by Karl Puckett, Tribune staff writer
Two environmental groups successfully appealed a plan by the Lewis and Clark National Forest to burn and log 763 acres of forest in the Benchmark Road corridor west of Augusta.
The Benchmark Fuels Reduction Project was to use prescribed fire and mechanical thinning to protect 58 cabins and two guest ranches, while creating safer conditions for firefighters in the event of wildfires.
Fires reached the corridor to different degrees in 2003, 2006 and 2007.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council appealed the project on a number of grounds, including that the U.S. Forest Service allegedly did a poor job studying the cumulative effects of the proposed work on grizzly bear, lynx and goshawk habitat.
Earl Applekamp, an appeals officer with the Forest Service’s regional office in Missoula, agreed with the groups in a decision he handed down April 16.
“I have found the analysis does not adequately address cumulative effects of the project, which is an issue raised by the appellants,” Applekamp wrote. “I recommend the district ranger’s decision be reversed.”
Forest Supervisor Spike Thompson subsequently notified the conservation groups in a letter Monday that he was reversing the district-level decision to implement the project, which was scheduled for this spring.
“It’s up to them if they want to relook at this and try and do the right thing, or just drop it,” said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
Dave Cunningham, a spokesman for Lewis and Clark National Forest, said the Forest Service will work to strengthen its study of cumulative effects of the project.
“That will include going back out to the public for comment,” he said.
Garrity said the area is top spring habitat for grizzlies.
“If you drive them off that habitat, then they are going to be driven onto private land, where they don’t have that protection,” he said.
Garrity also questioned why the proposed logging was not planned closer to the structures that need protecting, within their so-called “defensible space.”