Logging in roadless areas, restrictions on mountain biking and the appropriateness of mixing fire mitigation with trail development highlighted objections to a proposed forestry project south and west of Helena.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Forest Service held an official objection meeting for the Ten Mile-South Helena Project. The project area encompasses more than 60,000 acres and includes timber harvest and prescribed burning focused on wildfire protection, along with trail maintenance and construction.
The Forest Service released a draft decision in August, which gave those who commented on it the opportunity to “object” as part of the project analysis. The project received about 30 objections. About half of the people and organizations that objected appeared in Helena, and one testified by phone.
Deputy Regional Forester Dave Schmid told about 35 people in attendance that a panel reviewed written objections, and he was interested in hearing potential remedies that would make the project palatable.
The project has seen significant support but also criticism from wildlife advocates, as well as concern about mechanized logging in inventoried roadless areas. Some commenting on the project have also felt it does not go far enough in addressing wildfire concerns.
John Gatchell with the Montana Wilderness Association told officials he is concerned that work along the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail could degrade the area, and he suggested scaling back plans. He also noted that a new proposed trail to Colorado Mountain cut through the heart of the Lazy Man roadless area. Gatchell suggested an alternative route that uses on old railroad bed to Rimini as part of a connector trail from the Helena South Hills to the Continental Divide.
The proposed Colorado Mountain trail has emerged as a point of contention for the project. Several objectors said that a new trail deserves its own analysis and should not be lumped in with the stated purpose of the project.
“This trail segment has nothing to do with fire severity or firefighter safety,” said Steve Platt, representing Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. He continued, saying that while they support the need of the project, there is some heartburn over proposed work in inventoried roadless areas that includes the use of machinery.
Several other speakers echoed Platt about what was perceived as a late inclusion of the trail in the project proposal.
Eric Sivers with Montana Bicycle Guild was among several who objected to proposed restrictions on bicycles in portions of the project area. He and others felt the project unfairly singles out bikers as creating illegal trails or causing disturbances to wildlife.
Helena bike advocate Eric Grove agreed, saying the project “seemed more concerned with vilifying mountain bikers than dealing with the very real problem of user created trails. Targeting one group distracts from that problem.”
Several speakers advocated for using hand crews rather than machinery to complete work in roadless areas. But Forest Supervisor Bill Avey questioned whether hand crews could safely work in an area with extensive swaths of dead trees prone to falling.
Doug Powell suggested using hand crews in areas with fewer hazardous trees and moving into other areas as more trees naturally fall. The project is expected to take up to 15 years to complete.
Security for wildlife with a focus on elk was also a major theme from objectors concerned that logging even dead trees could ultimately pressure big game onto neighboring private lands.
The city of Helena convened a collaborative to comment on the project. Brad Langsather with the city weighed in, suggesting to Forest Service officials that they prioritize work near private land and also noting that the committee reached consensus against using mechanical logging in roadless areas, with the exception of buffers near private land.
Some landowners in the Travis Creek area near Clancy spoke out against the Forest Service’s management on neighboring land and objected to the Colorado Mountain trail due to increased public traffic on a private road that leads to the trailhead. One area landowner implored the agency not to lock out motorized users.
Several fire officials spoke on the project, with none more emphatic than Tri-Lakes Fire Chief Bob Drake. The project has waited too long to begin already, he said, and he favors any measure that expedites the work.
“We’ve got to do something and it’s got to be bold,” he said, referencing reducing fuel loads in the area. “A half measure isn’t going to do any good.”
Several objectors and Forest Service officials praised the civility of the meeting as well as the public process, singling out Helena District Ranger Heather DeGeest’s thoroughness in bringing the project forward.
Forest Supervisor Bill Avey said the agency expects to wrap up the objection process and reach a final decision after the first of the year.