Locals in Blackfoot and Swan Valleys disappointed by forest lawsuit

Posted: October 4, 2011

Big Sky CountrySource: MontanaRestoration

Picture compliments of: Big Sky Country Photos 

Four groups have filed a lawsuit on a forest project near Seeley Lake, which has local supporters of forest restoration and collaboration, which aims to reduce these types of forest conflicts, scratching their heads.

According to Anne Dahl, President of the Swan Ecosystem Center, The Colt Summit Forest Restoration & Fuels Reduction Project is different than many projects these groups have targeted for litigation in the past because it’s a collaborative project endorsed by several citizen groups including the Lolo Restoration Committee (LRC) and the Southwestern Crown Collaborative.

The Colt Summit Forest Restoration & Fuels Reduction Project on the Seeley Lake Ranger District would reduce hazardous fuels in the wildland-urban interface; restore forest health by increasing species diversity and stand heterogeneity; and restore grizzly bear, bull trout, and aquatic and riparian habitat on Colt Creek by decommissioning a road and rerouting the primary access to the area.

After touring the proposed site this summer, Dahl’s group sent a letter of support to the Forest Service stating the proposed restoration component of the project would bring more benefits to native wildlife than harm.

According to the letter, “the long-term benefits far outweigh the short-term effects.” In addition, the potential delay of a court challenge on the thinning component of the project is not a good thing for local firefighting efforts said Frank Maradeo the local Seeley Lake Fire Chief.  “Our Community Fire Plan identified the Colt Summit project area as a high priority for wildfire mitigation,” said Maradeo.

“The area’s proximity to Highway 83 – the only northern ingress and egress to the Seeley Valley – and to numerous homes in the northern part of the valley makes it an extremely important area to treat from a community wildfire protection perspective. The potential delay of a court challenge is not a good thing for local firefighting efforts.” The project was endorsed by the Lolo Restoration Committee (LRC) and is part of the Southwestern Crown Collaborative’s (SWCC) program of work for the current year.

The LRC supports the project’s proposed treatments as being in line with the thirteen science-based Montana Forest Restoration Principles, and have said the project has “a high potential for restoration, monitoring and adaptive management.”  Meanwhile, the SWCC has acquired funding to augment the forest restoration component by removing several crumbling forest roads.

According to retired fisheries biologist Bruce Rieman of Seeley Lake, the proposed work demonstrates how forest and watershed restoration can work together for once. “The project is a good example of foresters, wildlife and fisheries specialists working together to leverage benefits across multiple resource areas.

Although that is often the goal, it is rare to be able to do it effectively in an effort like this.”

Although the outcome of the lawsuit is unknown at this point, Dahl holds out hope common ground can be found on future projects.

“We still think that we can come together with the litigants and resolve differences on future projects without resorting to legal conflict.

We hope they will reconsider our many invitations to participate in these various collaborative efforts,” Dahl said.