Whitefish forest project OK’d to begin this summer

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Haskill Basin (Steven Gnam photo)

Widespread prescribed burns and some timber harvesting has been OK’d for the mountains above Whitefish.

The Whitefish Municipal Watershed Fuel Reduction project is touted as an effort to prevent wildfires that could impact municipal water supply. The project is also aimed at addressing disease concerns. Flathead Forest Supervisor Chip Weber last week issued a decision finding no significant impact for the project following an environmental assessment. The project, which includes 1,114 acres of forestland, is expected to be implemented this summer.

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

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 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 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, Bond said.

“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 tagged 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 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,” McKenzie said. “This was really the perfect storm of opportunity.”

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 findings 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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