Categorical exclusion gets axe 

Hikers curious about blue flagging tied to trees near the West Fork Gold Creek trail can rest easy. Debbie Austin, Lolo Forest supervisor, says the agency will not move forward with plans to log trees scorched during the Mineral fire of 2003.

The flagging outlines four areas of timber that added up to a 145-acre salvage logging proposal announced in December 2003. Austin visited the site with her staff and about 18 Missoula-area forest activists during a June 23 field trip (see “Won’t get burned again,” by Chris Bryant, July 1, 2004).

“Having gone up there looking at the site with staff, we decided to focus our efforts on our other projects,” said Austin. “We try not to start projects that we don’t finish.”

The plan was met with skepticism from many participants on the outing. Their concerns centered mostly on the location of the proposal—part of the project was just a short walk from the Rattlesnake Wilderness in a healthy, mixed-conifer forest that burned in a low- and medium-intensity mosaic.

The process used to plan the sale, a relatively new rule change called a categorical exclusion, also was a source of uncertainty. The rule allows for local National Forest managers to use their discretion to sidestep formal environmental analyses in certain cases.

Jake Kreilick, a project coordinator with the National Forest Protection Alliance who was along on the field trip, said he thought this particular project was an unwise use of categorical exclusion and was pleased that the Forest Service heard the group’s concerns. He says the field trip has led to better communication between the conservation community and the agency.

“Using CEs makes sense in some situations,” said Kreilick, identifying fuels reduction projects in the wildland/urban interface as an example.

The Lolo National Forest has planned about two dozen projects taking advantage of categorical exclusions for 2004. The Mineral Fire Salvage is one of two they’ve so far dropped.

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