A decision on how to proceed with proposed logging around the Red Mountain Flume has been postponed until Dec. 18.
Friday was the original deadline for the response by a U.S. Forest Service officer regarding two appeals of the project by Steve Kelly with the Montana Ecosystems Defense Council and Sara Johnson with the Native Ecosystems Council. But in a letter dated Nov. 19, Jane Cottrell, the deputy regional forester, wrote that she needed additional time to review the project and objections.
Under a new appeal process, regulations state that the reviewing officer has 45 days following the end of an objection filing period to issue a written response to issues that were raised. But the regulations add that the officer has the discretion to extend the time for up to 30 days when “that additional time is necessary to provide adequate response to objections or to participate in resolution discussions with the objectors.”
“In light of the complexity of the project and objections, I have found it necessary to extend the time for my staff to review the project and objections in order for me to provide you with an adequate response to your objection. I will reply
by Dec. 18,” Cottrell wrote in a letter to Kelly.
Kelly found that to be somewhat of a double standard, noting that if the general public faced these same types of complexities they wouldn’t be granted additional time to file their objections. Kelly said he doesn’t want to be too hard on the federal agency since this is the first time they’ve implemented the new process, but added that it seems to have added more bureaucratic discretion rather than streamline the process.
“I think the whole approach to this is a little anti-democratic,” Kelly said. “We still don’t have a decision. This was supposed to hasten the process and reduce the frequency and potential for litigation, but I’m not seeing how this meets that.”
Although Helena City Manager Ron Alles hadn’t seen Cottrell’s letter, he was a little disappointed that more time was needed to consider the issue. The flume and surrounding Ten Mile watershed is the main municipal water source for Helena, and Alles and others are worried that decades of fire suppression and the recent mountain pine beetle epidemic led to uncharacteristic fuel loading, which could allow a cataclysmic fire to race through the watershed. A wildfire could destroy the flume and allow debris to flow into reservoirs that hold the city’s water supply, contaminating it.
The 4.8-mile flume runs in part through the Helena National Forest, and in 2008, at the request of the Forest Service, the city convened a working group of people with interests in the watershed. They put together a protection plan and presented it to the forest supervisor, but it
wasn’t until this year that the Forest Service moved forward on implementing the plan.
Generally speaking, the plan calls for fuel break treatments on 158 acres; clearcuts with some trees left behind on 317 acres, using mechanical means; and hand-treatment methods on 58 acres. All of the felling would be followed by prescribed burns, which would also take care of some slash piles left over from work on interspersed private property.
About half a mile of temporary roads would be constructed for the project, then obliterated afterward.
“We have been waiting four or five years to get some movement and get going,” Alles said. “I appreciate that the Forest Service needs to be responsive. I get it. I know the Forest Service hopes to move as quickly as they can and I know they have dedicated resources to move forward.
“But we have a watershed needing protection and we need to get projects moving up there.”
Kelly and Johnson don’t agree with the city and the Forest Service that the work is necessary. He and Johnson believe that the thousands of dead and dying trees in the watershed are a natural part of forest succession.
They say the project amounts to clearcutting a portion of the Ten Mile watershed and will disrupt wildlife habitat and travel corridors. They add that when it’s looked at in conjunction with previous logging in the nearby Clancy/
Unionville area, and future logging anticipated it the Ten Mile watershed, the cumulative effects will be overwhelming.
The two also have objected to the Forest Service wanting to change its elk hiding cover standard, which it already doesn’t meet in the watershed. Kelly adds that heavy equipment that will be used and the short road that would be constructed will negatively impact water quality in Ten Mile Creek.
At an appeals hearing, Johnson proposed that the Forest Service undertake a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement that looks at a wide range of alternatives, instead of just doing the logging on 490 acres or doing nothing. She also stated that the two alternatives being considered by the Forest Service don’t look at potential impacts to endangered species like lynx and grizzly bears.
If an EIS is undertaken, it will dramatically extend the timeframe for the work, noted Kathy Bushnell, a spokeswoman for the Helena National Forest. But Cottrell could decide something less than that is needed, or that the project can move forward as it stands. Bushnell said this project is a priority for forest officials and they hope to get going on it soon.
She noted that this is the first time they’ve moved through this type of appeal process, and it’s a learning process for everyone involved in it.
“But I think as we all get more familiar with it, we will find it to be more streamlined than the process in the past,” Bushnell said. “That’s the intent, but right now it’s still pretty new.”
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or email@example.com
Follow Eve on Twitter @IR_EveByron