The Helena National Forest is proposing a timber and vegetation project across 25,000 acres of a 61,500-acre area in the Ten Mile drainage, with the goal of improving forest and stream health, including water quantity and quality for the city of Helena’s water supply and improving public and firefighter safety.
The proposal calls for commercial and noncommercial logging and prescribed burning within the upper-Ten Mile drainage. The area includes around 24,000 acres of Forest Service lands and 1,000 acres of BLM lands, of which about 8,500 acres would go into a timber sale.
The Forest Service is taking public comment on the proposal until Dec. 5, which includes recommendations from the original Ten Mile Watershed Collaborative Committee convened in 2008 and the Tri-County FireSafe Working Group. Decades of fire suppression, limited management and ongoing insect infestation and disease have left dense fuel accumulations and increased risk of a large-scale fire, planning documents said.
“It’s definitely a landscape-level project,” said Kathy Bushnell, public affairs officer for the Helena National Forest. “Implementation would occur over multiple years.”
In the event of a wildfire, conditions on the ground would make suppression difficult and infrastructure and property would likely suffer damage, planning documents said.
Research from the Rocky Mountain Research Station Fire Lab in Missoula has shown that around 40 percent of a watershed requires forestry and vegetation work, including logging and burning to effectively alter fire behavior and create a variety of trees in different age classes, Bushnell said.
“We’re hoping to modify vegetation enough so that when a fire does start, it won’t burn as intensely,” she said. “It’s changing how the fire would burn, and also the safety aspect with a lot of homes and also provides for the safety of firefighters.”
Due to extensive beetle kill in the area, the danger to wildland firefighters would likely prohibit the Forest Service or DNRC from using people on the ground, Bushnell said. That leaves the only option of fighting the fire from the air, she said.
By comparison, the 2012 Black Mountain Fire ignited in beetle-killed trees about 2.5 miles north of Chessman Reservoir, she said. That fire required helicopters and two air tankers, and, even though it only burned about 1.5 acres, took four days to extinguish at a cost of around $1 million dollars, Bushnell said.
The new proposal comes on the heels of the first year of field work on the roughly 500-acre Red Mountain Flume-Chessman Reservoir project. Costs for that project have varied across multiple levels of government, which officials have also said was necessary to protect the city’s water supply from fire.
In fiscal year 2013, the Forest Service spent around $169,000 on analysis and field work, with roughly $114,000 allocated for this year on Chessman, Bushnell said. That does not include overhead costs of day-to-day employees or legal costs related to a lawsuit filed against the project, she said.
The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the state agency overseeing Chessman, spent $980,000 on the project, said bureau Chief Paula Short. Those numbers also did not include daily work from foresters who may have worked on the project, or other general costs, she said.
“Essentially foresters would be working for the agency regardless of this project,” Short said.
DNRC also spent another $7,500 on attorney costs related to a legal brief filed with the federal court in support of the project, said spokesman John Grassy, calling the attorney fees a conservative estimate.
The Montana Department of Justice, which jointly filed the state’s brief with DNRC, does not track attorney hours down to individual cases and could not provide a total cost, said communications chief John Barnes.
The city of Helena spent $20,000 for the facilitator to run the collaborative, said Parks and Recreation director, Amy Teegarden.
The city also received federal grants from FEMA matching 75 percent of costs for private forestry work in the Ten Mile area. To date, the city has spent nearly $370,000 of the $417,000 eligible under the grant, with all but $92,000 covered, said Phil Hauck, assistant public works director.
That brings known costs across federal, state and city governments to more than $1.6 million, with unknown costs for overhead. Revenue from the timber sale portion of the Chessman project came to $828,000, according to DNRC, which reduces known taxpayer totals to a little over $805,000.
Planning documents for the proposed project did not contain cost estimates, and timber prices also fluctuate. The project likely requires the most rigorous type of analysis in the form of an environmental impact statement, planning documents said. Planning and analysis is scheduled for completion by April 2015, with the project likely beginning by the spring of 2017, and taking several years.
The new Ten Mile collaborative committee formed earlier this year would be taking up the proposal as early as this month, said City Manager Ron Alles. The watershed and homes are still at risk from wildfire, even with the “critical” work around the flume and reservoir, he said.
“I never said it stops right there,” he said. “I think of it like we just made a first down on our own 20, and we still have a long ways to go yet.”
The city and collaborative committee expects to work with the Forest Service on the project planning and identifying areas of need, Alles said. The project could last from 10 to 15 years, he said.
An email seeking comment sent to Steve Kelly, executive director of the Montana Ecosystems Defense Council -- one of the litigators on the Red Mountain Flume-Chessman Reservoir -- was not returned by the time of this story. Attorneys for Kelly and the other litigator, Sara Johnson of the Native Ecosystems Council, voluntarily withdrew the lawsuit in September. They had heavily criticized the project and expressed concern about plans for future logging in the area.