Flathead Forest Seeks Emergency Action Approval for Swan Valley Fuels Reduction Project

The Rumbling Owl Fuels Reduction Project spans 5,400 acres on the Swan Lake Ranger District of the Flathead National Forest southeast of Condon

By Tristan Scott
Holland Lake near Condon on Dec. 26, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Land managers with the Flathead National Forest are seeking emergency-action approval for a fuels reduction project in the Swan Valley on the grounds that it lies in the “high-risk fireshed,” according to a scoping letter issued Wednesday. Foresters say the project is also key to preserving the ecological character of the area’s old-growth forests.

The Rumbling Owl Fuels Reduction Project spans 5,400 acres on the Swan Lake Ranger District of the Flathead National Forest southeast of Condon and east of Highway 83.

According to an Oct. 30 scoping letter signed by Swan Lake District Ranger Christopher Dowling, the project “would make progress towards decreasing the risk and severity of future wildland fires, improve fire suppression effectiveness, improve firefighter and public safety in the wildland-urban interface and improve forest health conditions in which they are better prepared for, respond to, and aid recovery from severe wildfire, post-fire effects, and other disturbances.”

Because the project lies within the high-risk fireshed, the Flathead National Forest is requesting approval to use the Emergency Action Determination authority to move forward. The reason for requesting this emergency authority, officials said, is to mitigate the harm to life and property adjacent to National Forest System land; remove hazardous fuels; and protect and restore water resources and infrastructure. The request is currently pending approval.

“If approved, the Rumbling Owl project will not be subject to the predecisional objection review process,” the scoping letter states. “It is therefore critical you provide feedback on this project during this scoping period. An additional comment period will be offered once a Draft EA is produced from feedback received from the scoping period.”

A map showing the vicinity of the proposed Rumbling Owl Project in the Swan Valley. Courtesy Flathead National Forest

In 2022, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced a 10-year strategy to confront the nation’s growing wildfire crisis, which directed the Forest Service to work with partners in the West to focus fuels and forest health treatments more strategically, meaning in areas most capable of generating large wildfire disasters and with the highest probability of fuels reduction success. In 2023, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore identified “an emergency situation on National Forest System lands within 250 high risk firesheds across the West.” The Condon fireshed encompasses the entire Rumbling Owl Project Area and is identified as one of 19 high risk firesheds in Montana.

“Based on a fireshed analysis, our scientists have models for identifying the firesheds most in need of fuels and forest health treatments to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire,” according to the strategy.

Jeffrey Durkin, the district silviculturist for the Swan and the project leader on Rumbling Owl, said the project would unfold over the course of several years with the objective of reducing tree densities across the area while favoring large-diameter, long-living tree species for retention.

“The Rumbling Owl Fuels Reduction Project is proposing to treat forest fuels at truly the landscape level,” Durkin said. “Areas have been identified as primary control lines across the landscape to be defendable in the event of a wildfire threatening the Condon community, which is considered in the upper 95th percentile of at-risk communities across the U.S.”

Improvements to the forested areas would reduce canopy layers, horizontal fuels and improve fire response for fire personnel, Durkin said. It would also promote forest health among a diverse composition of tree species ranging from 1960s pine plantations to old-growth stands of mixed conifer that exceed 250 years in age.

“Without an active management approach we stand to loose key ecological components like old growth and wildlife cover due to wildfire and to a lesser extent bark beetles,” Durkin said.

The following project activities are proposed:

  • Decrease tree densities and surface fuels to reduce the likelihood of stand replacing fire within the wildland-urban interface.
  • Increase the presence of large size classes of tree species over time, which may help maintain low levels of insect and disease activity in the project area.
  • Construction of approximately 4 miles of temporary road.

The full public scoping package can be found on the Rumbling Owl project webpage at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=64924.

If the request for emergency-action approval is granted, the public may not be able to raise additional project concerns during an objection period. If the request is not granted, the Rumbling Owl project would be subject to the administrative review process.. Objections will only be accepted from those who have submitted written comments specific to the proposed project during this 30-day scoping period, the future comment period or other public involvement.

Public Meeting and Field Trip

The Flathead National Forest’s Swan Lake Ranger District will host a public meeting and field trip at the Swan Valley Community Hall at 6803 Montana Highway 83 in Condon about the Rumbling Owl Project on Wednesday, Nov. 29, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. The first portion will be a discussion of the project at the community hall followed by a field trip to the project area. The purpose is to engage in information sharing with the public on project activities and to answer questions, according to Forest Service officials.

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