by Nick Gevocks
Federal land managers have pulled a controlled burning project on more than 900 acres of sagebrush and grassland near the mouth of Birch Creek after environmentalists sued to halt the burn.
Tom Osen, Dillon district ranger for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, wrote in a letter than the exclusion from federal law for controlled burns did not apply to the proposed Birch Creek fuels management project. The proposal called for cutting brush and burning 930 acres of mixed sagebrush, grass and juniper trees in the Birch Creek drainage about 20 miles northwest of Dillon.
Osen made the proposal as a categorical exclusion from environmental review before a court ruling that determined such projects had to be studied, said Jack de Golia, forest spokesman.
“After we got started the category we had chosen to use was no longer around,” he said. “We decided to pull the project at the point we did.” The project was challenged in federal court by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council.
Michael Garrity of AWR called the project “illegal” and “stupid” in a press release. He said the burning of juniper and sagebrush would have destroyed important wildlife habitat and allowed nonnative cheat grass to take over after the burning.
“This wasn’t because of the forest burning down, I think they were doing it for cattle,” he said. “It’s a make work project for bureaucrats.” De Golia refused to comment on the accusations from the groups. But he did say that controlled burns in open grasslands are meant to clear out older vegetation to reduce the amount of wildlife fuel.
“Anytime we’re talking about fire in grasslands and sagebrush, we’re trying to both introduce some variety of plants and to reduce the risk of fire,” he said. “We want to have younger stands as a result of the fire burning the older ones, stands of grass and of sagebrush.” He said in this case officials evaluated the chances of success in federal court and decided to drop the project.