After gathering extensive public comment, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation is scheduled later this month to present an environmental assessment to the state Land Board for a logging project proposed on school trust land around Spencer Lake, a popular recreation area west of Whitefish.
Meanwhile, the conservation group Whitefish Legacy Partners is announcing a $500,000 trail grant that would affect Spencer Lake and neighboring areas. The group is also in the final stages of a public-private agreement to coordinate long-range recreation and conservation planning in the region.
Following the completion of a draft environmental assessment for the Spencer Lake timber sale in late 2010, the DNRC received more than 60 written comments from citizens ending in January. Most stressed the importance of maintaining the area’s environmental quality and recreational character, for both the present and future.
“I think we have done a pretty good job of getting that into the project design,” said Greg Poncin, the DNRC’s decision maker for the timber sale.
Poncin expects the logging project to go before the Land Board on March 21 with his recommendation to move forward. If approved, the plan calls for harvesting approximately 10 million board feet of timber from 1,650 acres. Poncin said $1.6 million in revenue will be raised for the state’s school trust fund.
Bidding for one portion of the project will begin after Land Board approval, with harvesting to begin later this year. An estimated 100 jobs will be created altogether, Poncin said. The plan calls for building 9.5 miles of new logging roads and reopening 10 miles of existing roads, which are currently used as trails.
“That will change the recreational experience dramatically,” Diane Conradi, director of the Whitefish Legacy Partners, said.
The Spencer Lake and mountain area, located three miles west of Whitefish, has an extensive trail network that is widely used by hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders. It will also eventually be part of the Whitefish Trail, an ambitious project that proposes 55 miles of new trail interwoven with existing recreational routes.
Whitefish Legacy Partners, the leading group behind the trail project, released a report in late January listing recreation-friendly recommendations for the DNRC to consider during its harvest. The report includes specifications for logging roads, types of trees to be cut, post-harvest cleanup and many more recommendations designed to protect the area’s “aesthetic and recreational value.”
“Spencer Mountain provides an unprecedented opportunity to successfully merge recreation and forest management on school trust lands,” the report concludes. “Spencer Mountain may well become the most accessed example of our forests and recreational systems for visitors and locals alike. The implementation of these recommendations and strategies will help to preserve the legacy of this great landscape.”
Conradi said her group, in accordance with the Whitefish Neighborhood Plan, wants to see a timber harvest that balances the need to raise revenue for the state school trust with the public’s desire to protect recreational opportunities, views, watersheds and wildlife habitat. She said the DNRC has made efforts to accommodate public concerns.
“I think this was unprecedented,” Conradi said. “The DRNC does not traditionally include recreational uses in its timber sale.”
Poncin agreed that the recreational guidelines in the timber plan are unprecedented for his agency, particularly the stipulations for parking lots and trailheads.
“Our recreation program provides for the sale of recreational use permits and affords them the opportunity to access lands,” Poncin said. “But this goes a little beyond that because we’re helping to provide for some of that recreational infrastructure.”
Marshall Friedman, previously a board member of Whitefish Legacy Partners, said he is part of a group opposed to the timber sale. Friedman wants to see a more detailed recreation plan up front before the project moves forward.
“They’re saying after we do the timber sale we’ll work out a recreation plan for you, ” Friedman said.
“Because of the extent of the logging,” he added, “it will ruin the character there. It will be destructive; it will not look like a forest anymore.”
Friedman said he resigned from Whitefish Legacy Partners because he thinks the group “is under misconception that DNRC is going to work with them.” Members of Friends of Spencer Mountain are holding a public meeting on March 8 at 7 p.m. at Grouse Mountain Lodge, Friedman said, to discuss their concerns with the public.
“I think Whitefish Legacy Partners has done an amazing job, a fantastic job of enhancing the recreational value of the community,” Friedman said. “I just don’t think in this case they understand the extent of the damage this timber sale is going to have on this stretch of community.”
Many recommendations in the Whitefish Legacy Partners’ report and public comments are not included in the environmental assessment, which Poncin said is unlikely to be changed before going to the Land Board besides “one minor adjustment.” But Poncin said some suggestions can still be taken into consideration later in the process.
“Some of (the comments are) specific enough that it’s better addressed in the timber contract itself or the marking guidelines,” Poncin said. “If they’re concerned which trees are left where, we can address that in the marking guidelines, not the EA.”
Conradi is confident a partnership that her group is finalizing with public agencies will address many recreational and conservation concerns in the Spencer Lake area, as well as neighboring areas. The public agencies involved in the potential partnership include the DNRC, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and the city of Whitefish, Conradi said.
If the “tentative agreement” goes forward, Conradi said Whitefish Legacy Partners will provide $10,000 in good-faith funds. Eventually, she said she hopes conservation easements can be purchased.
Further advancing the Whitefish Legacy Partners’ causes is a $500,000 Recreational Trails Program (RTP) matching grant. The grant, which Conradi expected to announce publicly on March 2, will be used to fund planning and trail construction efforts in the popular recreation areas west of Whitefish.
“To actually invest that money in infrastructure to benefit schools and universities is great,” she said. “It’s not rolling into a private pocket; it’s rolling back into public schools.”
“Spencer fits into the bigger picture,” she added. “We can be strategic in securing what the community really wants, whether it’s trails, view sheds, water sheds, water quality protection.”
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