Conservation groups oppose clear cuts proposed near Bigfork

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | January 13, 2021 2:25 AM

Two conservation groups have taken issue with large clear-cut openings that have been proposed by Flathead National Forest officials as part of a sprawling forest management project in the Crane Mountain area near Bigfork.

Friends of the Wild Swan and the Swan View Coalition said in a joint statement Wednesday that four clear cuts proposed within the Bug Creek Integrated Resource Management Project are much larger than what the revised Flathead National Forest Plan recommends for such projects.

The Bug Creek’s timber sales proposed action lists openings that are 326, 321, 126 and 106 acres, which exceeds the Forest Plan’s suggestion that openings be limited to 40 acres with some limited exceptions based on the type of forest.

According to the groups, the project’s lengthy environmental assessment, released mid-November, did not disclose how large the openings were, or how the openings might impact wildlife, fish and water quality in the area.

The Swan Lake Ranger District disclosed the sizes after an inquiry from Friends of the Wild Swan was made, though the groups say that information was not immediately relayed to the general public.

Although that information was not directly released in a press release or through similar means, the sizes later were described in a letter that was posted on the agency’s website Dec. 11. According to Lauren Alley, public affairs officer for the Flathead National Forest, the document was released after members of the public requested additional information on the openings following the initial public comment period.

“We heard from the public in December that they would like the information in the EA [environmental assessment] released in November to be presented differently to better identify the openings,” Alley said in an email. “Though the maps and tables in the EA include the units and sizes, we developed the materials that you see posted under December 11 that hopefully show this information about the openings created by combined units more clearly.”

However, neither the letter nor the environmental assessment detail how the clear cuts might impact wildlife in the area. The conservation groups say those potential impacts are crucial bits of information that should have been included in earlier documents, along with the specific proposed sizes of the openings.

“Large openings fragment the forest and are avoided by lynx, fisher, elk, grizzly bear, goshawks, wolverine, and other wildlife. This displaces them from key habitats and deprives them of security cover,” Arlene Montgomery, program director for Friends of the Wild Swan, said in a prepared statement.

Swan View Coalition Chair Keith Hammer echoed Montgomery’s concerns related to wildlife and said other aspects of the Forest Plan itself concern him.

"The Flathead Forest Plan is full of loopholes big enough to drive a log truck and an unlimited number of half-square-mile clear-cuts through," Hammer said in a prepared statement. "Wildlife need forest cover to survive, not loopholes created by exceptions to the exceptions to the 40-acre maximum established after passage of the National Forest Management Act in 1976."

THE PUBLIC now has exactly one month to provide comment on the four openings in Bug Creek.

All told, the project area encompasses approximately 31,000 acres. Aside from the large openings, the project proposes adding around 17 new or newly designated non-motorized trail miles just southeast of Bigfork.

According to the 228-page assessment, “the need for specified motorized and non-motorized opportunities is due to increasing visitor use in the Bigfork, Swan Lake and Crane Mountain areas.” The document highlights a 24% increase in visitor usage across the forest area from 2010 to 2015 — a trend officials anticipate will continue into the future.

The Forest would also implement 4,000 to 4,600 acres of commercial and non-commercial vegetation treatment. This would “reduce fuels close to communities in the wildland-urban interface, provide wood products for the local economy, and address insect and disease and other forest health concerns.”

Those treatments also would require the agency to construct between 11 and 13 miles of road. The routes later would be returned to an “impassable state” after the project is completed.

When the environmental assessment was released in November, Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele said he was “incredibly pleased” to see the project moving forward.

“This area is a high priority for fuels reductions to make our communities more resilient to wildlife,” Steele said.

The environmental assessment, details on the openings and other scoping documents can be found on the Flathead National Forest website under the Land Resources and Management tab. The deadline to submit a comment on the clear cut proposals is Feb. 9. Feedback may be submitted to Project Leader Shelli Mavor at michele.mavor@usda.gov or Swan View District Ranger Chris Dowling at chris.dowling@usda.gov.

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com