A proposal to construct an extensive trail network on U.S. Forest Service land adjacent to Columbia Falls is moving forward.
The Flathead National Forest issued its draft decision last week for the Crystal Cedar project, which finds no significant impact for the plan to build nearly 25 miles of new trail just north of town. The proposed action also includes commercial timber harvest on 2,435 acres, as well as non-commercial harvest on 1,287 acres.
A finding of no significant impact means that an environmental impact statement is not required.
The project area includes Crystal Creek, Cedar Flats, Spoon Lake, Blankenship Road and Teakettle Mountain.
“Community interest in this project has been high,” Flathead National Forest Supervisor Chip Weber said in a media release. “Partner organizations have played an important role particularly as we’ve considered multiple ideas about trail construction and maintenance. I applaud District Ranger Davies and his team for working so collaboratively with the public. The best projects we do result from working this way during both planning and implementation.”
The project’s environmental assessment was released in June and received 150 written comments. The Forest Service noted that comments, both supportive and concerned, focused on additional trail opportunities near Columbia Falls, potential effects to wildlife and perceived change and increased recreational use in the area.
The project now enters a 45-day administrative review period, which allows people who have previously submitted comments to file an objection to the draft decision.
A major component of the project is an extensive trail system of stacked hiking and biking loops adjacent to Columbia Falls.
The network would include two designated trailheads: one at the junction of Barnett Road and NFS Road 10815, and a second trailhead at NFS Road 1690.
Most of the trails would be multiple-use, open to hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians. A few short 0.2-mile connectors would be managed for all-terrain vehicle use.
According to the Forest Service, some of the trails will be built on top of temporary roadways or on areas that are currently used as trails, while other segments will be new construction. The local nonprofit Gateway to Glacier will partner with the Forest Service in trail construction and ongoing upkeep.
In his decision, Weber notes the ongoing public debate about the dangers of mountain biking in grizzly bear country. While some of the planned trails pass through grizzly bear habitat, including huckleberry patches, Weber states that bear-human conflicts can be reduced through certain design features. Those features include providing information at trailheads, maintaining sight distances, limiting speeds, and avoiding areas of dense vegetation, Weber stated.
In addition to the proposed action, Weber said he considered an alternative to change over-snow use in the project area to include a new snowmobile route, groomed fat bike trail and groomed Nordic trails.
Ultimately, he said he determined that changes to over-snow management was outside the scope of the project.
“Establishing groomed Nordic trails here would necessitate closing the area to snowmobiles,” he wrote. “I also received comments from members of the public who enjoy the area under current winter management and want these roads and trails to remain ungroomed in the winter.”
He also rejected a plan to build a mountain bike trail to the top of Teakettle Mountain, stating that “a downhill-specific trail would not meet the focus on trails for a wide variety of users.”
Weber stated one of the main objectives of the project is to reduce forest fuels in the area that is within the wildland-urban interface of Columbia Falls.
According to the proposed action, the area hasn’t seen wildfire since the Half Moon Fire of 1929. The landscape is now dominated by lodgepole pine.
“Past projects such as Cedar Spoon (2004) and Blankenship Fuels (2006) have reduced tree density and fuel loadings in portions of the project area, but local fire departments and the Forest Service recognize there is a need for more fuels reduction work to be done within the project area, given its close proximity to the community of Columbia Falls,” the Forest Service stated in its proposed action.
Commercial thinning operations would retain 80 to 150 trees per acre, leaving an average canopy cover of about 50 percent. Trees left behind would favor fire-tolerate species such as western larch, western white pine and Douglas fir.
The harvest would use ground-based operations, and skyline on about 185 acres of steeper terrain. About 9.4 million board feet of lumber is expected from commercial operations.
About 6.3 miles of temporary roads and 1 mile of new roads are planned for logging operations.
About 157 acres of prescribed burns are planned, which the Forest Service says will stimulate the growth of browse species for big game.
Weber stated that the forest treatments ultimately will improve overall forest health, while also providing habitat for wildlife diversity and connectivity.