber, however, not at the expense of other resources such as water, wildlife and fish, and long-term forest health,” Partyka said.  “If completed before the product deteriorates, the value of the timber can be used to help pay for resource protections such as erosion control, reforestation and weed treatments.

“Along with timber product recovery, comes the concern for public safety.  Despite tree felling during and immediately after the fires, a high number of snags and other hazards still exist along roads and near high-use areas, such as campgrounds and dispersed recreation sites.  Our post-fire recovery and salvage efforts would address these concerns.”

Efforts were initiated early by the Lolo to identify where salvage of burned timber is possible, where public hazards exist, and where tree planting is needed, said Ninemile District Ranger Erin Phelps.

“The public has substantial social and economic ties to the Forest for wildlife, recreation, water and timber,” she said. “The Lolo Forest Plan’s goals include the sustained yield of timber to support the economic structure of local communities.  The plan also addresses public safety and reforestation of areas where trees have been lost to fire. The public support we received throughout the wildfire season is still strong.”

The work announced Monday also includes suppression repair, or the stabilization of fire lines, camps and other places directly impacted by firefighting activities.

In addition, the BAER work addresses the effects of the fires themselves, including the potential for flooding and erosion, failure of culverts and roads, weed spread, and risks to adjacent lands.

“As part of BAER, the forest will spend the next few months removing and replacing undersized culverts, stabilizing road surfaces against erosion, spraying for weeds, and other activities to ensure the burned areas are stable,” said Ann Hadlow, the Lolo forest’s soil scientist and BAER coordinator.

Because of the need for haste in the repair and recovery effort, Lolo forest officials will request an emergency situation determination (ESD) from the chief of the Forest Service, said Partyka. If granted, the ESD would waive the agency’s normal 90-day administrative review process, also known as the objection process, for the salvage logging.

Instead, the forest will sponsor field trips this fall into the burned areas proposed for logging, and the public will have a chance to review and comment on the environmental analysis of each sale next spring, before any final  decision is made.

“Public input received early this fall, during the scoping process (which includes field trips) is very valuable in the design of the salvage projects and for identifying alternatives to the proposed actions,” Partyka said.

Field trips and meetings for the Sunrise and Sheep Gap fire salvage sales will occur within the next few weeks, said Superior District Ranger Carole Johnson.

“We want to get folks out on the ground before the heavy snows come so we can look at the post-fire environment, and have some candid discussions about salvage,” Johnson said.  “We anticipate the planning process for all five fires will be complete by August of 2018.  This would allow road work, and any other pre-salvage resource protection activities to be completed in the summer and early fall when drier working conditions allow.”

Garcia emphasized the importance of public involvement.

“We’ve had a good, open dialogue with our communities throughout the fire season and I want to keep that going during the post-fire recovery and salvage process,” he said Monday.