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Forest Service updates documents on Bug Creek project

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | March 24, 2021 2:35 AM

Flathead National Forest officials recently released an updated environmental assessment and other documentation pertaining to the proposed Bug Creek project near Bigfork, which spans a project area of approximately 36,000 acres and is intended to provide more recreation opportunities and reduce wildfire risk in the area.

The new assessment, released late last week, was prepared to clarify and correct errors identified in the project’s initial November 2020 assessment. The items of concern were identified during the public comment period for the project, which will include approximately 4,600 acres of combined commercial and non-commercial treatments to reduce “fire behavior characteristics.”

As one example, the previous assessment didn’t include specific information related to the whitebark pine — a species the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed be listed as threatened in December 2020. The new assessment adopted language reflecting the status and notes that “no forest management restoration, or research-related activities are known to pose any threat to the whitebark pine in any form…”

Other updates to the document include an additional project design feature section that more clearly describes protections and rehabilitation efforts for U.S. Forest Service-designated system trails during and after the proposed timber sales. It also further details how the agency will prevent any unauthorized motorized vehicle use of the 17 miles of non-motorized trails it is seeking to construct as part of the project, which will occur on the east and west sides of Crane Mountain between Flathead and Swan lakes.

For example, a new section in the assessment states that as unauthorized and unmanaged trails are discovered, “naturalization” of the area would be completed to return the area “as near as possible” to its original condition. Techniques to do so may include barriers to block traffic and the promotion of seed recruitment for natural revegetation, among others.

The assessment also notes the agency considered proposals to add more motorized trails as part of the project. However, details of those proposals were not fully analyzed because “the Forest Plan does not allow a net increase in open motorized access density.”

Finally, the 236-page assessment provides a tentative timeline for the project. Actions could begin as early this fall. Commercial treatments will take approximately five years to complete, while other funding-dependent project activities could take up to 10 years to finish.

The document emphasized the Forest Service would only be responsible for treatments identified on National Forest Service public lands. The agency would coordinate with other agencies such as the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the Bigfork Fire Department to reduce hazards associated with wildland fire on adjacent private and state lands.

All told, the corrections did not result in a change to the significance of effects of the proposed activities. The size, scope and purpose of the project remain relatively unchanged.

The project has now entered the required objection period. The 45-day administrative review period allows people who have previously submitted timely, specific written comments during any designated opportunity for public comment, to file an objection to the draft decision.

A 136-page draft decision was released last week and is available for review on the Forest Service’s website. The notice shows the project received dozens of public comments, many of which expressed concerns related proposed forestry methods and possible impacts to wildlife, including grizzly bears and lynx.

Certain actions received significant pushback early on from locals and from conservation organizations, including Friends of the Wild Swan and the Swan View Coalition.

In a joint statement released in January, the groups took aim at the large clear cuts proposed in the area and argued the agency did not provide the public with enough clarity on their sizes. As it stands, four openings ranging from 106 to 306 acres are included in the project — sizes that far exceed what the revised Flathead National Forest Plan recommends for such projects.

The acreage of the openings was not disclosed in the original environmental assessment. They can now be found on page 110 of the new document.

For more information on the Bug Creek Project and to review updated documents, go to https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=47327

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