Two environmental groups filed objections this week to the proposed logging around the Ten Mile water supply flume, calling the project “massive clearcutting” that doesn’t make any sense and requires a more in-depth evaluation.
Helena National Forest and Helena city officials want to remove dead and hazardous trees along about 4.8 miles of the metal flume, which is elevated in some places and carries water from the Upper Ten Mile watershed to the city’s treatment plant. The watershed supplies the bulk of the drinking water for about 30,000 Helena residents, and the officials fear that the trees provide enough fuel to create an imminent threat to the water quality and quantity in the event of a wildfire.
The Red Mountain Chessman Reservoir Project was approved in August by acting Helena Forest Supervisor Bill Avey, allegedly to reduce the risk of sedimentation from a possible wildfire. It only looks at removing trees around the Red Mountain Flume; any large-scale watershed project would need to go through a lengthy environmental review. The plan also calls for burning new and existing slash piles.
But the Montana Ecosystems Defense Council and Native Ecosystems Council are objecting to the work, the ground-disturbing activities include clearcut logging and prescribed burning of approximately 490 acres and a half-mile of new, temporary road construction.
“The last thing you want to do in a healthy watershed is clearcut 490 acres and build new logging roads,” Steve Kelly, director of Montana Ecosystems Defense Council, said in a press release. “We have successfully challenged a similar project proposed for Bozeman’s Municipal Watershed because it made no sense. Clearcutting Helena’s currently stable watershed to prevent the infinitesimally small, theoretical risk of sedimentation makes no sense either.
“We are all for protecting Helena’s municipal watershed. But we don’t think clearcutting and building new logging roads adjacent to a municipal drinking-water reservoir is the way to do it.”
Because of the government shutdown, Helena National Forest officials weren’t able to be reached for comment. Ron Alles, the Helena city manager, also couldn’t be reached on Friday.
The Helena Water Works Company constructed a wooden diversion and delivery system in the Ten Mile watershed to bring municipal water into Helena in the late 1880s. The city bought the system in 1911. Water runs through the flume into Chessman Reservoir, which acts as a holding tank until it is sent to the Helena Water Treatment Plant, then distributed to Helena residents.
The majority of the watershed is on Helena National Forest lands, where decades of fire suppression and the recent mountain pine beetle epidemic led to uncharacteristic fuel loading. That’s prompted fears by city and forest officials that a cataclysmic fire could race through the watershed.
According to Kelly, the Forest Service’s Environmental Assessment is “severely deficient” in analyzing potential impacts from the proposed industrial activities.
“When you talk about bringing in bulldozers to build new roads and allowing logging trucks and heavy machinery to cross streams that flow into the Helena Municipal Water Treatment Plant, it’s pretty obvious the agency needs to do a thorough Environmental Impact Statement to make sure they aren’t screwing this up,” Kelly said. “Clean water is only getting more precious every year and the Forest Service needs to take the time to do a realistic analysis of the impact this project — and ongoing activities — will have on Helena’s water. Clearcut logging, road building and burning are not the only activities that have significant adverse impacts to water quality.”
He adds that the freshly disturbed soils will provide opportunities for noxious weeds, which he expects will be treated by herbicides, and that cattle from ongoing grazing allotments will place “cow pies” in the watershed that will flow into the streams and treatment plant.
“The Forest Service needs to compare the threats of fires, clearcuts, new logging roads, cow pies, mining, trophy homes and ATVs and do a real risk assessment,” Kelly said. “The problem is the agency loves clearcutting and road building. They see that as the cure to every problem, but the scientific evidence says that clearcutting and road building is the main threat to clean water and this EA doesn’t say how it won’t be this time around.”
Sara Jane Johnson, director of Native Ecosystems Council and a former biologist for the Gallatin National Forest, added that the clearcuts will have negative impacts on hiding cover for grizzly bear and elk, and also will harm lynx habitat.
“The Helena National Forest found that the Ten Mile Watershed is home to two pairs of male and female lynx and two pairs of male and female grizzly bears in addition to some of the best elk habitat in the Helena Forest,” Johnson said in the press release. “The Forest Service does not have a take permit to destroy habitat for endangered species.
“We are all for protecting Helena’s municipal watershed but the Forest Service needs to come up with a better plan that doesn’t destroy the watershed to save it.”