by Rob Chaney
WOODWORTH – Looking at some cutthroat trout from a brand-new bridge over Trail Creek, Seeley Lake Ranger District fisheries biologist Shane Hendricks saw a new way of doing business.
“Replacing this culvert with a bridge opened up 11 miles of trout habitat,” Hendricks said. “It cost $140,000. If we didn’t have CFLR money, it would have been the only thing we did this year.”
Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration projects like the Trail Creek bridge underwrite most of the activity in a big swath of western Montana known as the Southwest Crown of the Continent. In addition to that bridge, CFLR funds also have redesigned roads, replaced culverts, killed noxious weeds, thinned forests and funded U.S. Forest Service partnerships with almost 20 private organizations, from conservation groups to snowmobile clubs. And it’s expected to keep delivering $4 million a year to that area for the rest of the decade.
It’s also alarmed other environmental groups who argue collaboration simply gives the Forest Service cover to keep chopping down trees while paying lip service to wildlife and restoration efforts.
“When I see purpose-and-need (project descriptions) that are just another way to go in and log, I don’t see how this is any different than other projects,” said Arlene Montgomery of Friends of the Wild Swan, a frequent legal challenger of the Forest Service. “There’s a well-founded lack of trust in the agency. And my definition of restoration is different than the Forest Service’s.”
But at the Wilderness Society, Northern Rockies deputy director Scott Brennan said that attitude doesn’t acknowledge today’s reality.
“People ask me all the time, why is the Wilderness Society doing this?” Brennan said. “We just realized we would be more effective if we looked at things from a large-landscape perspective. And we’re all going to get more of what we want if we work together.”
Wilderness Society members teamed up with the owners of Seeley Lake’s Pyramid Mountain Lumber Co. and landowners in the Blackfoot Challenge to propose the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project in 2008. At the time, the coalition hoped for $400,000 a year to pay for a mix of logging, landscape restoration and a biomass energy project in Seeley Lake. It also presented timber industry and snowmobile club support for new wilderness designations.
The project’s design helped foster a national initiative that won bipartisan congressional approval. This year, Congress approved $40 million for 10 projects like the Southwest Crown of the Continent, which received the largest single appropriation – $4.13 million. The initiative should continue through 2020.
A lot of the Montana appropriation will get spent around Seeley Lake, where the Center-Horse Landscape Restoration Project has outlined dozens of tasks along the southern borders of the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat wilderness areas. It covers 61,000 acres east and west of Woodworth.
From the air, the forest between Ovando and Seeley Lake displays every kind of timber management attempted over the past century. “Jammer” roads etch some clearcuts like contour lines on a topographic map. Plantation clumps of trees stand out from the natural forest like oversized cornfields. Seed-replacement stands leave a few big ponderosa pine and larch trees on otherwise denuded slopes. Backcountry roads run alongside spawning streams, or in some cases, serve as unintended dams across floodplains.
All of this takes place in a buffer zone between the nation’s first designated wilderness area and a rural community of vacation homes, ranches, top-dollar resorts and trailer parks. Rare westslope cutthroat and bull trout spawn there. Grizzly bears and lynx use Center-Horse to reach the Mission Mountains to the west.
Its elevation ranges across almost 4,000 vertical feet. Some places receive 20 inches of rain a year. Some get 80 inches. Creeks that stand bone-dry in August regularly flood in May.
Despite huge forest fire scars all around it, the Center-Horse landscape has seen little burning in the past 30 years. The average fire size between 1980 and 2008 was 3.2 acres. Blackfoot Challenge forester Matt Arno said that’s in part because the area’s high road density made it easy for firefighters to suppress any ignitions.
“But you can’t continue to catch them forever,” Arno said. “If we don’t do some good management, we’ll eventually have one that gets away – a stand replacement fire. That’s why it’s really important to get some prescribed fire back on the landscape.”
Practically every work zone on the Center-Horse map includes a prescription for some kind of burning. Seeley Lake District Ranger Tim Love said he doubts he’ll have the resources to do all those burns. But should Mother Nature lend a hand, he stands ready with analyses for where a fire might do good, or where it should be quickly extinguished to protect homes or habitat.
Much of that research has come from partnerships with groups like Wildlands CPR. Adam Switalski, the group’s science program director, provided reconnaissance teams to survey the jammer roads and update Forest Service records.
“They walked all the roads, looking for blocked culverts and aquatic impacts and weeds,” Switalski said. “They looked at the soils and the vegetative development on decommissioned roads. There’s still a lot of uncertainty on what’s the best way to fix old roads – whether to rip them out or put in water bars and leave them alone. We’ll learn over the next few years so we can concentrate on better methods later.”
Brennan and Love agreed those partnerships both help get the work done and bring new perspectives to old Forest Service practices. A forest restoration project in the 1980s would focus on improving conditions for tree growth – what Love called “agro-forestry.” A restoration project today might focus more on wildlife habitat or watershed improvement.
“If the model was for the federal government to make money, we’d cut all the trees and mine all the resources,” Love said. “That’s simply not the way we do it. The forests are not just for people who want to do one thing. All these lands are valuable. And the better we manage them across ownerships, the better for everybody.”
“We haven’t changed anything in NEPA,” Brennan added, referring to the National Environmental Policy Act that governs Forest Service environmental activity. “But having all these collaborators involved means a deeper level of participation in project design. It’s not just a blast of NEPA comments at the end of a scoping period.”
Critics like Montgomery disagreed. She said the collaboration process favored large conservation groups with budgets to send people to planning meetings. Smaller groups like Friends of the Wild Swan still scrutinize the environmental assessments and try to participate, she said, but they feel uncomfortable with the pledges of cooperation that collaboration demands.
“To sit at the table, you had to agree upfront there was going to be logging,” Montgomery said. “This land has already been compromised. We need to look at restoration as how we can recover or keep species off the Endangered Species List. I don’t see that as purpose in these projects.”
Forest Service biologist Scott Tomson said he’s frustrated with some critics’ insistence on single priorities in forest management. Tomson did much of the groundbreaking research on lynx, a threatened species.
“Historically, the way we did things was with a cookie-cutter approach,” Tomson said. “Today, it’s much messier. We don’t want to do single-species management. But we keep getting drawn into discussions where everything should be old-growth, climax forest. That’s not good for everything. From the lynx standpoint, we aren’t trying to manage for lynx on every acre of the forest.”
Brennan said one irony of collaboration with industry and conservation groups has been the speed at which logging, road removal and fisheries work has gone forward, while wilderness calls remain in congressional limbo.
“Our critics kept saying: ‘Wilderness is forever, but where are the jobs?’ ” Brennan said. “Here in Seeley, we’re getting a lot of restoration work done, but we’re still waiting for the biomass burner and the wilderness designations.”
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.