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Forest Service implementing project near Helena aimed at wildfire protection

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Fire Tour 3.jpg

Loggers work at a 700-acre timber sale in the upper Ten Mile drainage as part of the Ten-Mile-South Helena Project.

The Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest has begun a major forestry project near Helena as it waits for courts to rule on two lawsuits challenging the project.

Late last year, the Forest Service approved the Ten Mile-South Helena Project. Work includes logging, thinning and prescribed burning as well as some trail work and stream restoration on 17,500 acres within a 60,000-acre project area southwest of Helena. The Ten Mile drainage supplies one of two sources of water for the city.

Earlier this year sportsmen groups filed a federal lawsuit over proposed logging in two inventoried roadless areas, contesting the use of heavy machinery. Helena Hunters and Anglers and the Montana Wildlife Federation contend that the project will negatively impact wildlife by removing hiding cover and reduce the potential wilderness character of the roadless areas. The groups do not contest work outside of the roadless areas.

More recently, environmental groups filed a more expansive lawsuit. Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council argue that the Forest Service erred in several aspects of its environmental analysis in regards to logging and prescribed burning, building roads and trails, and the project’s impact when taken in conjunction with other projects in the area.

Courts have not ruled on or temporarily halted the project as it hears the cases, however the Forest Service has agreed to suspend work in roadless areas until the court has ruled on the first lawsuit.

Fire Tour.jpg

Craig Klockler, fire/fuels technician for the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, inspects a fuels reduction area on the Ten Mile-South Helena project. Contractors thinned and chipped wood onto the hillside. Once the wood dries, the Forest Service will do a prescribed burn.

Touring the Ten Mile-South Helena Project

This week the Forest Service and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation toured parts of the project area, which includes some fuels reduction and logging at one of the timber sales. While logging is a significant component, the project is focused on reducing fuels in the watershed, officials say.

“If you look at the events in the North Hills fire, we’re facing the same type of situation in the South Hills,” said forest supervisor Bill Avey. “Our modeling shows that on a standard red flag day, we’re going to burn 5-8 blocks in the city of Helena, that’s the reality we’re facing, and we want to give our firefighters and first responders every strategic and tactical advantage including evacuations of the public.”

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Helena District Ranger Heather DeGeest, center, talks about the use of existing roads in inventoried roadless areas to reduce fuels by logging and prescribed fire.

The Forest Service points to studies by researcher Mark Finney, who concludes that fuel reduction, which officials refer to as “treatment,” on at least 20% to 40% of a landscape is necessary to affect the behavior of a wildfire. The goal of the project is to log, thin and burn areas so that if a fire does occur and enters one of the areas, the fire severity may be mitigated. The “fuel breaks” will also give officials places they feel comfortable inserting firefighters to fight a wildfire away from the downfall-thick forests that make up much of the area.

David Nunn, fire management officer for the Forest Service, said that based on feedback from the public, the agency scaled back some of its proposals so that fuels reduction will occur on about 24% of the project area. Some advocated for more and others for less work, but he believes it strikes a good balance between fire protection and other uses on the forest.

“We looked at where we can strategically place these treatments to align with our suppression strategies and tactics out there,” he said. “What we fell back to is how can we do treatments adjacent to private lands, how can we do treatments on ridgelines and how can we make an area adjacent to roads defensible for when we’re responding to a fire and evacuation routes.”

While Finney’s research includes the acreage component, he has also found that logging alone does not reduce fuels and affect fire behavior, particularly when a wildfire burns under hot, dry and windy weather. Prescribed fire must be used irrespective of logging to mitigate wildfires in extreme conditions, he says.

Ten Mile-South Helena includes prescribed burning in the areas designated for logging and thinning as well as used independently in other areas. Any revenue from the sale of timber will offset costs of the project overall, officials said.

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Timber decks are pictured at the Upper Ten Mile timber sale.

Sharon Scott, timber management officer with the Forest Service, says the value of the timber is limited. The area has seen significant impacts from the mountain pine beetle killing up to 90% of lodgepole pine in some cases. About half of those dead trees are on the ground and they expect the majority to fall in the next few years.

“We’ve moved quickly with two timber sales to recover any value that we have … where we do have value we’re able to offset fuels work, being creative and subsidizing it with the timber value,” said Helena District Ranger Heather DeGeest.

Ray Prill, executive director of Tri-County FireSafe Working Group, believes the project will complement its private lands program. The group offers consultation and grants for landowners to thin their properties.

Under the project, the Forest Service will cut and burn private land “buffers” along several of its borders with private property.

“The first line of defense are the forests in the Ten Mile-South,” he said.

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Sonya Germann, state forester with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, speaks during a Forest Service tour of the Ten Mile-South Helena Project.

Sonya Germann, state forester with DNRC, agreed. The state shares fire protection in some of the area and also plans to manage one of the timber sales under a “good neighbor” agreement with the Forest Service.

“When that fire shows up on the landscape, the citizens of Helena are going to expect from all fire services that we’re doing everything we can to protect the community of Helena,” she said. “They should have the same expectations on us as land managers that we’re creating the conditions for those services and resources to be successful when that happens.”

Ten Mile-South Helena Map

Disagreement over Ten Mile-South Helena Project

Groups challenging the project have taken a dimmer view of the concept of logging and burning miles from homes in order to protect communities. They point to studies from retired Forest Service researcher Jack Cohen, who found that mitigating fuels in the immediate vicinity of homes allowed them to survive wildfires. Opponents also note that due to the difficulty in predicting where a wildfire may start, the probability remains low that it will burn into one of the defensible areas.

On Ten Mile-South Helena, the Forest Service used fire modeling and multiple “fall-back” points to be able to insert firefighters at strategic areas in the drainage, officials say, and not having the areas may put firefighters in greater danger.

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"We fight fires by flanking them and guiding it to a place we can put it out," said Hoyt Richards with DNRC. "If we create opportunities to engage that fire, we put firefighters at the head of the fire and that's the most dangerous place we can put them." 

Another major point of contention is centered on the use and removal of roads in the area.

In the inventoried roadless areas, which actually include a few old roads that see little to no current use, Forest Service regulations allow machinery to use them so long as the roads are not improved or reconstructed. Working in the roadless areas is an important part of the Forest Service’s overall firefighting strategy of creating defensible places that firefighters have a chance to catch a fire before it reaches homes, officials say.

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The Forest Service plans to use existing roadbeds, now used mostly as trails, during the Ten Mile-South Helena Project.

The roads wills be closed following the project, but heavy machinery logging and thinning in roadless areas has brought serious concerns and push-back from opponents.

Gayle Joslin with Helena Hunters and Anglers, told the Helena City Commission Thursday that the project goes beyond cutting dead and dying trees as the project includes some logging of healthy trees. She also pointed out that the Forest Service has done timber sales already in the area and private landowners have logged or thinned their property as well. 

The area offers critical wildlife habitat and a travel corridor for animals traveling the Continental Divide. 

"In the inventoried roadless areas we're not asking for no action, we're go ahead, burn, but keep the mechanized equipment out of it and do not be creating new roads or trails," she said. 

Mike Garrity, executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, recently wrote a critical op-ed of the project, accusing the Forest Service of failing to meet agreements made with collaborative groups that worked on Ten Mile-South Helena as well as a smaller project near Chessman Reservoir. Specifically, Garrity takes issue with an agreement to remove an equal number of road miles as those temporarily constructed for the project before temporary roads go in.

The Forest Service contends it has met the road removal requirement three times over when accounting for the total number of roads closed and obliterated since the 2009 collaborative agreement.

The disagreement appears to center on the definition of roads and which roads qualify under the agreement.

The Forest Service counts roads within the watershed and those closed under other decisions while Garrity cites roads within the project area closed specific to the project, and those meeting the agency definition as capable of carrying a passenger vehicle. Several of the roads in the roadless areas are little more than “game trails,” he says.

Avey says he is hopeful the courts will move quickly on the litigation.

“We’re disappointed in the project litigation but ultimately we think we’ll prevail and a good project will occur,” he said.

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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