Bitterroot timber thinning plan goes up in smoke

Posted: August 11, 2016

Source: Missoulian

Tom Bauer/Missoulian


A Bitterroot National Forest timber thinning project that’s been in the works for nearly five years has gone up in smoke as a result of the Roaring Lion fire.

The Westside Collaborative Vegetation Management Project proposed to thin about five miles of national forest lands that border private property between Lost Horse and Roaring Lion creeks near Hamilton.

When Bitterroot Forest Supervisor Julie King signed off on the fuel reduction project the first week of July, the hope was that non-commercial thinning would have started later this month. The commercial logging portion was expected to be underway by late October.

But all of that is going to have to wait now, said Eric Winthers, Darby District ranger for the Bitterroot Forest.

The fire has already burned through the upper third of the project where non-commercial thinning was planned. Some of the timber units have also been affected, Winthers said.

“At this point, it’s all going to have to be re-evaluated. We probably are not going to be able to offer it for sale this year,” he said. “Some of it will be a salvage sale. We’ll have to take another look once things calm down.”

The project was one of 13 in Montana selected to receive state funding as part of a program designed to increase the pace and scale of efforts to improve the health of the forest and watershed in the state.

The 2013 Legislature set aside $5 million from the state’s wildfire suppression account to fund Montana’s Forests in Focus Initiative. From that fund, the state provided the Bitterroot Forest with $135,990 to pay for timber sale preparation and silvicultural prescription field work.

The proposal to thin 2,327 acres of national forest lands directly uphill from private lands filled with residences wasn’t without controversy.

Some homeowners were concerned about potential damage to their privately maintained road by logging trucks. Others were opposed to the decision to build a little more than three miles of road and construct a new bridge over Camas Creek.

Five days before the Roaring Lion fire started, a couple of property owners filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction to stop the project.

Fred Rohrbach and Bitterroot LLC filed the lawsuit July 27 in Missoula District Court, claiming the Forest Service violated the Healthy Forest Restoration Act by failing to properly collaborate with local residents.

Rohrbach was opposed to the proposed 3.8 miles of new road and the Camas Creek bridge. The road would have been built within yards of Rohrbach’s home. The lawsuit said Rohrbach’s wife has severe asthma, which would have been exacerbated by the dust created by the road.

The Rohrbachs were among the nearly 750 people forced to evacuate after the Roaring Lion fire pushed down onto private lands.

Rohrbach didn’t return a message left on his home telephone Friday.

Winthers said the fire did come close to the Rohrbach home. A bulldozer fire line was constructed along the border of the family’s private land and the national forest.

“The judge hasn’t had a chance to review the lawsuit yet,” Winthers said. “We’re not sure about the impact the fire will have on the lawsuit at this point.”