Forest project set to begin this summer

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Haskill Basin (Steven Gnam photo)

Widespread prescribed burns and some timber harvesting are planned for the mountains above Haskill Basin.

The project known as the Whitefish Municipal Watershed Fuel Reduction project is an effort to prevent a devastating wildfire that could be destructive to the city’s water supply from Second and Third creeks. The project is also aimed at addressing disease concerns in the forest, including root disease, bark beetles, and mortality in white bark pine.

Flathead Forest Supervisor Chip Weber last week issued a decision notice and Finding of No Significant Impact for the project following an environmental assessment. The project, which includes 1,114 acres of forestland, is expected to be implemented in the summer of 2017.

Project leader Deb Bond said the goal is to implement a variety of fuel reduction treatments on the area.

“The purpose is that by treating the forest we hope we can reduce the chance of wildfire in the future,” Bond said.

Several types of silvicultural treatments are planned on 254 acres. Commercial thinning is planned on 58 acres and seed tree harvests is proposed on 196 acres. About 859 acres within the project area are set to have fuel treatments by either prescribed burning of 756 acres or understory removal on 103 acres.

The prescribed burns are set along the south face of the Whitefish Range above Haskill Basin. Most of the terrain is high-elevation and steep with limited access.

Timber harvest is planned mostly on the lower flanks of the range that are accessible by established roads and temporary road extensions.

Bond said the prescribed burns will likely take place over 10 years, while the mechanical fuel treatments could be completed next summer and the logging would be completed within the next few years.

“The burns depend on having the right conditions,” she said. “We don’t want to burn it all at once — we want to do a little bit each year.”

The project will create about 2 miles of temporary roads that will be rehabilitated after the project is complete. A portion of Road 316B on the Glacier View Ranger District would be closed to summer wheeled motorized vehicles to increase grizzly bear security.

A portion of the project area is within the permit boundary for the Whitefish Mountain Resort and also includes a portion of the municipal watershed for the city of Whitefish. There are several private properties adjacent to the area and F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. property surrounds much of the treatment areas.

Visual impacts will vary throughout the project. It will be noticeable, but the project has been designed to lessen those impacts as much as possible.

“For the logging, we will leave more trees in certain areas like near roads and we will feather the edges to blend and keep it more naturally appealing,” Bond said. “In some areas next to the project where logging has already occurred, logging will help it blend in.”

The project falls under the Farm Bill passed by Congress in 2014 that designates 5 million acres of Forest Service land in Montana with expedited review since the area is designated as part of an insect and disease treatment program and meets the criteria of experiencing forest health decline.

Additionally, funding from Gov. Steve Bullock’s Forest in Focus Initiative contributed to accelerate the project.

“The Montana state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation partnered with the Flathead National Forest to increase the efficiency of project planning and implementation on federal lands in Montana, which has contributed to the success of this project,” Weber said in a prepared release.

The project was developed through a collaborative process. The Whitefish Face Working Group — which includes forestry officials, recreationists and conservationists — recommended the treatment plan for the project area that is surrounded by private and state-owned lands in the Wildland Urban Interface.

Paul McKenzie, land and resource manager for F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber, serves on the working group.

“Stoltze owns land adjoining the project land and we had a lot of shared concerns,” he said. “This was really the perfect storm of opportunity.”

He said the vegetation management project is a critical start to managing wildfire risks for the municipal watershed. By diversifying the forest it will help protect the forestland if a wildfire does start, he noted.

“It breaks up the continuity of the forest,” he said. “The timber harvest and the prescribed fires are beneficial by providing a mosaic in the forest. It won’t be as catastrophic if fire comes. This protects the water quality and reduces the fuel hazard.”

The decision notice and Finding of No Significant Impact are available at http://www.fs.usda.gov/projects/flathead/landmanagement/projects. The documents are also available for review at the Tally Lake Ranger Station, 650 Wolfpack Way, Kalispell, MT.

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