Boulder River logging project aimed at reducing fire danger to homes, campsites

Boulder River logging project aimed at reducing fire danger to homes, campsites

6 March 2007

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Great Falls, MT, USA — Logging began last week on national-forest land along the main Boulder River in an attempt to reduce the threat of wildfire in the area, despite an appeal filed in District Court in Missoula challenging the U.S. Forest Service’s overall plan for the drainage.

The canyon contains 250 private homes and structures, 25 recreational residences, four church camps, six Forest Service campgrounds and numerous wilderness trailheads. The Forest Service estimates that on a summer weekend, 2,000 to 3,000 people are in the area, which is accessed by a single-lane, dead-end countyroad.

“This is not about stopping a wildfire in the canyon,” said Marna Daley, spokeswoman for the Gallatin National Forest. “The whole intent of the project is to buy time if we have to evacuate. That happened twice last summer.”

Last year, more than 250,000 acres burned in the Gallatin. And a wildfire-threat analysis says a wildfire in the Main Boulder Canyon is inevitable.

In 2005, the Gallatin National Forest issued its record of decision to thin, log and burn about 2,500 acres along the main Boulder River drainage. To provide access to some of the 4.5 million board-feet of timber, the forest said seven miles of road may be built. RY Timber of Livingston won the bid to do the work.

Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Native Ecosystems Council appealed the plan last April. A hearing on the appeal is scheduled for April 19.

Because no stay of implementation has been issued, the Forest Service began logging last week between the Whispering Pines subdivision and Aspen Campground, at the northern end of the canyon.

“We’re not going to ask for an injunction to stop that,” said Michael Garrity, executive director of the Alliance.

The environmental groups support clearing trees from around residential areas, campgrounds and church camps, but they oppose the construction of new roads and logging along the 24 miles of county road that accesses the narrow canyon. They also oppose logging in an area proposed for Wild and Scenic River designation and in a canyon that cuts into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area, prime grizzly-bear habitat.

“They shouldn’t be logging within a quarter-mile of the river, and they’re going to log within 15 feet,” Garrity said.

But Daley said the work won’t affect the river’s proposed wild and scenic designation.

“It’s about a recreational designation,” she said. “That’s what that canyon is all about. Those segments will still be eligible.”

Sweet Grass County and the Boulder River Watershed Association, as well as some landowners in the Main Boulder Canyon, have intervened in the case on behalf of the Forest Service to show their support for the project, Big Timber District Ranger Bill Avey said in a news release.

The push behind the Boulder project, as well as others proposed in the Gallatin National Forest, is to limit the intensity and scope of wildfires, especially near homes built close to wildlands.

Three similar projects have been proposed in the Gallatin — one called the Lonesome Wood Vegetation Management Project on the west side of Hebgen Lake, another on two main drainages that are water supplies for Bozeman, and the third along Big Timber Canyon in the Crazy Mountains.

The Lonesome Wood project would treat an estimated 3,000 acres and construct about four miles of road. The project is similar to the Boulder in that a single road leads into a subdivision of 34 recreational homes.

“The area west of Hebgen Lake was identified as a community at risk of wildfire because of poor access and heavy fuel loadings along the Denny Creek Road and near the structures,” the Forest Service said in its scoping summary.

Garrity said his group questioned the Lonesome Wood project on the same grounds as the Boulder project.

“They should focus on defensible space around homes,” he said. “Thinning often speeds up the fire. It does the opposite of what they want it to do.”

Work will continue in the Main Boulder Canyon as long as the ground remains frozen or until April 30.

“Visitors to the canyon can expect to see trucks, crews and equipment in this area, so please drive slowly as traffic on the road may increase,” Avey said.

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