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Park Creek fire tour

Members of the Ten Mile-South Helena Collaborative tour the Park Creek fire outside Lincoln in June. Stonewall Creek is flowing in the background.

Following litigation and wildfires in 2017, the U.S. Forest Service announced a new proposal Friday for logging and prescribed burning near Lincoln.

The latest proposal for the Stonewall Vegetation project northwest of Lincoln calls for about 1,400 acres of logging, thinning and prescribed burns. The project’s goals include reducing fuels while providing logs for commercial harvest.

Implementing the project, officials said, would require one mile of temporary road construction and maintenance on 27 miles of roads. The project would also require an exemption from hiding cover standards for elk habitat.

Before the 2017 Park Creek fire, Stonewall had proposed up to 8,500 acres of logging, thinning and burning. Roughly 13,000 acres of the project area burned during the wildfire, which caused the Forest Service to withdraw it pending supplemental environmental analysis.

“During the last days of the Park Creek fire, the Rice Ridge fire was coming toward us and there are serious concerns about a swath of vegetation that remains … just west of the community,” said Lincoln District Ranger Michael Stansberry. “That area remains unburned, so we’re looking at how to implement it and prevent fire from moving into that side of the community. For us, Stonewall is still very valid.”

The Forest Service has opened a 45-day public comment period on what it calls a “supplemental environmental impact statement,” which analyzes the effectiveness of the project in light of environmental changes following the wildfire.

Much of what burned included areas slated for prescribed burning, Stansberry said. The latest alternative calls for only about 200 acres of prescribed burns, but the unburned timber units hold a good amount of saleable logs, he added.

At the time the Forest Service withdrew Stonewall, the project had been temporarily halted by a federal judge, who among several findings ruled that that Forest Service had not shown an imminent danger of wildfire. When the area then caught ablaze, the project provided political points for those pushing to reform environmental litigation.

“Repeat litigants prevent communities from doing necessary forest management," Rep. Greg Gianforte said at the time.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council challenged Stonewall on multiple grounds. The groups argued the project jeopardized wildlife habitat, including for threatened Canada lynx and grizzly bears, and that claims made by the Forest Service about the efficacy of wildfire mitigation work was not supported by current fire science.

U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen issued a temporary halt to Stonewall in response to the lawsuit. He later granted the Forest Service’s motion to withdraw the project pending Friday’s supplemental analysis.

Stansberry said the latest proposal is not affected by the original court proceedings, and the Forest Service hopes to begin work by next year.

Mike Garrity, executive director for the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said Friday that he believes the project remains flawed. The newest proposal removes remaining security habitat for elk and risks pushing big game onto private lands and the exemption from hiding cover requirements indicates that the agency will not follow guidelines over road densities in elk habitat, he said.

“As Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks biologists told the Forest Service during travel planning: 'The number of elk that spend the majority of the year on some nearby private lands has increased dramatically between 1986 and 2013,” Garrity said. “FWP has consistently urged the (Forest Service) to increase functional fall habitat security on the Lincoln Ranger District.”

The project, first proposed by the collaborative Lincoln Restoration Committee, has seen a great deal of support from many in the Lincoln area.

“There’s literally thousands of acres of dead standing lodgepole that’s begging for a fire and very close to Lincoln,” KD Feeback, co-chair of the committee, said in 2017. “I think it’s fair to say that it’s the pervasive belief of not only the Lincoln Restoration Committee but the rest of the people that these giant wildfires are an environmental disaster.”

Once the Notice of Availability is published in the Federal Register, a 45-day public comment period will begin. Members of the public can submit their comments in one of three ways:

• Regular mail: Lincoln Ranger District, 1569 Hwy 200, Lincoln, MT 59639;

• Hand deliver: Lincoln Ranger District Office from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; or

• Email: comments-northern-helena-lincoln@fs.fed.us with “Stonewall DSEIS” in the subject line

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Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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