Lolo Forest, DNRC revive timber sale in Grant Creek

“The Grant Creek project area is the right location for this type of collaborative work. It’s an area directly adjacent to communities, where we can partner with the DNRC to address fuel-loading more quickly,” Missoula District Ranger Jennifer Hensiek said. (Bert Lindler)

Working together, federal and state agencies have revived part of a 12-year-old commercial logging project outside Missoula.

Next year, the Southwestern Land Office of Montana Department of Natural Resources will conduct a 109-acre timber sale on Lolo National Forest lands along Grant Creek and Butler Creek south of Snowbowl Ski Area. 

The agencies will oversee the commercial logging project on federal land under the authority of the Good Neighbor Authority created in the 2014 Farm Bill. The Good Neighbor Authority encourages federal and state land management agencies to work together to reduce fuels on federal land, especially near the wildland-urban interface. 

Montana signed a Good Neighbor Agreement in July 2016 and completed its first collaborative project that same month at a campground near White Sulphur Springs.

Since then, a number of Good Neighbor Projects have been initiated, including one between Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the Bitterroot National Forest on the Threemile Wildlife Management Area near Florence.

But this is the first Good Neighbor Authority project to occur on the Lolo National Forest, said Missoula District Ranger Jennifer Hensiek.

“The Grant Creek project area is the right location for this type of collaborative work. It’s an area directly adjacent to communities, where we can partner with the DNRC to address fuel-loading more quickly because of the added partner capacity,” Hensiek said.

The area to be logged was originally part of the Grant Creek Fuel Reduction Project that the Lolo National Forest approved in 2007. Back then, the national forest was already concerned about the risk of wildfire to all the houses that were filling the Grant Creek drainage.

“Reducing hazardous fuels would increase the likelihood that future wildland fires burn on the surface at lower intensities rather than in the tree crowns at higher intensities, making it safer for firefighters to suppress fires and better protect the public and developments,” said former Missoula District Ranger Maggie Pittman in her 2007 decision.

The 2007 project proposed commercial logging on about 600 acres of thick Douglas fir, but a large portion exists on steep slopes that would have required the use of helicopters to extract the logs.

Then the recession of 2008 hit. The 600 acres of commercial logging was put on hold as the market slumped. 

Since then, Congress has repeatedly cut the Forest Service budget while much of the remainder has gone to fighting catastrophic wildfires. The Forest Service remains undermanned and underfunded, although recent legislation has provided separate funding for wildfire suppression.

In recent years, the Lolo National Forest has picked away at other parts of the project, including dealing with almost 650 acres that needed understory thinning and prescribed burning. Now, the market can support tractor logging, although helicopter logging is still too expensive to be feasible. 

The timber sale is relatively small because only 109 acres in the commercial logging area are level enough for tractor logging. But it seemed perfect for a pilot project to start having DNRC and Forest Service employees work together under the Good Neighbor Authority, Hensiek said.

“We just didn’t have the opportunity (to move logs out) until now,” Hensiek said. “We’re being opportunistic with an area close to town where we could work collaboratively and learn each other’s organizational processes. Our foresters have been out with their foresters. We have a vested interest because we share fire protection up there.”

Hensiek doesn’t know where future Good Neighbor Authority projects could be proposed but the two agencies continue to have those discussions.

The timber sale will go out to bid within the month, and the DNRC will begin implementation next summer. The DNRC will reinvest money from the sale into restoration work on National Forest lands. 

The Grant Creek project is one of three ongoing projects within the greater Wildfire Adapted Missoula project area, a collaborative community-protection effort across multiple jurisdictions around Missoula.

Contact reporter Laura Lunquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.