Under fire 

Forest Service catches heat over Rock Creek project

One person’s forest restoration project is another’s threat to wilderness.

Take, for instance, the Forest Service’s proposal to implement a laundry list of restoration projects in the Rock Creek drainage between Drummond and Missoula. Some of the project’s provisions are being hailed as genuine restoration, like the removal of culverts that impede fish migrations. Yet others have become controversial, like forest thinning in roadless areas.

The bulk of the proposal is aimed at fuels reduction via thinning and burning; also included are measures to improve the Rock Creek road and remove culverts.

It’s an example of “throwing the good in with the bad,” Ecology Center Ecosystem Defense Director Jeff Juel said.

The judgement on whether the proposal has a net restoration benefit has divided conservation groups. The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Ecology Center have filed suit in district court claiming that the Forest Service didn’t examine the roadless areas that they intend to cut as potential wilderness, as required by Forest Service policy.

Meanwhile, the Montana Wilderness Association and Montana Trout Unlimited are satisfied with the agency’s fish-restoration efforts to remove the culverts, even though fish may be affected by sediment in the process.

“There will be an increase in sediment,” Montana Trout Unlimited Executive Director Bruce Farling said. “But there’s no demonstration that says a little bit of sediment will hurt the fish.”

Forest Service models predict 200 tons of project-associated sediment over the next seven years, although both the agency and Montana Trout Unlimited admit those models are flawed.

“We use a model to show how much sediment is the maximum that could be generated,” Missoula District Ranger Don Carroll said. “But that model doesn’t show what happens if you leave adequate buffers and do the thinning in the winter.” Regardless, Carroll said, work could start on a small section later this summer.

The prospect of hundreds of tons of sediment—whether a flawed projection or not—has certainly stirred the ire of Rock Creek fishing guides.

“I’m not a member of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies,” former guide and biologist Steve Gilbert said. “My interests are purely biological and because of the value of the trout fishery. If they can guarantee no risk, I’m fine with it. But any sediment is too much.” Gilbert says that recreational activity on the Rock Creek fishery supports the employment of many, from fly-tiers to guides, shuttle drivers and lodge proprietors.

Prompted by the widespread fires of 2000, the Forest Service began looking at fuel-build-up problems in the Rock Creek drainage, which is home to several hundred structures.

“We found that due to fire suppression there hadn’t been fire in Rock Creek for quite a long time. Now [because of ladder fuels] we have to thin before putting fire back into the environment,” Carroll said.

The proposal calls for 1,100 acres of thinning and 13,000 acres of burning along 20 miles of the Rock Creek road. According to Carroll, of the 1,100 acres to be thinned, 459 acres will be in roadless areas, with 209 acres marked for commercial harvest. The rest will be non-commercial.

The agency is looking to remove most trees below 6 inches in diameter, half the trees between 6 and 12 inches and three trees per acre in the 12- to 20-inch range. No trees over 20 inches will be cut.

Because of the low value of the wood and the low volumes available, the Forest Service doesn’t plan to make much money on the commercial side of the project. Coupled with the pricey new culverts that allow for fish migration, the price tag on the project will run tax-payers somewhere around $1.2 million.

The Ecology Center’s Juel thinks that bringing a commercial mentality into a restoration project is inherently against restoration philosophy. Since big trees bring big money, it’s tempting to poach a few extra, even though large trees, aside from rocks, are the least flammable thing in the forest.

“Stick with the little trees, don’t sell anything. The incentive to sell twists the whole project around,” Juel said.

“The Forest Service has never shown the ability to conduct such management activities and improve things. They tend to only destroy things,” Juel continued. “They’re playing the fire-scare card. They suppressed and messed things up. Now they want to try to fix it.”

Juel finds it ironic that the Forest Service fouled up the forest with poor management through years of fires suppression, but now intends to improve the situation through logging—potentially making things worse.

Juel said that his main qualm with the plan is the intrusion into roadless areas.

According to Carroll, the only roadless-area logging the Forest Service intends to do is a “thin strip along the [Rock Creek] road.”

“That’s just not true,” Juel said. “If you look at a good map of the units the Forest Service plans to cut they extend well away from the road.”

Commenting on the lawsuit, Carroll said, “I’m confident in the work we did with this project. We did a thorough job of looking at the issues that the plaintiffs are concerned about. We looked at roadless areas, sediment release and the effects on bull trout.”

Montana Trout Unlimited’s Farling wishes the lawsuit had never happened.

“It’s unfortunate that the Alliance and the Ecology Center had to [file suit],” Farling said. “It makes the conservation movement look like they’re against everything. We don’t want to give any more ammunition to people who say that conservationists are obstructionists.”

Juel doesn’t wear the obstructionist tag happily.

“We disagree on what makes a good restoration project,” Juel said. “But the Ecology Center and the Alliance have a quarrel with the Forest Service saying that they’re going to restore the land by logging. While this lawsuit is going on we’d be happy to look at genuine restoration measures and let them go on.”

Contact the reporter: jmahan@missoulanews.com

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