Suspicious in the Swan Valley 

The Flathead National Forest released an Environmental Assessment (EA) last Friday for the proposed “Hemlock Elk Fuels Reduction and Forest Health Project.” The project aims to reduce “hazardous fuels” on federal land in a part of the valley that is heavily checkerboarded with Plum Creek land, while providing wood for the area’s timber cutters and mills. But some critics are skeptical of the proposal.

While the three “action alternatives” includeded in the plan contain subtle differences, they all call for fuel reduction in the wildland-urban interface, reseeding projects and a commercial timber harvest component that will log between 663 and 779 acres—some of it via clearcuts.

This and other facets of the agency’s treatment plan have raised the hackles on some locals who feel that unnecessary cutting between the heavily logged Plum Creek sections would remove important cover for grizzly bears and other animals frequenting the area.

“A lot of the cutting units are outside their own definition of wildland-urban interface,” says Arlene Montgomery, a valley resident and program director for the conservation group Friends of the Wild Swan. She wonders why the agency would focus a “fuel reduction” project outside of its self-defined borders. “I live in the wildland-urban interface, but apparently this goes way beyond a fuel reduction project.”

If the proposed action moves forward, treatments would begin in 2010 and continue for two to three years. Restoration treatments like road decommissioning, culvert installation and tree planting might take an additional two years—if the funding holds out, says the EA.

The treatments will occur in a busy grizzly corridor, used by bears roving between the Mission Mountain Wilderness to the west and the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the east. This makes conservationists worry that the bears could lose important land connecting the two.

And calling it a “fuel reduction project” sounds disingenuous to Montgomery.

“There’s not a lot of fuel reduction to do because the lands are already logged,” she says. “This project is just going to put clearcuts on Forest Service land right next to sections that are already clearcut.”
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