The U.S. Forest Service has approved a revamped project near Lincoln after a wildfire burned through the project area in 2017.
The Stonewall Vegetation Project gained notoriety after a portion of the project area, which included wildfire mitigation among its goals, burned in the Park Creek fire after a federal judge had temporarily halted the project in response to litigation filed by two environmental watchdog groups. Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council argued that the project would degrade wildlife habitat and that the Forest Service had not shown the danger of wildfire to be imminent.
Those pushing legal reforms to limit environmental litigation, including Republicans U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte, have often cited Stonewall as an example to support their position.
Following the 13,000-acre Park Creek fire, the Forest Service withdrew the project, saying that because the landscape changed significantly during the blaze additional environmental analysis was needed. Late last year the agency returned with a revamped project that proposed logging, thinning and prescribed burning outside of the burned area.
“When the judge vacated the decision it was an opportunity to take back the original Stonewall project, and we looked at it and there is still a need to do that type of restoration work,” said Michael Stansberry, Lincoln District ranger. “It’s not only the restoration work but there is still a swath of heavy fuels in the prevailing wind path to Lincoln. It’s imperative that we do the best for the community in putting forward this good project.”
The Forest Service’s draft decision calls for timber and prescribed fire on about 1,400 acres north and west of Lincoln. That is down from about 8,500 acres proposed in the original project. Goals of the project include reducing beetle-killed trees, creating a great mix of tree species and ages and creating fuel breaks in case a wildfire burns toward Lincoln.
The draft decision starts a 45-day objection period for those who commented on the project. After the 45 days, the Forest Service will look to address any objections starting in late October with a final decision slated for December. Work would likely begin in 2021, Stansberry said.
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Contracts for timber and other work tied to the original project had to be let go given the amount of time that has passed, he said.
“It’s interesting because where the fire burned was mostly in the areas where we planned prescribed fire,” Stansberry said. “So when we went through the analysis again we were able to keep a lot of the aspects of the original preferred alternative.”
In the two years following the Park Creek fire, Stansberry said, everything has gone well in terms of post-fire management, including emergency repairs to prevent sedimentation from blowing out culverts.
“The fire was a nice mosaic, heavy and intense in some areas and stayed on the ground in others,” he said. “It had some good, restorative effects.”
Officials have seen a pulse in insects related to the burned area, which is typical following a wildfire, he added.
Those commenting on the new project included Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Native Ecosystems Council and the Montana Ecosystems Defense Council, which raised similar concerns to the original project and lawsuit over impacts to wildlife and the cost and efficacy of logging to mitigate wildfire. The project saw support from the Lincoln Rural Fire District, while the American Forest Resource Council suggested increasing logging of living trees to offset the lower graded beetle kill.