Forest Thinning Projects Continue Under Controversial Rule

By Beacon Staff

Small thinning projects currently underway in the Flathead National Forest are drawing wide praise as a way to reduce wildfire danger, while also pumping some money back into the local wood products economy. But not all of the landowners adjacent to the logging projects are happy.

Gregg Alexander, who owns land on Teakettle Mountain near the Hungry Horse Ranger District, said the logging taking place around three borders of his property is more extensive than necessary for fuels reduction, leaving the area sparsely populated with a few slim trees.

“This whole area on my eastern border is virtually denuded of all trees,” Alexander said. “It’s not following the original prescription.”

Alexander, a Sierra Club member, opposed the thinning projects from the start. But another nearby property owner, who asked that his name not be used, said he was originally onboard with the logging projects and granted crews usage of roads on his land, but now wishes he hadn’t, after seeing how heavily logged the area turned out.

Landowner Dan Diamond, however, praised the Forest Service and Tough Go Logging for doing “an absolutely phenomenal job” on the Blankenship project.

“There isn’t anything they’ve done that has surprised me based on what they said they were going to do,” Diamond said, and he was impressed by the effort made by forest officials to get the input of property owners in the area.

“They did it like a candidate seeking voter support,” Diamond said. “They went door to door and talked to everybody.”

The Blankenship project is expected to yield 4.7 million board feet from 830 acres. A large part of Alexander’s objection to the logging stems from the fact that this project – and eight others in the Flathead – were approved under the U.S. Forest Service’s “categorical exclusion” rule, which has since been overturned by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Former Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth established the categorical exclusion rule, part of President Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative, as a way to bypass expensive and time-consuming environmental analyses on small projects: logging under 1,000 acres and prescribed burns under 4,500 acres.

The rule was intended as a way to expedite projects that would reduce fire danger on public land close to private land, the so-called wildland-urban interface. But the Sierra Club charged that the Forest Service was abusing the categorical exclusion rule by logging in California’s Eldorado Forest, where several projects just under a thousand acres, alongside one another and far from private land, were approved.

In December, the Court sided with the Sierra Club, saying the Forest Service “failed to assess properly the significance of the hazardous fuels reduction categorical exclusion.” The 9th Circuit Court ordered a District Court to issue an injunction halting projects approved under the categorical exclusion rule, but that hasn’t happened yet.

So the Forest Service is scrambling to accomplish as much as it can, while the scope of the injunction remains unknown. In the meantime, the agency has ceased to issue any new decisions on fuel reduction under the categorical exclusion rule, and will refrain from awarding any contracts on decisions made after Oct. 8, 2004.

Bob Clark, of the Sierra Club’s Montana chapter, said he does not believe there has been any abuse of the categorical exclusion rule here.

“When it comes to fuel reduction work, in general, we do support doing thinning around communities,” Clark said, “and want to see that work carried out in a way that reduces ladder fuels.”

Jimmy DeHerrera, ranger on the Hungry Horse and Glacier View districts, said he received a whole range of perspectives as to how the thinning projects should proceed. Some landowners urged the Forest Service to thin more aggressively around their land, DeHerrera said, while one woman said she would rather see her house burn down than have any trees cut.

“Every project the Forest Service does we get the whole spectrum of comments,” DeHerrera said. “We just try to strike a balance.”

DeHerrera characterized public opinion of the Blankenship project as positive, but said what negative feedback he has received has come from the Teakettle Mountain area, where thick stands of Lodgepole Pine grow, adding that Lodgepole Pines have thinner trunks and grow in dense stands, but are so highly flammable that those areas rarely look good after logging.

“For some in the Blankenship area, it didn’t quite turn out like people had envisioned and it’s mostly in those Lodgepole stands,” DeHerrera said, and the Forest Service will continue the work until the injunction is issued and he hears otherwise: “Right now, we don’t have anything saying to close operations down.”

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