by Brett French of The Gazette Staff
Critics of Ashland-area plan fear it would damage game habitat
A fuel reduction project northeast of Ashland that was pulled last year after a threatened lawsuit has been repackaged with another one for public review, but it still doesn’t answer the environmental group’s concerns.
The Beaver Creek landscape management project could treat about 14,000 acres on public lands in southeastern Montana. The area is popular with deer, elk and turkey hunters because it’s such a large tract of public land in a sea of private property in southeastern Montana. The Custer National Forest’s Whitetail rental cabin and Holiday Springs Campground also lie within the project’s boundaries, 17 miles east of Ashland and north of Highway 212.
The Ashland District, a predominantly ponderosa pine forest spread across sandstone badlands, commonly sees wildfires during spring and summer lightning storms. The Beaver Creek project is proposed to “increase resiliency of this ecosystem to future wildland fires” and create a “more natural fire-adapted state.” These goals would be accomplished with logging, thinning and prescribed burns.
A previous version of the 10,000-acre Whitetail fuels reduction project was pulled in September after the Alliance for the Wild Rockies threatened to sue. Since then, the Ashland District has tried to address the group’s concerns about goshawk habitat and removal of old-growth timber. The Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks had also expressed concerns about the loss of big game thermal and hiding cover.
Michael Garrity of the Alliance said the new project is no different from the previous proposal. “They really haven’t changed anything,” he said. “It would desecrate the area – it’s a popular hunting area – and it would destroy it as big-game habitat so hunting would be over for the foreseeable future.”
Garrity said the district’s proposal equates to trying to fireproof an entire section of forest. He said the district instead should work with surrounding landowners to make structures more defensible against wildland fires.
“They’re designing this as if there were structures right there, and they’re not,” he said. “The price is going to be heavy loss of hunting opportunity.”
The new project also incorporates what was formerly the 4,200-acre East Otter fuels reduction project, which was approved last February and abuts the Whitetail area. That project would have treated portions of three grazing allotments on the Ashland Ranger District by removing ponderosa pine through harvest as well as prescribed fire.
Sparsely populated Powder River County identified the entire Ashland District as part of its wildland urban interface. In the Whitetail project, the Forest Service justified parts of its work under the 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which was designed to speed environmental review for projects that reduce the danger of catastrophic wildland fires near communities, watersheds and other “at-risk lands.”
Garrity opposed the use of the act to cut large trees far from any community.
“It’s a peninsula forest in the middle of a prairie,” he said. “They’re just going to mow through every last acre of it.”
The Forest Service sees the project as preventive, reducing the chance of a large-scale fire that would wipe out wildlife habitat as well as marketable timber for local sawmills. The agency said the landscape is ripe for a destructive fire because of heavy fuel loads and a closed canopy that would promote fast-moving crown fires. With treatment, the Forest Service said, the timber would also have a more diverse age structure.
About 19 miles of new road would be built to access the timber. All of the roads would be removed and reseeded after the work is done. Other routes in the area may also be rehabilitated to meet the goals of the district’s travel management plan.
Work could begin this fall with some fuels treatment if the weather cooperated, said Scot Shuler, acting Ashland District ranger.