SUPERIOR – A few of this summer’s wildfires burned through timber that the Forest Service planned to log. Now, logging will happen sooner but only as part of smaller salvage operations.
During Tuesday’s public scoping meeting at the Superior Ranger Station, Ninemile District Ranger Erin Phelps and other Forest Service specialists explained their fast-tracked proposal to log about 2,700 acres within the boundaries of the Sunrise Fire and 2,150 acres of the Sheep Gap Fire.
The projects fall into the category of “salvage” operations, so the areas to be logged must contain damaged trees. While loggers might not want those as much as normal trees, the salvage determination means loggers might be able to harvest those trees faster.
Normally, federal law – the National Environmental Policy Act - requires specific time periods for public comment and appeals on normal timber projects, which means the process takes time. But the burn may have created an “emergency situation” if it causes “substantial loss of economic value to the federal government if implementation of the decision were delayed.” If the Regional Forester determines that an emergency situation exists, people can appeal his decision on the projects but logging won’t stop while the appeal is being considered.
NEPA specialist Pat Partyka said a decision could be made as early as June, so logging companies could be on the job toward the end of July.
“We’re doing something similar to the Copper King Fire near Plains, where last year, we did fire salvage as well. Between our scoping period and when we had a decision, it was about seven months. That’s what we’re looking for here – expediting the planning process because burned material deteriorates rather rapidly,” Partyka said.
After lightning started the Sunrise Fire on July 16, the flames smoldered and flared for the rest of the summer, eventually affecting about 27,000 acres of the Lolo National Forest south of Interstate 90 between Alberton and Superior.
The Sheep Gap Fire south of Highway 200 between Thompson Falls and Plains didn’t start until the end of August, but the effects of a hot, dry summer meant more than 25,000 acres burned within two weeks.
Even though both were large fires, the severity of most of the burn was moderate or less, said FS silviculturalist Carly Aniballi. This is typical of wildfires that burn in a patchy or “mosaic” manner where some areas can be completely blackened while trees that are slightly singed or even green survive nearby.
So the proposed salvage units are scattered randomly throughout the burn. In selecting the units, Aniballi used criteria that included proximity to existing roads, number of usable trees and whether the unit could be reseeded.
Aniballi used satellite imagery for her initial assessment of areas to be logged. She could easily find those bare blackened areas where the burn was severe. However, even there the fire didn’t burn into the heartwood of most trees, Aniballi said – only the bark was burned, leaving plenty of wood for lumber.
She also wanted to rule out areas that weren’t burned much or at all. But aerial photos can’t reveal the difference between no, low- and moderate-severity burns because the trees still have healthy crowns of branches. That’s where Aniballi and her team had to hike in to see what the conditions actually were.
“In those moderate-severity stands, we were also looking for imminent mortality. That’s where trees don’t immediately die from the fire, but in the next year, two years, which trees are going to die, looking at risk factors such as insects or disease?” Aniballi said. “Trees can have intact green crowns. But this fire burned extremely hot in the understory. So in many areas, it baked the soil around the root and killed the cambium of these trees. They think they’re still alive, but they won’t survive the next year.”
Other foresters, such as Wyoming State Forester John Crisp, say damage assessment is not always straightforward and judging tree survival is easier the next growing season. But Phelps wants to avoid delay.
Tricon Timber manager Willy Peck complained about the low acreage in the proposal, saying his men could probably identify another 4,000 acres of salvage timber.
Aniballi said she was pressured by the proposal's accelerated timeline and didn’t have enough time before the snow flew to survey all the area. Partyka said Peck could request the additional acres in his scoping comments but cautioned him that the team would need more time to evaluate those areas.
“More acres would extend the NEPA timeline for me,” said Forester Wanda Smith. “But I would run an economic analysis of that.”
Mineral County Commissioner Jerrie Tipton was frustrated that the Lolo National Forest couldn’t just move forward with the 18,000-acre Quartz-Trout timber sale it had started preparing.
“Trout Creek needs to be addressed, so is that going to be farther down the line now? Are we even going to do anything with it now?” Tipton said. “The roads are already open. It would be the perfect opportunity to get it done.”
Phelps said it wasn’t completely off the table, but salvage is the priority now and everything else is on hold for at least a year. Trout Creek doesn’t qualify for salvage.
In addition to the Sunrise and Sheep Gap Fires, the Lolo National Forest is assessing restoration options on five other large burn areas, including the Lolo Peak and Rice Ridge fires.