by Brett French of The Gazette Staff
Under threat of a lawsuit, the Custer National Forest has pulled a 10,000-acre fuels reduction project northeast of Ashland.
Acting Ashland District Ranger Doug Epperly announced the decision in a letter dated Sept. 14.
“We still feel very strong that there’s a need to address the fuel conditions in this area,” said Marna Daley, public affairs officer for the Gallatin and Custer national forests. “There still are values at risk on that landscape.”
Although the portion of Powder River County is sparsely populated, the ponderosa pine forest is a popular deer, elk and turkey hunting area, since it is the largest block of public land amid mostly private holdings. The portion of the forest also contains the Forest Service’s Whitetail rental cabin.
The Whitetail hazardous fuels reduction project was proposed to lessen the dangers of wildfire in the northeast corner of Powder River County. The Forest Service approved the project in June 2008. The work included the temporary construction of about 8 miles of new road and reconstruction of about 11 miles of existing road.
But Michael Garrity, of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, and Sara Johnson, of the Native Ecosystems Council, sued in federal district court in May to halt the project, saying it didn’t meet the terms of the 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act. The act was designed to speed environmental review for projects that reduce the danger of catastrophic wildland fires near communities, watersheds and other “at-risk lands.”
“The Healthy Forest Restoration Act was meant for projects that focus on removing small-diameter trees in the wildland-urban interface, not on clear-cutting large trees and future old growth habitat 17 miles away from the nearest community,” Garrity said in a statement. “This was a clear misuse of that act.”
Garrity added that one reason his group sued was to have a judge rule on the act, which he called so vague that it’s meaningless.
Daley admitted that part of the reason the project was withdrawn was because of the wildland-urban interface issue, saying the agency needs to rethink that prescription.
Powder River County personnel, with the assistance of federal and state agencies as well as the Broadus Volunteer Fire Department, had identified the project area as part of its wildland-urban interface in its 2004 wildfire protection plan. The county loosely defined its wildland-urban interface as “all private land within or immediately adjacent to or within one and one half miles of the Ashland Ranger District … .”
The Ashland area suffers frequent wildfires, usually due to lightning strikes. The area proposed for treatment, however, had not burned for many years, creating conditions conducive to a crown fire – where the fire jumps from treetop to treetop. By thinning and creating openings up to 40 acres, the Forest Service hoped to reduce the chance of a large-scale fire and make management of a fire easier by creating fuel breaks along roads and ridgetops. Prescribed fires were also proposed to reduce the amount of fuels.
The intensity of the commercial thinning prompted a Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife biologist to lodge a concern with the Forest Service, saying that the work could harm security and thermal cover for elk and deer, as well as habitat for wild turkeys.