Bitterroot National Forest plan to log 1,300 acres of elk winter range draws protests

The Bitterroot National Forest has approved a project east of Darby that would change the road system across more than 27,000 acres to improve access. But at least one organization opposes the 1,300 acres of logging proposed in and around elk winter range.

Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Matthew Anderson issued the decision to move ahead with the second phase of the Darby Lumber Lands project, based upon a Finding of No Significant Impact related to a 2018 environmental assessment. 

In his decision, Anderson said the project would improve the road system in the Sapphire Mountains east of Darby and provide timber jobs while reducing tree density on mountains slopes in the Harlan Creek watershed north of Darby. Until recently, a lot of the land belonged to the Darby Lumber Company.

Commercial logging is slated for 940 acres, noncommercial thinning would occur on 334 acres, and 32 acres would be clearcut. Then crews would conduct managed burns of the harvested areas to reduce debris caused by logging.

The problem for Friends of the Bitterroot is half of the logging would occur on designated elk winter range. That, plus the four miles of new road the Forest Service wants to build to haul the lumber out, goes against requirements laid out in the Bitterroot National Forest’s own forest management plan. 

To get around that issue, the forest created a site-specific amendment to its plan, waiving limits for road density in elk habitat. Anderson said such logging is allowed as long as it improves elk forage.

The Friends of the Bitterroot were one of 13 entities that weighed in during the 30-day public comment period that ended last November 20. They questioned the validity of the amendment and the need for clearcuts, commercial logging and road construction in areas important to elk and other wildlife. 

In the original 2018 environmental assessment, the Bitterroot forest proposed 139 acres of clearcutting, but then eliminated a 100-acre area. There, the forest plans to do a “seed-tree” cut, where more mature trees that produce seeds will be left standing.

Friends of the Bitterroot spokesman Jim Miller said his group was disappointed that the forest didn’t go further.

“They did not address the issues in our objections very well,” Miller said. “Once again, the Bitterroot National Forest has utilized a forest plan amendment, which they seem to be doing for every project on the forest, because they can’t meet the standards of their own forest plan.”

The Friends of the Bitterroot has identified at least a dozen logging projects where the forest needed to amend its Elk Habitat Effectiveness requirements.

The Bitterroot forest said the logging is necessary because the area is in the wildland-urban interface where a fire could pose a danger. Also, dwarf mistletoe has infected some of the Douglas fir so the forest wants to remove the trees to prevent spread. 

Friends of the Bitterroot argues that logging isn’t necessary because mistletoe is a native Douglas fir parasite and some trees have natural resistance so they need to survive to pass the trait on. Dwarf mistletoe appears as “witches brooms” on the branches of trees, but doesn’t kill the tree unless it reaches a severely high infection level.

“They’re just going in there to log some big Douglas fir trees,” Miller said. “We’re disappointed that they’re prioritizing timber production over elk habitat, elk thermal cover and elk security.”

In his decision, Anderson said he did consider the economic factors of timber harvest as far as jobs and other business benefits.

“However, I decided to implement the proposed action not only for the economic benefits, but also because the progress it will make in improving forest resiliency while maintaining other resource values,” Anderson wrote.

Other commenters also worried that the project, predicted to last 3 to 5 years, would reduce elk opportunity on public land. Problems already exist in the Bitterroot with elk harboring on large private ranches and this could drive more elk off the national forest.

Others were concerned by the finding that the project “may affect but not likely to adversely affect” lynx and grizzly bears and argued that a full environmental impact statement was necessary, instead of just an environmental assessment. 

The Forest Service used to conduct more EIS studies, but in recent years, managers have used a “categorical exclusion” rule to do less extensive EAs for smaller logging projects.

Anderson said that long-term wildlife impacts were unlikely. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concurred  in a July 19 letter.

“The only thing that FOB asks the Forest Service to do is follow their own laws,” Miller said. “We just received the FONSI a few days ago. There’s very little analysis to justify these actions. We’ll read that over carefully and consider our next actions.”

While the Friends of the Bitterroot opposed road building, other groups protested road closures, including the Ravalli County Commission. The Bitterroot forest will decommission about 39 miles of road, because some sections travel through riparian areas, degrading the streams. Other roads will be open only in certain seasons.

Anderson said many of the roads planned for decommissioning were already closed to motorized travel.

In 2016, the project’s first phase dealt mainly with improving roads in part of the Rye Creek watershed. Because the Darby Lumber Company didn’t have to build according to U.S. Forest Service standards, many roads were steep and didn’t have modifications to help drain water away. The company also did little to maintain the roads over the past 25 years before handing it over to the Forest Service. As a result, snowmelt and rain caused road surfaces and cut banks to erode, polluting streams with sediment and threatening native trout.

Now that those roads have been improved, the project will make final changes to the road system that threads through the western side of the Sapphire Mountains.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.