The last day for registering objections to the Bitterroot National Forest’s Draft Environmental Assessment and decision notice of finding of no significant impact on the Mud Creek Vegetation Management Project was on Monday, August 23. The vegetation management, fuels reduction, and transportation system project encompasses approximately 48,486 acres including the West Fork Bitterroot River–Rombo Creek watershed, and portions of Nez Perce Fork–Nelson Lake, Little West Fork, Lloyd Creek, Lower Blue Joint, and Painted Rocks Lake watersheds, southwest of Darby. According to the EA, the primary purpose of the project is to restore healthy, resilient forest ecosystems that meet multiple resource objectives for the area, including fire and fuels, wildlife, aquatics, and recreation, among others.
The proposed action is designed to improve landscape resilience to disturbances such as insects, disease, fire, and drought through a combination of vegetation and fuel reduction treatments. As a result, this project uses a condition-based implementation approach that is responsive to changing conditions and allows the flexibility to achieve desired conditions. Condition-based management is a system of management practices that relies on specific design features to create desired outcomes on the ground. The proposed action describes a suite of activities available to manage the project area over a period of approximately 20 years.
The implementation process involves several steps to move an activity through identification and prioritization, field review, contracting and documentation, and monitoring as well as adaptive management. Implementation of the Proposed Action will require project-specific forest plan amendments to the 1987 Bitterroot Forest Plan to suspend certain Forest Plan standards relating to elk habitat effectiveness, elk habitat, old growth, and coarse woody debris.
According to West Fork District Ranger Dave Fox, as of Monday morning the Forest Service had received a total of 10 letters of objection. He said most of them had objections to certain components of the decision while a few apparently filed letters stating they would object to any changes in the decision.
Fox said that the Forest Service will review the objection letters over the next two weeks and determine if the objections are not based on any new information, but are based on points that were made during the public review process. They will also verify that the objector has standing, meaning that they participated in the public review process and made their views known.
Once these preliminary requirements are ascertained to be met, the objections are forwarded to the Regional office for review by the Objection Review Panel. The panel is made up of specialists in the issues raised by objectors and are from forests across Montana and Idaho who did not participate in the design of the project. Once the panel reviews the objections, their recommendation is forwarded to the Deputy Regional Forester for final review.
According to Fox, the Deputy Regional Forester then generally holds a “resolution meeting” with the objectors to see if a resolution to the issues can be worked out. He said such a meeting could occur some time between September 20 and October 1. Following the resolution meeting, the Deputy Regional Forester will write a Letter of Direction to the Bitterroot National Forest advising them on what actions to take with regard to the project.