Flathead Forest Approves Round Star Logging Project

Management goals across the 28,300-acre project area include reducing fuel density and mitigating fire behavior near communities in the wildland-urban interface; plans include expansion of cross-country ski area

By Tristan Scott
Tally Lake. Beacon file photo

After more than two years of analysis, and as part of an ongoing effort by land management agencies to reduce wildfire hazards in the region’s wildland-urban interface (WUI), Flathead National Forest officials on Thursday announced they’ve issued a final decision notice and environmental assessment approving a timber project on a 28,300-acre segment of the Tally Lake Ranger District west of Whitefish.

Called the Round Star Project and first proposed in December 2021, the plan calls for commercial timber harvests on up to 6,324 acres and non-commercial vegetation treatments on up to 2,866 acres, as well as the construction of more than 20 miles of new roads. Implementation of the project could begin as early as June 1.

According to the final decision notice signed April 3 by Tally Lake District Ranger Bill Mulholland, approximately 92% of the Round Star project area is in the WUI, where the project would reduce tree densities and fuel loading on a total of 9,190 acres of forest. It would also help diversify plant and tree communities, provide a mix of forest products for local economies and expand recreation opportunities in the Round Meadow Area, including additional cross-country skiing trails, according to the decision notice.

The project area is located on the northwest side of the Flathead Valley, approximately 13 miles west of Whitefish. It extends from Round Meadow to the northwest corner of Star Meadows. The project would expand the Round Meadow Cross-Country Ski Area by creating 5.6 miles of additional trails as well as infrastructure to keep pace with increasing recreational use, Mulholland said.

Most of the project area was identified in the 2020 Montana Forest Action Plan as a priority for fuels reduction to protect residential communities. It is also partially located within the Connecting Fuels Treatments in the Salish Mountains and Whitefish Range Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership Project Area.

A map of the proposed Round Star Project on the Tally Lake Ranger District. Courtesy Flathead National Forest

Forest officials say they received 45 public comments regarding the project after the Tally Lake Ranger District sought public input in December 2021. Some commenters expressed full support for fuels reduction, timber harvest and recreation expansion in the project area. Other commenters expressed concern for fish and wildlife species, particularly bull trout, grizzly bear, lynx and wolverine. A few commenters provided input and suggestions for the recreation expansion at Round Meadow Cross-Country Ski Area.

The project area’s northeast side abuts the Round Meadow Recreation Area, which provides opportunities for groomed Nordic skiing and snowshoeing during the winter season and hiking, biking and equestrian use during the summer. Like other recreational areas in the Flathead Valley, the Round Meadow trails have seen an increase in use in recent years, and the Round Star Project would include the addition of non-motorized trail to accommodate the influx of visitors, Mulholland said.

The project was modified to include an additional parking area on the south side of National Forest System Road 539 to mitigate safety concerns of skiers crossing the road to access the new trails in the Round Meadow area. The recreation component of the proposed activities was further modified to include barriers and gates to minimize user conflict between motorized and non-motorized recreation use of the proposed trails. Several units were modified to be responsive to concerns about wildlife habitat.

“The project team considered all comments and agreed upon an alternative that meets project objectives while minimizing impacts to other resources,” according to forest managers.

Improvements to the recreation area would include a new warming shelter and a storage building to accommodate government-owned grooming equipment at the trailhead, as well as an expansion of the Round Meadow parking area. The expansion would allow ease of access for horse trailers and would provide additional parking spaces during the busy winter season, the draft decision notice stated. The new roads would be closed year-round to public motorized access following implementation, the proposal states. Additional actions would include 3.4 miles of temporary road construction which would be rehabilitated after use, and 1.5 miles of road changed from open year-round to open seasonally.

In August 2022, after Flathead Forest officials released a draft decision notice and an updated environmental assessment, touching off a 45-day objection period, the agency received eight objections. Three objectors, the American Forest Resource Council, the Montana Logging Association and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, submitted objections in support of the project. Objections from five objectors focused on a range of issues related to wildlife habitat. Those objections were received from organizations including: Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Native Ecosystem Council, Friends of the Wild Swan, and Swan View Coalition. Objections were also received from two individuals.

More information about the project can be found on the project page at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=60892. If you would like more information or have questions regarding the project, please contract Kira Powell at [email protected] or (406) 291-6813.