Not much appeared to get resolved at a meeting between U.S. Forest Service officials and official “Objectors” to the Bitterroot National Forest’s Gold Butterfly Project last week.
Time was the primary limiting factor. There were 19 official objectors and most had representatives present to discuss their issues and present some idea of potential resolution, but they only had five minutes each to speak. Several of the objectors noted from the outset that due to the magnitude and complexity of the project they had more than one issue of concern but were being limited to barely enough time to address a single issue. They claimed it defeated the process if the aim was to come to some sort of resolution on all the issues. The five-minute time restriction was strictly enforced.
The Gold Butterfly Project proposes harvest and thinning, slash piling, and prescribed burning on approximately 10,500 acres of National Forest System lands between Burnt Fork and St. Clair Creek on the east side of the Bitterroot Valley. Proposed treatments include commercial timber harvest, non-commercial thinning, and prescribed burning to improve forest health. The project includes road improvements, construction, decommissioning, and storage of routes. Most of the roads proposed for decommissioning are already closed to motorized use.
Deputy Regional Forester Keith Lannom noted that the meeting was not a debate. “Today we want to focus on resolutions.” He said it was a chance for dialogue to see if there was an opportunity for resolution.
First to speak was Larry Campbell who said, “I don’t believe I’m seeing genuine collaboration.” He stated that the public record showed that the overwhelming number of comments were against logging in Old Growth areas and that the public wanted no new roads to be built. He said discussions at the Bitterroot Restoration Committee showed the same sentiment as did the discussions at the Alternative Workshops, but that those comments were all ignored.
Concerning the road building issue, he said that he had requested an analysis of the impact of the new road building on the quantity and timing of flows in the streams but no analysis was done. His idea for a resolution would be to go back into the NEPA process and disclose these impacts. He also stated that the No Action Alternative was not properly or thoroughly analyzed.
A representative from the American Forest Resource Council stated that they were in general support of the project claiming that 90% of the project area had insect, disease or root rot problems. He said 76% of the area was within the Wildland Urban Interface, making time a priority.
Gail Goheen, a landowner along Willow Creek, noted that the budget for the project was $1,645,915 in the negative. She said that means they don’t have the money to do what they propose to do and that the impacts on public roads below the project are not even being considered. She expressed special concerns about a bridge that would not be able to take the traffic of all the heavy logging trucks.
Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Matt Anderson stated that the Forest Service was willing to apply magnesium chloride to the roads to address the dust problems but that there was not money to do any paving and that only 2.6 miles of the road is on the forest. He said the rest of the road belongs to the county and nothing can be done without its cooperation.
Skip Kowalski spoke on behalf of the Bitterroot Restoration Committee, cautioning the Forest Service that the large scale landscape projects have the chance of making big mistakes. He stressed the importance of monitoring and re-assessment in the process.
County Commission Chair Jeff Burrows said that the county was generally supportive of the project but would advocate for putting in some treatments that have been taken out. He said the county would not accept anything less than dust abatement with mag chloride or the equivalent. He also noted that the county has concerns about the impacts on the county-owned road below the project and cannot afford to do the work involved in keeping it viable or restoring it following the project. He said the logging plans and Old Growth treatment should be science-based and not based on public opinion.
Jim Miller, representing Friends of the Bitterroot, claimed as others that the Forest Service ignored the overwhelming public comment against logging Old Growth and against building any new roads. He said FOB agrees with some of the other organizations that an Alternative 3 modified with some treatment in Old Growth areas that would leave the Old Growth trees in place was acceptable. He accused the Forest Service of misrepresenting the collaborations response by turning it into a no logging option. He said the Forest Service had an opportunity to galvanize diverse groups into a unity with a less controversial option that would still meet the needs of the project.
“Alternative 3 modified would save the last remaining Old Growth trees in our forest and in our nation. The decimation of our Old Growth forests in our country is like the greatest environmental tragedy in our nation’s history.”
Andy Roubik said that weeds were a big concern and that the Forest Service’s mitigating measure didn’t seem to be working. He also said removing and burning woody debris was a mistake. He said studies show that woody debris is good for soil retention and soil building and should not be removed from the landscape.
Anderson said that the forest was looking at the issue of woody debris in their management practices.
Michelle Dietrich said that she believed the Forest Service should be the one offering resolutions. She said the comparison made by the Forest Service in the project documents was wrong when it compared the number of logging truck loads between Alternative 2 and Alternative 3. The agency said that the traffic was described as increasing by 50% in Alternative 3 but it really is double.
Pat Connell expressed concerns that the Forest Service had not analyzed the hydrological effects of their harvests on the drainage and subsequent effects on water flows. He said the mandate to preserve and enhance the production of water and timber off the forest should override any other considerations such as recreation and views.
Michael Hoyt said that the Forest Service’s own mandate was to use the best available science in their projects, but that they were not. He said the project was built using “boiler plate documents” that were based on a regionally approved reference list that does not include any research done after 2012.
He said the Forest Service missed the mark in its response to concerns about climate warming. He quotes the report stating “global climate warming is not something about to happen.” He said this mistaken comment is used to justify accepting short term negative impacts because in the long run they will be effective. Hoyt said current NASA research shows that the world’s average temperature has warmed by one degree centigrade since the 1800s and over half of that occurred since 1990.
“The Forest Service cannot continue to claim that they use the best possible science when they continue to ignore the world’s best climate scientists,” said Hoyt. “Every project no matter how small has an effect.” Hoyt recommended that the Forest Service consider funding a project dedicated to studying and incorporating the latest research into their projects.
Adam Rissien of Wild Earth Guardians questioned the notion that sediments were going to be reduced in the project as claimed. He said road de-commissioning was a way to reduce sediment but that the Alternative they were pursuing would add new roads. He said the Forest Service’s own analysis estimates an additional 2 tons of sediment will be added to
Willow Creek. He wondered if this would meet the state’s TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) requirements.
BNF Supervisor Anderson said that in his opinion the collaborative process in this instance was a failure. He said the agency was at least in part at fault, but that some of the problem was internal to the group. He said that he disagreed that the public had come to any unified decision in its collaboration process. He said he heard things a bit differently and saw a public at both ends of the spectrum on several issues.
“At this point in the process it’s too late to have these discussions,” said Anderson. “It gets back to how we work beforehand. These objection resolution meetings are not the time to do this. It has to happen beforehand.”
“You promote collaboration, but then you contradict it,” said Miller.
Anderson said that he would go back and take another look at the record of the workshop meetings.
Deputy Regional Director Lannom stated that he saw four major concerns expressed in the discussion, concerns about Old Growth, about roads, about the safety on Willow Creek Road and the bridge problem, and the collaboration process, which he called “a challenge.”
Because the project is being considered under the Healthy Forest Restoration Act, the timeline for responding to objections is shortened and cannot be extended. Answers to the objections were due on September 3.
If the letter answering the objections contains directions to act on certain issues, the directions must be completed before the Forest Supervisor can sign off on it. If there are no directions, the Supervisor can sign off on the project immediately.