As the Helena National Forest develops plans for more than 61,000 acres south and west of Helena, one of the biggest concerns raised thus far is work within inventoried roadless areas. On Wednesday, the Ten Mile-South Helena Collaborative Committee visited one of those roadless areas to learn more about the Forest Service proposals and pros and cons for different alternatives.
Last year the Forest Service unveiled the Ten Mile-South Helena Project, which includes more than 25,000 acres of work within a 61,500-acre project area aimed at protecting water quality for the city of Helena and addressing fire management and response. Projects proposed include more than 8,700 acres of commercial timber harvest, more than 13,600 acres of prescribed fire and 2,700 acres of noncommercial cutting and thinning.
Within the project area are two inventoried roadless areas -- Jericho Mountain and Lazy Man Gulch. Southeast of MacDonald Pass lies the 8,700-acre Jericho Mountain area, which is bisected by the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.
After the Forest Service released the plan, the city of Helena convened the collaborative, which meets monthly, to learn about and make recommendations on the many proposals. Forest Service personnel accompanied collaborative members on a hike through the Jericho Mountain area, making several stops to discuss how projects could be implemented.
Keeping the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail clear has become a time-consuming and expensive proposition as beetle killed trees increasingly fall across, said Roy Barkley, Helena Ranger District recreation program manager. Crews spent two weeks clearing the trail earlier in the summer and another nine days recently but were unable to finish, he said.
“That’s the level of work it takes year in year out,” Barkley said.
The Forest Service currently has three alternatives for the trail corridor. The first would leave the area as is, and continue to contract trail clearing. The next two propose strategically clearing dead trees while leaving areas of green trees along the trail with the goal of limiting the number of trees continually falling across.
At issue for the logging alternatives is whether work in an inventoried roadless area should be done by hand or with mechanical logging equipment. Those advocating for protections of the area -- including potential wilderness designation -- fear that using mechanical equipment could degrade the resource qualities that might make it eligible for future protections.
A group called People Who Care About South of Helena formed late last year in response to the project, raising concerns over impacts to wildlife, water and the wilderness character of the area.
The intent of clearing along the trail is not to open up a 300-foot-wide treeless swath but to tie into existing land features and living vegetation, said Sharon Scott, Helena National Forest timber management officer. If mechanical equipment were used, roads near the trail would provide access but the trail itself would see machines only crossing it, she added.
The Forest Service is restricted as to how much ground it can impact with a logging operation, further limiting the effects to soil caused by machines, Scott said.
Maintaining a patchwork of trees and limited clearing would have little impact on wildlife as the trail area now is not a solid corridor of trees, said Forest Service biologist Denise Pengeroth.
The dead trees both standing and down would be piled and burned. Making sure the burning takes place away from the trail would be a priority for the project designers, said Helena District Ranger Heather DeGeest. The trail could possibly be relocated in some places to further reduce the immediate effects to recreationists, she said.
“From a public safety standpoint, the weakened trees are continually coming down any time we have a wind event,” she said.
Wildfire is the other major concern the Forest Service cites while proposing the project. Removing some of the deadfall along the trail would benefit firefighters by providing a fire break. It will also get heavy fuels away from the ground to prevent soil sterilization in a catastrophic wildfire, said Marshall Thompson, partnership coordinator for the Helena National Forest.
“From a fire standpoint and looking at the long-term effects on the land, with the jackstrawed areas, we’d likely not put firefighters in here,” he said.
As the Forest Service continues to look at the costs versus benefits of the Ten Mile-South Helena Project and others, what is becoming clear is the limited ability of hand crews to efficiently tackle large-scale work, DeGeest said. While a combination of mechanical and hand crews is likely if work along the trail moves forward, going purely with hand crews is much less feasible, she said. The labor necessary to cut and move the trees would take much longer, cost more and not necessarily have a smaller impact than machines used in the right way, she said.
City of Helena Open Lands Manager Brad Langsather echoed DeGeest with his experience employing hand crew contractors for city lands. Finding workers willing to take on such intense labor is difficult, and they can accomplish a small amount of work per day compared to machines, he said.
“And the work season is so short up here,” Langsather said.
The Helena National Forest is wrapping up a draft environmental impact statement for the Ten Mile-South Helena Project, with an expected release this fall or winter.