Fire fears: Lolo National Forest set to begin Pattee Canyon maintenance project

The Lolo National Forest will move forward with plans to treat 1,700 acres in the Pattee Canyon Recreation Area using new authority granted by Congress as part of this year’s Omnibus Bill. (Missoula Current file photo)

The Lolo National Forest will move forward with plans to treat 1,700 acres in the Pattee Canyon Recreation Area using new authority granted by Congress as part of this year’s Omnibus Bill.

The Missoula Ranger District signed the Pattee Canyon Maintenance Decision on Aug. 1 and plans to begin the project as early as fall, though it’s more likely to commence in the spring, Missoula District Ranger Jennifer Hensiek said Thursday.

“We have a pretty large field program that’s ongoing currently, and depending on any fires we get right now, that probably wouldn’t start this fall,” said Hensiek. “A lot more of the planning will continue this fall and implementation begins next spring.”

Hensiek said the maintenance work will utilize hand thinning and burning to remove ladder fuels and reduce the chance of a crown fire. The area sits in the wildland urban interface and is bordered by private land and homes in three directions.

Commercial logging isn’t part of the project.

“There’s a couple of really important objectives,” Hensiek said. “One – always in the forefront of my mind – is to reduce exposure to our first responders, and to reduce uncharacteristic, severe wildfire, both on the national forest and adjacent to the community.”

When passing the 2018 Omnibus Bill, Congress included an amendment allowing management agencies to complete smaller projects through a categorical exclusion – a move supported by Montana’s congressional delegation.

While such exclusions still require specific design criteria, Hensiek said, they remove projects from the analysis required under standard rules. A categorical exclusion can be used to treat hazardous fuels on up to 3,000 acres within the wildland urban interface.

Hensiek said the rule may be new, but the process remains the same.

“I feel like we’ve had a number of categorical exclusions that allow us to move through the processes for quite some time,” said Hensiek. “While it’s a new category, it’s not necessarily a new process. Each of those processes still require public engagement and involvement, which it has with this project as well.”

Hensiek said work began in 1997 as the Pattee Blue Ecosystem Restoration Project, and treatments continued into the early 2000s. Over the past 20 years, however, the undergrowth has returned, elevating concerns that a crown fire could erupt and pose a risk to private residences and first responders.

The new project looks to maintain much of the work already completed, Hensiek said.

“As we have moved through time these past 20 years, it’s been in the back of our minds how some of those ladder fuels are coming back into Pattee,” she said. “We felt it was time to do some maintenance in there instead of coming back for another large project. We can also use this opportunity to reintroduce some fire.”

The Missoula Ranger District and Lolo Restoration Committee hosted an open house in Pattee Canyon in July, during which it met with area residents. Other efforts at public outreach have taken place, Hensiek said.

Still, the project has its opponents, including Mike Bader, an independent natural resources consultant and the former executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

“This is what management from Washington, D.C., looks like,” he wrote Tuesday in an email to forest officials. “No public input, no public comment, no environmental analysis. All you have to do is cry ‘fire!’ This uses our tax dollars to offer fire protection for people who built homes in the middle of the forest, in a steep canyon with only one way out.”

Hensiek disagreed, saying public outreach has been included, and the Lolo Restoration Committee has worked closely with area homeowners throughout the planning process.

“We started talking about this project last fall,” Hensiek said. “As we were in the planning process and that 30-day comment period, we had a scheduled public meeting that was noticed in the scoping letter. We had all kinds of opportunity, I think, for people to engage.”