By Brett French
Of The Billings Gazette Staff
Logging began last week on national forest lands along the main Boulder River in an attempt to lessen the area’s wildfire threat to recreational homes and campgrounds, despite the fact that the Forest Service’s overall plan for the drainage has been appealed in Missoula District Court.
The canyon contains 250 private homes and structures, 25 recreational residences, four church camps, six Forest Service campgrounds and numerous wilderness trailheads. On a summer weekend, the U.S. Forest Service estimates that 2,000 to 3,000 people occupy the area, which is accessed by a single-lane, dead-end county road.
“This is not about stopping a wildfire in the canyon,” said Marna Daley, spokeswoman for the Gallatin National Forest. “The whole intent of the project is to buy time if we have to evacuate. That happened twice last summer.”
The area was threatened by the 24,000-acre Jungle fire last September. Last year, more than 250,000 acres burned in the Gallatin and more than 828,000 acres burned on wildlands across the state.
In 2005, the Gallatin National Forest issued its record of decision to thin, log and burn about 2,500 acres along the main Boulder River drainage. To provide access to some of the 4.5 million board feet of timber, the forest said seven miles of road may be built. RY Timber of Livingston won the bid to do the work.
The plan was appealed last April by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Native Ecosystems Council. A hearing on the appeal is April 19.
Because no stay of implementation has been issued, the Forest Service began logging last week between the Whispering Pines subdivision and Aspen Campground, at the northern end of the canyon.
“We’re not going to ask for an injunction to stop that,” said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance.
The environmental groups support clearing trees from around residential areas, campgrounds and church camps, but they oppose the construction of any new roads and any logging along the 24 miles of county road that accesses the narrow canyon. They also say logging in an area proposed for Wild and Scenic River designation and in a canyon that slices into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area, prime grizzly bear habitat, is wrong.
“They shouldn’t be logging within a quarter-mile of the river, and they’re going to log within 15 feet,” Garrity said.
But Daley said the work won’t affect the river’s proposed wild and scenic designation.
“It’s about a recreational designation,” she said. “That’s what that canyon is all about. Those segments will still be eligible.”
Daley said historical photos show the drainage with much less conifer encroachment along the river.
“It’s a very different drainage,” she said.
In their appeal, the Alliance and Native Ecosystems Council cited the Forest Service’s own scientific report to support their argument. A wildfire-threat analysis conducted by Jack Cohen and Bret Butler, of the Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula, noted that reduction of fuels along the road “does not prevent fire occurrence and may enhance surface spread” as fuels on the ground will dry out more easily.
“It’s impossible to protect the road,” Garrity said.
The report goes on to state: “The most effective building protection occurs within the (Home Ignition Zone) and the HIZ largely resides on private land. Mitigations on the Forest Service managed public land cannot substitute for HIZ mitigations.”
Daley said last summer’s fires helped motivate many of the canyon’s landowners to begin reducing the amount of fuel around their homes and cabins.
“A lot of those folks have taken it upon themselves to treat their properties,” she said.
As a measure of their support for work on federal lands, Sweet Grass County and the Boulder River Watershed Association, as well as some landowners in the Main Boulder Canyon, have intervened in the case on behalf of the Forest Service to support the project, Bill Avey, Big Timber district ranger, said in a press release.
The wildfire-threat analysis also says a wildfire in the Main Boulder Canyon is inevitable.
“Forest fuel reduction can be very effectively accomplished over relatively small areas (10s of acres) but is impractical and ecologically inappropriate for the Boulder ecosystems.”
“There’s nothing within the forest plan that says because of increasing fire danger they have to allow logging,” Garrity said.
The push behind the Boulder project, as well as others proposed in the Gallatin National Forest and around the nation, is to limit the intensity and scope of wildfires, especially near homes built near or surrounded by wildlands. On the Gallatin alone, three similar projects have been proposed – one called the Lonesome Wood Vegetation Management Project on the west side of Hebgen Lake, another on two main drainages that are water supplies for Bozeman and the third along Big Timber Canyon in the Crazy Mountains.
The Lonesome Wood project would treat an estimated 3,000 acres and construct about four miles of road. The project is somewhat similar to the Boulder in that a single road leads into a subdivision of 34 recreational homes.
“The area west of Hebgen Lake was identified as a community at risk of wildfire because of poor access and heavy fuel loadings along the Denny Creek Road and near the structures,” the Forest Service said in its scoping summary.
Garrity said his group questioned the Lonesome Wood project on the same grounds as the Boulder.
“They should focus on defensible space around homes,” he said. “Thinning often speeds up the fire. It does the opposite of what they want it to do.”
Work will continue in the Main Boulder Canyon as long as the ground remains frozen or until April 30.
“Visitors to the canyon can expect to see trucks, crews and equipment in this area, so please drive slowly as traffic on the road may increase,” Avey said.
For more information, contact the Big Timber Ranger District at (406) 932-5155.
Contact Brett French at email@example.com or at 657-1387.
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