Timber sales ramping up as part of a major forestry project near Helena are expected to produce nearly 31 million board feet of timber.
The Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest’s Ten-Mile South Helena Project got underway last year with logs flowing from one timber sale south of Helena. In the next year the Forest Service sold two additional timber sales and expects a fourth, which will be managed by the state of Montana, to be finalized in the coming months.
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.
Helena District Ranger Kathy Bushnell recently updated the City of Helena’s collaborative, which the city convened to comment on the project's development, on the Forest Service’s work plan for the coming year.
The 11.6 million board feet Upper Ten Mile sale located southwest of Rimini commenced logging last year with purchaser RY Timber. Bushnell expects hauling to continue there for the next couple of weeks before suspending operations until the spring.
The South Helena sale is the largest at about 16 million board feet and also purchased by RY Timber. Bushnell said winter operations will begin near Park Lake this week.
The smaller Scotty sale at about 3.3 million board feet was purchased by Frontier Post and Pole with winter operations starting there as well.
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A fourth timber sale, called the Brooklyn Bridge sale near Unionville, will be managed under an agreement with the state of Montana called the “Good Neighbor Authority.” The program grants the state the authority to administer the sale and both the Forest Service and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation hope to have the sale out for bid in the next couple of months.
The Ten Mile-South Helena Project also includes a number of prescribed burns. Bushnell says that the burns are in varying points as far as authorization goes, but that several are ready to go as conditions allow. The Forest Service also has numerous slash piles in the area to burn this winter and spring.
While the project is ongoing, it continues to face opposition.
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.
Alliance Executive Director Mike Garrity has also been a frequent critic of the economics of timber sales, pointing out that they typically represent a loss in terms of purchase price versus dollars spent to sell and administer them.
Courts have not halted the project as it hears the cases, but the Forest Service has agreed to suspend work in roadless areas until the court has ruled on the first lawsuit. A number of entities including the City of Helena, Lewis and Clark County, the Montana Bicycle Guild and the state of Montana are also involved in the litigation to varying degrees, either as intervenors or filing briefs in the cases.
The Forest Service says that the primary goal of the Ten Mile-South Helena Project is to mitigate future wildfire in the area that could burn into Helena and outlying developments. The strategy calls for creating buffers around private lands and openings where firefighters may be safely deployed if a major wildfire were to spark.
Tom's memorable stories from 2019
2019 was another wild year on the Independent Record natural resources beat.
It's part outdoor adventure and part spectacle.
Lots of hunters each year pour over regulations or magazines trying to decide which tags to apply for.
Each year outdoor recreationists get lost, get caught in bad weather or suffer injuries that require search and rescue crews to come and find them.
The tragic story of Mann Gulch serves today as a message of the dangers of wildfire and the precariousness of fighting them.
Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin