Seeley forest project proposed under new federal policy
(Missoula Current) The Lolo National Forest is proposing a large treatment project north of Seeley Lake, but a new federal process will limit public comment to initial scoping only.
On Sunday, the Seeley Lake Ranger District of the Lolo National Forest announced it intends to log or burn 7,900 acres mostly on the east side of U.S. Highway 83 between Seeley Lake and Summit Lake.
The North Seeley Wildland Urban Interface - Highway 83 Project would commercially log more than 2,700 acres and thin and burn the rest of the area, which extends as far as 2 miles from the highway. The project area contains portions of the Seeley-Swan wildland-urban interface designated by the Seeley-Swan Fire Plan, a component of the Missoula County Wildfire Protection Plan.
About 900 acres would be logged as regeneration cuts, which are sometimes referred to as “clearcuts,” where all or a large proportion of the trees are cut to prompt regeneration. A good proportion of that would occur between Seeley Lake and Rice Creek.
The environmental assessment says the regeneration cuts are not clearcuts, “however, compared to intermediate harvest treatment areas and untreated forests, regenerated areas would appear as openings until new trees grow to fill the site.”
Forest Service policy says clearcuts cannot exceed 40 acres in size, but the environmental assessment said some of the regeneration cuts will exceed 40 acres so a 60-day public review period is required along with Regional Forester approval.
The project would also clear trees to create a fuel break along 11 miles of Highway 83. Certain stretches that aren’t Forest Service land would not be cleared. In areas where pre-commercial thinning is carried out, the plan is to leave the cut trees on site to allow decomposition.
Finally, there are alternating sections of former Plum Creek Timber land that the Forest Service acquired as part of the 2008 Montana Legacy Project. These 2,175 acres have been previously logged of their large trees, and now younger trees are growing in. So a variety of treatments may be used to reduce fuels and “remedy effects of past unsustainable management.”
However, fire studies have shown that the most effective way to protect homes is to cover the house in fire-resistant material and create defensible space within a 100-foot radius around the building, where debris and flammable materials are removed or minimized. Many recent fires, including the Maui wildfire and Marshall Wildfire near Boulder, Colo., were devastating even though they didn’t occur in forests. The buildings that survived were made of nonflammable material.
“This proposed project is a truly integrated and collaboratively developed endeavor that needs input from all voices across our community,” said Seeley Lake District Ranger Quinn Carver. “The recent Colt Fire has shown the necessity for treatments like this. We plan to address several human safety hazards while also improving quality habitat for fish and wildlife toward a healthier future for these public lands.”
Carver said the Montana Department of Transportation, Department of Natural Resources Conservation, and Southwest Crown of the Continent were the primary collaborators.
“There is actually a design criteria incorporated into the Proposed Action for retention of some legacy large Douglas fir trees that came from (Southwest Crown of the Continent),” Carver told the Current in an email. “Regular project updates were also given to the Seeley Lake Community Council and Blackfoot Challenge, but no collaborative development of proposed action suggestions were offered.”
Keeping large trees and other habitat characteristics is important, because people aren’t the only ones who live in and use the project area. It’s also home to a variety of wildlife species including big game and two federally listed species.
A portion of the project area is within the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem recovery area for grizzly bear with the remaining being within Zone 1 of the recovery area. The entire project area is within lynx critical habitat, and lynx are known to be present within and adjacent to the project area. There are also several species - bald eagle, northern goshawk, pileated woodpecker, and flammulated owl - that rely on large trees and mature forest conditions for their habitat.
So if the Seeley Lake Community Council, Blackfoot Challenge or anyone else wishes to comment on the project, they have to do so before Sept. 28. However, the comments will only help the Forest Service identify issues and refine its analysis because this has been authorized as an emergency action.
The Secretary of Agriculture granted approval to the Lolo National Forest for an Emergency Action Determination Project. This determination eliminates the public objection process that normally occurs before a decision is made on a project.
The ability to make such determinations was created in January 2022 as part of the Biden administration’s Wildfire Crisis Strategy. The 10-year strategy identified 250 High Risk Firesheds where the Forest Service will log and burn 20 million acres to reduce the risk of wildfire to communities using funding provided by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act.
According to a January 2022 U.S. Department of Agriculture announcement, the strategy will increase the amount of logging and burning “by up to four times current treatment levels in the West.”
The Kootenai Complex in northwestern Montana was the first fireshed in Montana identified as high-risk. Early this year, Forest Service lands along the Blackfoot, Clearwater and Swan rivers were also identified as high-risk firesheds, in addition to land along the I-90 corridor west of Missoula.
Comments may be sent electronically by clicking the “Comment/Object on Project” button on the righthand side of the project webpage found here:
Post mail can be sent to: ATTN: North Seeley Wildland Urban Interface – Highway 83, Seeley Lake Ranger District, 3583 Highway 83, Seeley Lake, MT, 59868.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.