Three years ago this week, local conservationists and Bitterroot National Forest officials sat down in Missoula with Undersecretary of Agriculture Mark Rey and Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth. U.S. District Judge Don Molloy brought the federal duo to town with orders to hammer out a reasonable plan on how the Bitterroot National Forest would respond to the fires of 2000.
The group’s compromise called for specific restoration work, including some salvage logging, road repair and removal, culvert replacement to improve fish migration and riparian planting. At the time, the Bitterroot National Forest had $30 million dollars in the bank earmarked for the projects.
Some restoration projects went ahead that first year, but wildfires around the West changed the financial picture. Forest Service headquarters demanded the return of “unobligated funds”—more than $25 million—so they could pay for fire suppression efforts elsewhere. Since then, only about $9 million has been returned ($2.1 million of that later left the area again to pay for other Western fires.) Money allocated for restoration has dwindled every year—and the agreed upon work is lagging farther and farther behind.
Not all projects are fading into memory. The salvage logging is 80 percent complete, and all the related riparian planting projects have been completed. But most of the road upgrades and removals, reforestation and culvert replacements are still on the drawing board.
“The main work that needs to happen is not being done,” says Friends of the Bitterroot’s Larry Campbell. Campbell lives near Rye Creek, downstream of a series of haul roads still awaiting upgrades. Campbell says much of the salvaged timber came out on those roads.
Conservationists such as Campbell say the Forest Service is contractually obligated to finish the work it said it would do—but Bitterroot Forest Supervisor Dave Bull disagrees.
“No attorney would interpret this [restoration work] as a legal obligation,” Bull says. “From my perspective there is a moral obligation.”
This year, the Bitterroot National Forest might inch toward meeting that obligation. Bull says he doesn’t yet know how much the forest will be allocated for the 2005 restoration work, but he expects “something less than what we got last year.”