Forest supervisor scales back Swan Valley logging project

A Forest Service project that once proposed almost 48,000 acres of commercial logging in the Swan River Valley has been finalized with less logging but the promise of more in the future.

Last week, Flathead National Forest supervisor Kurt Steele released his decision on the extent of logging, burning and road work that would occur in the Mid-Swan Landscape Restoration and Wildland Urban Interface Project, once known as the Blackfoot Swan Landscape Restoration Project.

Steele indicated that he’d carved a smaller project out of Alternative B. Alternative B for the project had proposed a greater number and extent of activities, while alternative C had fewer activities. In project proposals, Alternative A is always no action. Steele chose a “reduced alternative B.”

“I still consider full implementation of Alternative B to be the best option for meeting the purpose and need for this project area, especially to achieve the landscape scale objectives as evaluated in the (final environmental impact statement),” Steele wrote. “However, I recognize the concerns regarding implementing the extent of these actions and am committed to engaging with the interested stakeholders…”

Covering the Swan River Valley between Condon to the south and Swan Lake to the north, the 246,000-acre Mid-Swan project area includes more than 174,000 acres of Forest Service land. The Forest Service gained approximately 35,000 acres of that in 2007 as part of the Montana Legacy Project, which conferred former Plum Creek sections to the forest. So part of the area has recently been logged. The state of Montana owns almost 59,000 acres in the project area while more than 12,000 acres are private.

Steele’s final decision approves almost 18,000 acres of commercial harvest, about 20,000 acres less than Alternative B proposed. The Lion Creek unit accounts for the most commercial logging with 4,800 acres. Other mechanized thinning will occur on about 3,500 acres, a decrease of about 7,000 acres.

Within the project area, the Forest Service manages more than 39,000 acres within the wildland-urban interface designated by Missoula and Lake counties. The project will treat 19,000 acres of that.

Forest Service logging projects run into trouble when they propose building more new roads, particularly in grizzly bear habitat or roadless areas. About two months ago, a federal judge found the Flathead National Forest hadn’t done enough to consider the effects of road density on grizzly bears in its 2018 Forest Plan.

Environmental groups opposed Alternative B because it originally proposed building almost 42 miles of new road, 32 miles of which would be permanent. In Steele’s final decision, the project will now add 17 miles of new road, 11 or which will be permanent.

Instead of improving 491 miles of existing roads, the Forest Service will improve 225 miles and remove 132 culverts. Only half of the 50 miles of road proposed in Alternative B will be decommissioned.

In addition, 5,900 acres and 7,800 acres will be treated with prescribed fire in the Mission Mountain Wilderness and Swan Front recommended wilderness, respectively. Finally, the Forest Service will remove four fish barriers and restore 1,280 acres of beaver habitat in conjunction with the timber sales.

Steele’s decision approves activities in areas where work was scheduled to start by 2029. That eliminated work proposed in half of the 52 project units. But that work could be reconsidered and carried out after 2029. If so, Steele wrote, he would issue a second decision and allow a second round of objections.

Steele said he chose the reduced alternative because some commenters complained that the 15-year project schedule was too long and didn’t allow the public to add input later. He also said it would keep the project in compliance with the forest plan, “especially grizzly bear timing restrictions,” and allow for further consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Scoping began in October 2018, leading to a draft environmental impact statement in August 2020. Several environmental groups objected to the proposal, saying it gave a blanket approval to too many activities and prevented the public from reviewing the various timber sales and road projects. They objected to the proposed 5,800 acres of “even-aged regeneration” logging that allows the clearcutting areas of up to 150 acres. Partial clearcutting would be allowed on another 27,300 acres.

The groups pointed out that many of the unit areas were far away from human habitation so they did little to protect residents from the risk of wildfire.

“The DEIS provides false reassurance that logging and thinning far distant from homes will protect them from wildfire, when Forest Service and other research shows it is instead treatments of fuels immediately adjacent to and including the home that determine its survivability,” wrote a coalition of 11 organizations led by the Swan View Coaltion.

Steele said concerns about climate change played into his decision.

“Some would advocate for less action on this landscape given the uncertainties of future effects of climate change; however, I believe less active management to be irresponsible given the existing and expected future conditions for this landscape,” Steele wrote.

Some of those same groups sued the Flathead National Forest over its 2018 Forest Plan, saying the plan would allow projects that could harm grizzly bears because it allowed more roads than the previous plan. At the end of June, Missoula Federal District Judge Donald Molloy ordered the Flathead Forest and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to analyze the potential risk the plan poses to grizzlies both within an outside the core bear recovery areas.

Molloy allowed the rest of the Forest Plan to remain active but said each of six proposed logging projects, including the Mid-Swan would have to be reexamined to see if proposed roads affected grizzlies or bull trout. At that time, the Mid-Swan and Frozen Moose projects together proposed 70 miles of new roads.

Last week’s announcement of a decision on the Mid-Swan surprised members of the environmental groups, because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hasn’t issued a new biological opinion on the Forest Plan yet.

“We will be filing an objection,” said Adam Rissien, WildEarth Guardians Rewilding Advocate. “I was a bit appalled to see that they did release it, considering that the Forest needs to go back and get a new biological opinion in support of its Forest Plan per our victory challenging the lawsuit. There was an agreement that they’d be putting these projects on hold until the new biological opinion came out.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.