Trading Trees for Water

Trading Trees for Water

Maffly, Brian
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Logging trucks may roll again in Hyalite and Sourdough canyons, the busy recreation destinations in the Gallatin Range just south of Bozeman. The Gallatin National Forest (GNF) and the City of Bozeman are jointly sponsoring a plan to clean out diseased, dead, and overgrown timber stands in the watersheds that provide almost all of Bozeman’s municipal water.

Officials hope to start the five-year Bozeman Municipal Watershed Project, which could result in the logging of up to 1,100 acres, as soon as next year. In September, the Forest Service opened the environmental review process with a “scoping” letter highlighting the dire consequences should a catastrophic wildfire sweep across Sourdough Canyon, the motor-free outdoor recreation area drained by Bozeman Creek. Should such a worst-case event be followed by heavy rains, the resulting sedimentation would clog the filters at the city’s water treatment facilities and effectively cut off municipal water.

But skeptical environmentalists have pointed out that logging is not necessarily a good prescription against catastrophic fire. Logging, meanwhile, has long been associated with degradation of water quality and fire risk, notes Phil Knight of the Native Forest Network. In 2001, the Fridley and Purdy fires, for example, started in logged and roaded land before burning large parts of the GNF near Sourdough and Hyalite canyons.

Officials claim the proposed operation is based on a 2004 report by the Bozeman Watershed Council, which recommended logging aimed at “fuels reduction” in Sourdough Canyon as a way to safeguard the watershed from just one of many threats it faces. These canyons have seen heavy logging in the past, but the chainsaws have been largely silent for the last couple decades. The last logging operations occurred in 1990s on 720 acres in Sourdough to “improve the visual integrity” of a 1981 clear cut. The Bozeman Creek drainage was logged in the 1960s and 1970s, resulting in damage that creates water quality challenges to this day, the report states.

Hyalite, the most heavily used national forest recreation area in Montana, sees up to 2,000 vehicles a day, which raises fire-safety concerns, the Forest Service stresses. If the canyon ignites on a busy summer weekend, fleeing visitors might clog the canyon’s one paved road out, thus thwarting an orderly evacuation and a timely response by firefighters, officials suggest in their “scoping” document.

Their plan calls for “treating” a total of 6,000 acres in Sourdough and another 3,000 in Hyalite, through prescribed burning, thinning, and logging. The project, whose cost has yet to be estimated, would target stands in the lower reaches of these drainages, near water intakes and the water treatment facilities, as well as lands in the so-called “wildland-urban interface” where recent development has put residences close to the forest boundary.

The Bozeman Municipal Watershed Project would be the Gallatin’s first project conducted under the Healthy Forest Restoration Act. The controversial new law’s first project, targeting Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest, turned into a PR nightmare after forest officials shut the conservation community out of the decision-making process for the Middle East Fork project. Officials admitted marking trees for removal before the public comment period had expired. Then Forest Supervisor Dave Bull later barred environmentalists from a September press event announcing his decision to rely heavily on logging, despite intense public opposition. Given the public scrutiny that will zero in on the Sourdough/Hyalite project, Gallatin officials will not likely repeat the Bitterroot’s missteps.
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