by Skip Kowalski, Stevensville
Many people seem to have made up their mind on the Bitterroot Front Project. That’s somewhat surprising for a fire risk and forest restoration proposal that is so early in the planning stage and covers such a large area. Before deciding whether it’s good or bad one should know the details: how, what, when and where. How many acres will be affected? What does the Forest Service plan to do? Where, when and for how long will they do it? How big will the treatment units be and what will be left behind?
These are key questions. Until the Forest Service answers them, much is left to the imagination. I was recently asked: “As a wildlife biologist, how can you support the Bitterroot Front Project?” Clearly the project has potential to reduce the adverse impacts of wildfire to private property and address some major landscape level wildlife concerns, but the answer to the more direct and specific question regarding wildlife must be: “It depends.” To determine the kind and extent of environmental impacts to wildlife, the word wildlife must be defined more precisely. What species are of greatest importance? Are we more interested in an individual species or groups of species? How much change in animal numbers are we willing to accept? What’s the timeframe? These are essential questions because every species has unique habitat needs and will respond differently depending on how and when the project is actually completed. Comparable uncertainties exist for other resource values such as scenery, cumulative watershed impacts, road density or the amount of timber harvested.
Currently the Bitterroot Forest is using a new analysis procedure called Condition Based Analysis. Its intent is to increase flexibility, discretion, and efficiency in project planning, analysis, and implementation. Unfortunately, it lacks site specificity and relies on public trust for acceptance. Although the Forest Service tells us the maximum number of acres that could be treated using commercial timber harvest, hand or mechanical thinning and/or prescribed burning, they are vague on the when and where. These unknowns create a dilemma. If we trust the Forest Service, we give them the benefit of the doubt. If we are skeptics, it adds to our anxiety.
There is a solution to this predicament, but it requires that we change the way many of us traditionally interact with the Forest Service. It requires that we make greater commitments of our time, periodically review project progress, and provide feedback as to our level of acceptance or dissatisfaction. It demands that we trust the Forest Service to give due consideration to our recommendations, to inform us about what is actually feasible and to adapt management accordingly. Fortunately the Bitterroot Forest is willing to do just that. They assure us that they will hold regular public meetings, listen to public comment, and modify management to achieve more satisfactory and acceptable results. Although promising, it will require trust from everyone involved.
If the Bitterroot Forest uses Condition Based Analysis responsibly and adapts management to better meet changing environmental conditions and public expectations, we should see greater acceptance of Forest Service management. However, it’s too soon to categorically accept or condemn this project. The Bitterroot Forest needs to continue its analysis and refine and disclose its proposal. Options do exist that reduce the risk of wildfire and also achieve forest restoration and environmental goals. It’s up to all of us to work with the Forest Service to help them find and successfully implement one.