Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

By Andi Bourne
Pathfinder 

National push for shared stewardship, more treatment

 

USFS Region 1's timber volume targets & accomplishments (million board feet)

SEELEY LAKE – "There is a [National Forest] crisis right now because of increased wildfire and increased diseases and more people moving in to the Wildland Urban Interface," said Daniel Hottle, US Forest Service press officer with the northern region. "[The Forest Service] has not been operating on the scale that we need to."

With the 2015 Farm Bill, 2018 Omnibus Bill and the 2018 Executive Order 13855 from President Donald Trump, the Forest Service has expanded authorities to prioritize fuels and timber sales on forestlands. Hottle and Seeley Lake Acting District Ranger Quinn Carver agree that, while the new direction does not come with more money or staff, the realignment of priorities expands the tools available to the Forest Service to accomplish more work collaboratively across ownership boundaries.

Past Chief of the Forest Service Timothy Tidwell testified to the US House of Representatives April 29, 2015 concerning the National Forest System and active forest management. He outlined the efforts by the Forest Service to promote collaboration among stakeholders to develop larger, landscape-scale projects, to improve the efficiency of the agency in delivering forest management projects, to implement provisions of the 2014 Farm Bill and to promote forest product markets. He said while significant progress had been made despite the Forest Service staff being reduced by over a third since 1998, the greatest barrier was the impacts of the growing fire budget.

"This was the first time the US Forest Service started to recognize that things needed to be done on more of a landscape scale," said Hottle. "To operate on a bigger scale, it needs to go beyond [federal] public lands and go into state and private lands and [include] everyone else that lives, works and recreates in these areas."

Outcomes versus outputs

The Forest Service's research and development area recently came up with a new idea and introduced the vocabulary of outcomes versus outputs. Hottle explained that when creating fire adapted, fire resilient communities is the outcome, timber is an output instead of being the sole objective for the project.

Hottle said the communication between outputs and outcomes will start at the ground level of collaboration including community meetings to address core issues including: the fuel load around the community; historic fire return intervals and the collective work that can be done to ensure large fires are not repeated.

"How we measure that is more of an intangible," said Hottle. "What the public may see in the beginning is more state and local participation from county commissioners and state level DNRC folks keeping people informed about what their wildfire risk looks like and also if it is being done collaboratively, what kind of work is being done to ensure that is mitigated."

Shared Stewardship

Hottle said shared Stewardship is now the umbrella that the Forest Service is using to categorize how they do business. It expands on the 2015 Farm Bill's Good Neighbor Authority (GNA) as a tool for shared stewardship through use of stewardship contracts and allows the states to keep a portion of the timber sale revenue for other restoration and active management work.

"It is basically sitting down with the states and using their Forest Action Plans to set priorities," said Hottle.

Idaho is the first state to have a signed shared stewardship agreement with the Forest Service. Hottle said Governor Steve Bullock's Forest in Focus 2.0 is the catalyst for Montana and he expects Montana will follow suit. But even though GNA projects are becoming more common between the state of Montana and Forest Service, they don't quite fit the vision of shared stewardship yet.

"We realized we were getting ahead of ourselves," said Hottle. "We needed to define more of what shared stewardship projects are, how they are funded, how much input we have from the state and the authorities we are using to field them on the ground."

Hottle said the intent of shared stewardship is shared decision making. The state, Forest Service and the community collectively identify areas of high wildfire risk then pool resources to fund projects using tools like the GNA. Once Montana's Forest Action Plan is complete, true shared stewardship areas can be collectively identified and priorities can be set for the biggest return on investment.

Hottle said they are trying to find more active ways to streamline the process and help the public understand that projects in the area are not just Forest Service priorities but more of a community priority.

"When we do public meetings, we know we have the state behind us and landowners behind us that have a big stake in whether or not we are treating a big enough area that is going to keep people safe," said Hottle.

Hottle said the Forest Service is also working to streamline NEPA. Categorical exclusions under the 2015 Farm Bill, as modified by the 2018 Omnibus Bill, help identify areas that include certain endangered species or critical habitat. The same analysis is applied to each project within a specific categorical exclusion until new scientific findings are released and a single action is proposed. Public comments are accepted during a scoping period. The action could be modified based on the comments and there is no objection period at the end.

"We are trying to tighten up our NEPA actions so we move things through the pipeline quicker," said Hottle who hopes what is now a 10-12 year project can soon be completed in two-five years. "We are also trying to make things more scientifically sound so that our decisions hold up better against litigation."

Trump's Executive Order directs the Secretary of the Interior to consider several objectives including: Treat 3.5 million acres of National Forest lands to reduce hazardous fuels, 2.2 million acres to protect water quality and 750,000 acres to eliminate invasive species; modify vegetation to reduce hazardous wildfire conditions by offering 3.8 billion board feet of timber; and repair roads to provide access for emergency services and restoration work.

"Had we not had these authorities and this shared stewardship vision and known that we needed to partner more to treat more areas, then this would have probably seemed pretty lofty to us," said Hottle. "Now it is probably doable."

While the Administration is pushing for more timber volume, Hottle explained that is an output when the Forest Service treats more holistically on a landscape-scale. This includes restoration and thinning projects, beetle-killed timber and the dead and down fuel that contributes to the biomass problem and wildfire risk.

"That is probably the coolest thing that comes out of our region is all the innovations towards biomass projects," said Hottle who gave examples of cross-laminated timbers, wood pellets and heating schools with wood products. "That is certainly an economic driver as well."

Hottle said while there will be more projects through these authorities, the Forest Service is trying to do them in the most thoughtful way possible. The Forest Service staff is shifting people more into timber sales and contracting. However, Hottle said other areas like trails, recreation, campgrounds will not go away. In fact, in some cases they will have more funding through the timber sale dollars.

"It's not saying timber, timber, timber and logs on trucks are going to take the priority - that has been the hardest thing to convince people," said Hottle. "It is something we knew we needed to do and these authorities have allowed us to do more."

What does this mean locally?

Carver acknowledges that Congress and the President have asked the Forest Service to do better managing the National Forests and lean more into timber harvest. However, he doesn't feel the Executive Order and national direction would change what the Seeley Lake Ranger District is doing.

Carver said the Seeley Lake Ranger District has been heavily logged and has been impacted greatly by fire. This leaves the District to manage previous harvest that hasn't been burned and treat hazardous fuels.

"Rice Ridge scared the hell out of people, including us," said Carver. "Let's get Seeley very well protected and at least put some thought and management into how we are going to manage smoke so people get back to more of a normal scenario."

The Seeley District is included in the western Montana pod with the Lolo, Bitterroot, Kootenai and Flathead National Forests where timber and treatment acreage targets are assigned. These targets have increased without increasing Forest Service capacity.

Carver said the Kootenai National Forest used to have 500 staff in 1986 and it is under 200 employees now. The timber target is only about 30 million board feet less than in 1985.

However, Carver said GNA is the big capacity help for the District. DNRC foresters will be implementing the projects, freeing up the federal employees to focus on their projects.

Carver said the challenge is integrating wildlife, restoration and recreation benefits into fuels, timber and prescribed burn projects, like has been done with the shared stewardship projects in Idaho. The District doesn't have the timber value to offset the projects. However, he said Pyramid Mountain Lumber, Inc.'s capacity and willingness to deal with smaller diameter material is "in a large part what is going to make it work."

Three new projects have been proposed on the District using a categorical exclusion for wildfire resiliency. These projects will use existing roads from the Rice Ridge fire. They are all intermediate style harvest of small diameter trees creating sheltered fuel breaks. The projects favor larch, ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and spruce, depending on the site, and all lodgepole pine will be removed.

"The idea is long term you would end up with the big larch stands, like on the west side of Seeley Lake, that gives us the opportunity to insert firefighters and be effective at suppression," said Carver.

The first project named "Kozy by the Fire" is a 3,000-acre unburned area adjacent to private land in Kozy Korner. The Southwest Crown Collaborative and Blackfoot Clearwater Collaborative support this project. It will yield around three million board feet of small diameter and post/pole timber as well as some commercial timber.

The second is around the West Side Bypass directly west of Seeley Lake. Carver estimates around two million board feet will come off this project that will be a separate project under the same CE as Kozy.

Lolo National Forest timber volume targets & accomplishments (million board feet)

Both the Kozy and West Side Bypass projects will be done through the GNA since the areas match up with state and private land. They will expand the fuel breaks already in place to ensure more effective fire suppression and home protection in the case of a wildfire.

The third project named "Liberty II" is removing the trees from around 500 acres that are dying due to insect and disease from the latent effects of the Liberty Fire. Carver said this is an effort to proactively manage the area. He estimates around three to four million board feet will be removed.

"The point for targeting some of these projects is to give ourselves a better chance of defending the town, inserting firefighters safely and [adding] fuel breaks so if we got another Rice Ridge situation, we are in a better situation to fight it," said Carver. "We aren't going to get a lot of volume but it will help towards the target that we are aiming for as a region and all the Forests."

 

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