Public input sought on environmental impact assessment for Mid-Swan Valley forest project

| September 2, 2020 3:15 AM

The Flathead National Forest will seek public input on a draft Environmental Impact Statement for a 174,000 acre landscape level project to restore forest conditions and reduce fuels in the Swan Valley. The purpose of the Mid-Swan Landscape Restoration and Wildland Urban Interface Project, also known as the Mid-Swan Project, is two-fold: to restore and maintain key habitat for plant and animal species in light of a changing climate and to reduce the risk of extreme wildfire adjacent to local communities, according to a release issued by the Forest Service on Aug. 27.

Public comment will be accepted through Oct. 13 and two virtual open houses are also scheduled for 6 p.m. on Sept. 2 and 23. The first will cover an overview of the project and proposed activities, while the second session will focus on environmental impacts and will include a Q&A session.

“The project is anchored in the ecology of the area,” Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele said. “The rural residents of the valley and the communities of Swan Lake and Condon will benefit from the proposed active management in the area to reduce the risk of large-scale fires and to create a more diverse, resilient landscape.”

The project proposes fuel reduction, young stand thinning, commercial tree harvest, tree planting and direct seeding. It also includes road building, rerouting and removing different route segments. Fish barriers would be addressed by removing or upgrading some culverts and beaver habitat would be improved, the release states.

According to the Forest Service, early timber management practices across multiple land ownerships often selectively cut the largest or most valuable trees and left behind forest roads in various conditions. The landscape is at risk of losing key habitat for native fish and wildlife species and the natural processes that support them. Current forest conditions pose a wildfire risk to residents, forest users, public and private infrastructure, and firefighters.

In 2010, a new federal government initiative called the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program competitively selected the Southwestern Crown Collaborative as one of the first ten projects in the nation to undertake science-based forest restoration in the Mid-Swan. The Mid-Swan Project is the first planning effort in the Southwestern Crown Collaborative to look at such a large area and determine management needs across multiple watersheds.

The public first had an opportunity to provide comments on the project in 2018. The Forest Service has considered these comments, made updates to the project based on these comments, as well as created an analysis of the effects of the proposals, and is now asking the public for additional input.

Two local conservation groups have already voiced opposition to the environmental impact assessment. The Swan View Coalition and the Friends of the Wild Swan issued a joint statement Aug. 28, arguing that the Forest Service’s plan is vague in nature and fails to address the effects of specific timber sales.

“It does not analyze the effects of specific timber sales and says outright that, when those timber sales are actually planned, the public won’t be allowed to participate in analyzing the effects then either,” said Coalition President Keith Hammer.

Friends Program Director Arlene Montgomery said the Forest Service’s current plan failed to account for old growth forest and will harm wildlife.

"They have been planning this project for years yet they haven't mapped where old growth forest habitat is and apparently have no intention to until they plan to log in or near it,” Montgomery said. “NEPA requires an EIS provide full public disclosure of the proposed alternatives and the impacts to fish, wildlife and water quality from those activities now, not at a later time when the public isn't involved."

Learn more:

For project information, instructions on how to comment and to register for the webinars, visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=54853. Comments may also be submitted to Joe Krueger, Swan Lake Ranger District, 650 Wolfpack Way , Kalispell, MT, 59901 or via email to joseph.krueger@usda.gov. To join the virtual meetings, RSVP to Micah Helser at micah.helser@usda.gov and download Microsoft Teams. To access the Sept. 2, use the conference ID 585 365 829#. The access for the Sept. 23 meeting will be provided at a later date