The Flathead National Forest is proposing a salvage timber sale within the more than 20,000 acres that burned in the Trail Creek Fire last summer.
The forest is accepting public comments on its plan to log 1,351 acres — about 6 percent of the total fire area — about two miles northeast of the Spotted Bear Ranger Station.
Forest officials estimate it would generate 6 million to 7 million board-feet of timber. The harvest, limited to burned areas outside the Bob Marshall Wilderness, would target only dead trees and those burned badly enough that they would likely die within three years.
Matt Shaffer, the project leader, said the burned timber quickly loses its value, with much of it becoming effectively unmarketable within three years.
Because of the time crunch, local forest officials are asking the Forest Service to grant an “Emergency Situation Determination” that would speed up the process and lead to a decision as early as October.
“We would not have an objection period, then, for our decision,” Shaffer said. “We would come out with a final decision after we receive comments on the [environmental assessment], instead of the traditional proposed decision process.”
He noted, however, that this is the first time the forest has applied for the designation under a new set of stricter criteria. Beyond demonstrating that a delay would cause the sale to lose commercial value, officials must also show that the loss of value would jeopardize other project objectives.
Shaffer said if the determination is not approved, a decision could come as soon as January 2017.
The plan calls for construction of 7 miles of new roads and 5.3 miles of temporary roads — nearly all of which would be built on former road beds.
If the project gets fast-tracked, road work could begin this fall, with logging commencing shortly thereafter.
Access changes would include 32.8 miles of the Eastside Reservoir Road, from Abbott Bay Road to the boundary of the Hungry Horse and Spotted Bear ranger districts. Public motorized access would close from Dec. 1 through March 31 for up to three seasons. Over-snow use would only be allowed on weekends during that time.
The proposal includes an amendment to the Flathead Forest Plan to allow motorized access in a grizzly bear core habitat area outside the July 1 through Nov. 30 denning season.
The exception would allow temporary road construction and road rehabilitation for 30 consecutive days within the South Creek Trailhead and Bent Creek area.
Most of the area within the Trail Creek Fire area is designated critical lynx habitat.
However, the proposal also states that most of the snowshoe hare habitat burned at a moderate to high level of severity and no longer supports snowshoe hares, a primary source of food for lynx. Forest officials expect logging operations are unlikely to impact hare habitat.
Bull trout, and to a greater degree, westslope cutthroat trout, are expected to be negatively impacted by increased nutrient loading in those drainages affected by the fire. As such, the project includes removal of a culvert near South Creek, stream channel restoration, riparian planting and stream bank stabilization.
It also obligates the forest to plant native tree seedlings on up to 3,000 acres, and trees and shrubs on up to 500 acres to improve deer and elk wintering and forage habitat.
Within the Trail Creek burn area, the forest has already begun spraying 88 acres for noxious weed removal, repairing damaged trail conditions on five trails covering 20 miles and installing hazard warning signs.
The Trail Creek Fire and the more than 70,000-acre Bear Creek Fire were the Flathead Forest’s two largest wildfires last summer.
Both were ignited during an August lightning storm and quickly raged through thousands of acres of thickly timbered mountains and drainages in the Spotted Bear Ranger District.
An estimated 113 miles of trails were impacted by the fires, and trail crews worked overtime during late summer and fall to repair trailbeds and remove hazard trees.
Three separate roadside salvage sales from those operations generated more than 269,000 board-feet in harvested saw logs in 2015.
Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.