Counties push for increased wildfire salvages

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A burned tree from the Sunrise Fire in Mineral County. (Mineral Independent)

Northwest Montana’s county commissioners want to see more fire-scorched timber salvaged from Lolo National Forest.

The Forest Service is racing to complete the assessments, environmental reviews and public review processes required for area salvage operations to proceed. If timber isn’t cut within one year of a wildfire, weather and insect damage can render it useless.

In Lolo, the agency has proposed salvage operations on almost 4,900 acres that were burned by the Sheep Gap and Sunrise Fires. Before the public comment period closed Dec. 1, the commissioners of Mineral, Lincoln, and Sanders counties sent a letter to the Forest Service, asking that it “maximize the number of acres designated for restoration and salvage.” They also argue that the harvest proposed by the Forest Service could be doubled.

These leaders say they appreciate the Forest Service’s efforts, but they want to ensure that their counties recoup as much value as possible from the remaining trees.

“We all kind of suffered the same plague,” said Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Peck. “The loss of revenue coming off the forests are bankrupting our counties, so we’re just trying to have a stronger voice.”

“While we’re asking for more” salvage, he continued, “the Forest Service has done a tremendous effort of jumping on this.”

While neither of these two fires took place in Lincoln County, one of Peck’s colleagues, Mike Cole, said that the three jurisdictions had a strong working relationship, and Lincoln County aimed to support Sanders and Mineral counties.

Deciding which areas can be salvaged is no easy task, explained Dave Hattis, district ranger for Lolo’s Plains and Thompson Falls area.

“Our teams, as early as September, started looking for opportunities for any kind of salvage,” he told the Daily Inter Lake.

“There’s a lot of different factors that go into where we can and can’t treat timber,” Hattis said. The state of the trees, terrain and proximity to usable roads can all determine whether a timber salvage sale would be economically viable.

On Oct. 31, the Forest Service released scoping documents proposing salvage sales of 2,718 and 2,152 acres on the Sunrise and Sheep Gap fires, respectively. Those sales represented about 11 percent of each fire’s total burned area.

The Lincoln, Sanders and Mineral commissioners took issue with that figure. Just before the proposal’s public comment period closed on Friday, they wrote the Forest Service to argue that “the areas proposed for post fire salvage and reclamation could easily be doubled.”

They argued that many burned acres “are in the suitable base for timber harvest in the Lolo Forest Plan,” and that the area’s dense road network would ease access.

Mineral County Commissioner Laurie Johnston said that St. Regis-based Tricon Timber had assessed the area and “found some areas that they felt were suitable to log...along with what the Forest Service had come up with.”

“We’re hoping that maybe they will take some of the suggestions and maybe do a little more than they had planned.”

Tricon could not be reached for comment, but Rusty Hunt, Vice President of Hunt’s Timbers in St. Ignatius, said that “They should sell everything that’s possible to get to there … I would think they can salvage more than that [proposed] and provide jobs for people.”

Hattis said that submitted comments would be taken into consideration.

“We don’t want to miss any opportunities, and certainly we’ll take a good solid look to make sure we haven’t missed anything.”

He also said the agency would be working to secure one of the commissioners’ other requests, an Emergency Situation Determination. This decision, which can only come from the Forest Service’s chief or associate chief, allows a project to bypass the normal objection process.

“That is definitely something that we’re committed to looking at. The regional foresters made salvage a number-one priority for the region.”

The proposed timber plans take burned wood’s limited lifespan into account, calling for work to begin in late summer 2018.

That deadline is looming over everyone with an interest in local forestry.

“It’s a time crunch,” Hattis said, “and we’re making the best efforts that we can that we’re capturing the value that we have out there without compromising the ecological integrity of those burned areas.”

Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.

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