A proposed Forest Service timber and prescribed fire project in the Ten Mile drainage could have negative impacts on wildlife, water and the wilderness character of the area, panelists stated at a citizens’ forum Monday evening.
The forum, sponsored by a group called People Who Care About South of Helena, or PWC, encouraged the 35 attendees to comment to the Forest Service on the proposed Tenmile-South Helena Project before the Dec. 12 deadline. The project aims to protect stream health, including water quantity and quality for the city of Helena’s water supply and to improve public and firefighter safety, according to Forest Service planning documents.
The forum came in response to two November Forest Service meetings over the proposed project. Helena District Ranger Heather DeGeest attended Monday’s forum along with some members of the current Ten Mile collaborative.
PWC is made up of individuals and Helena Hunters and Anglers, the Clancy-Unionville Citizens Task Force, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and the Wild Divide Chapter of the Montana Wilderness Association.
The Ten Mile area provides an important linkage corridor for wildlife, but that habitat has been diminishing under past and present management, said Gayle Joslin of Helena Hunters and Anglers.
“We are close to experiencing that last straw that breaks wildlife’s backs,” she said.
The Helena National Forest plan requires hiding cover for elk, but it has failed to meet those standards in most areas, Joslin said. Rather than address those concerns, the Forest Service’s solution is to change the standard to allow logging and other activities, she said.
The Forest Service is proposing a switch from a hiding cover standard to big game security areas that offer roadless refuges for wildlife during hunting season.
The Forest Service has not lived up to its past decisions to close roads and has not taken into account past timber sales that, when combined, have left the forest “tattered,” Joslin said.
The group plans to pursue legal answers on whether the Forest Service must abide by past records of decision to close roads and maintain hiding cover, she said.
“Beware when the Forest (Service) says they’re going to do something because they’ve arbitrarily ignored their contract with citizens,” Joslin said of past decisions to decommission roads that have remained open.
Removing vegetation could increase evaporation and increase surface runoff of water, said Peter Brumm, hydrologist for the Environmental Protection Agency.
Brumm noted that he spoke in general on water science, not for or against the project or for the EPA.
Research has shown that removing vegetation, particularly trees, reduces shading which alters snow distribution, and increases solar radiation and surface temperatures, he said.
A large, extremely hot fire could leave soils unable to absorb water, and increase erosion through runoff, Brumm said.
Under the right climactic conditions, logging would have little impact on a large wildfire, said Bill Hallinan, president of the Montana Wilderness Association Wild Divide Chapter.
“The goal should be to have a fire adapted community,” he said.
Money would be better spent on reducing fuels near homes and with education rather than reducing fuels in roadless areas, he said.
The proposed project area includes both the Black Mountain and Jericho Mountain roadless areas, once considered for wilderness designation in 1988 before President Regan pocket-vetoed the bill.
Hallinan said he is concerned that work in the roadless areas could alter them in such a way they would no longer be considered for future wilderness legislation.
“One-third of the project area are these roadless areas, and we need to make sure when everything is said and done these landscapes can be considered for wilderness,” he said.
Longtime wildfire pilot Doug Powell said that in his years observing fires from the air, old growth forest burns much slower while thinned areas often cause fires to spread quicker than crews can catch them.
“I’m an advocate for projects around homes as well, but I think we should try to keep the centers of these roadless areas intact,” he said.
More information on the proposed project is available at www.fs.usda.gov/projects/helena/landmanagement/projects.
Comments can be submitted by mail to Helena National Forest, 2880 Skyway Drive, Helena MT 59602, or by email to email@example.com.
This story has been edited to reflect the correct email address for comments.