Bitterroot Front Project draft

The Bitterroot National Forest is going to try out “condition-based” NEPA with the Bitterroot Front Project.

The project anticipates 54,046 acres of prescribed burning alone; 35,575 acres of non-commercial logging coupled with prescribed burning for whitebark pine restoration; 27,477 acres of commercial logging with prescribed burning; 16,019 acres of vegetation slashing and burning; and 3,163 acres of non-commercial logging and prescribed burning… It will take dozens of miles of roadwork to do all that.

The project is expected to take four years.  “Condition-based” means they don’t know where any of these things are going to happen until they get there.  From the EA, as the project proceeds …

Information about proposed activities, including maps, treatment unit tables, and the activities’ relationship to the Bitterroot Front project’s overall treatment thresholds, would be available on the Bitterroot National Forest website. The responsible official would finalize proposed activities only after field review of existing conditions. The responsible official would retain the authority to make final decisions about the location, extent, and types of activities planned and completed under the Bitterroot Front project.

Nothing said here about the process they’ll follow to evaluate and disclose that new information they find when they get there, in particular about site-specific effects. They seem to be taking the position that “this is it” for NEPA compliance:

By preparing this environmental assessment (EA), the Forest Service is fulfilling agency policy and direction to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements and to determine whether the effects of the proposed action may be significant enough to require the preparation of an
environmental impact statement (EIS).  (EA, p. 1)

The EA says, “if an EIS is required, the Forest Service will prepare an EIS consistent with 40 CFR section 1501.9(e)(1).”  I know this is the theory, but how often does a draft EA get redone as a draft EIS after public comment makes the case for significant effects?  Usually the agency makes that call early enough to not create the extra step of an EA.   The agency has plenty of examples of timber sales much smaller than this that had “significant” environmental effects documented in an EIS, but they seem kind of committed to an EA.

This years-long project is being pursued under emergency authority, so there will be no administrative review.  So if the Forest stays this EA course here, the emergency determination would allow local officials to make the call on whether they think this EA would hold up in court.

The “implementation plan” in the EA says that the obligation during implementation is to “Demonstrate that the effects of implementation would be within the scope of activities and the range of effects described in the EA and authorized in the Decision Notice.”  This would be an effects analysis, which would trigger consideration of NEPA.  It could answer the question of whether the effects have become significant (triggering an EIS for the whole project), but apparently is not intended to address the question of whether the site-specific effects have been accounted for pursuant to NEPA after the locations and treatments are known, and whether they are “consequential” (in a NEPA sense).

Where courts have approved of approaches like this it has been where the “conditions” are very specifically defined in the initial decision so that there is not much flexibility in implementation and the site-specific effects can be determined and evaluated.  It doesn’t look to me like the Bitterroot Front is similar to the two favorable court examples I’ve read, but it does feel like the familiar pushing of the envelope to see how far they can take this approach.

So, while I think an EA (with no administrative review) in these circumstances seems like kind of an outrageous idea, I actually wanted to focus on another familiar issue this article brings up:

Critics of the proposal argue that the significant removal of vegetation — including live trees and brush and standing and downed dead timber — will actually promote wildfire spread by allowing uninhibited wind to whip flames through opened-up forest that’s been dried by more wind and sun penetration…

A body of science supports the idea that “forest treatments” — a regime of logging, thinning and burning — can reduce wildfire risk on a landscape and make firefighting efforts more successful. But critics of widespread forest treatments can point to other studies that cast doubt on their efficacy, and on the idea that forests in western Montana used to be dominated by spread-out Ponderosa pine with frequent low-severity fire.

I hope the EA has a good discussion of the science on both sides.  But that last point is a new one to me.  Several national forests in Montana with dry forest habitats have revised their forest plans, and included desired vegetation conditions, which are supposed to be derived from historic conditions.  I don’t think I’ve heard much disagreement with establishing “spread-out Ponderosa pine with frequent low-severity fire” as a desired condition for places similar to the Bitterroot.  Have I missed something?  (Or did the author misinterpret something?)

Here’s what I find in the EA (based on “a geospatial analysis of the Bitterroot Front project area to prioritize communities at risk from large wildland fire growth”):

Modeling results of the current conditions within the project area show that the forest is at extreme risk of a catastrophic fire. The modeled outputs from the present fuel arrangement conditions do not mimic the natural fire spread type for sustainable ecosystem management in the Bitterroot National Forest.

Part of the proposed action is:

Restoring and maintaining ecosystem health by continuing to move the fire regime condition class toward the desired future condition through continued treatments that create disturbance.

Most of the discussion in the EA seems to be about the existing fire risk rather than whether that risk is “natural fire spread type.”  According to the Vegetation Specialist Report, “Overall, the desired future condition includes forest structures, composition, and processes that would have been present historically.  It proceeds to offer a description of “warm/dry” and “cool/moist” vegetation types.   If there are truly disagreements about the desired condition of vegetation or fire regime for these types or areas, alternatives should be considered.  (Under the 2012 Planning Rule, these desired conditions should be found in the forest plan.)

Then there is the question of, “whether the forest plan should be amended for elk habitat objectives, snags, old growth, and coarse woody debris standards to accomplish the project objectives.”  This all comes off looking like they are revising their (very old) forest plan for half of the forest, with new desired conditions and standards, using a project EA.



13 thoughts on “Bitterroot Front Project draft”

  1. PS – One of the scientific issues in the Eastside Screens case that the court just addressed was the “historical conditions” of the six dry eastside forests. The court found that there was no “controversy” about that after reviewing “hundreds of scientific papers,” concluding “the vast body of literature relevant to this project is very much aligned with the proposed change to management policy.” So an argument that ponderosa pine was not historically open forest with frequent low severity fire seems not likely to get much traction.

    • John: Has anyone done a comprehensive study of past forest conditions for the area? Are there actually “hundreds of scientific papers” on the topic? And if so, how many of these papers use computer modeling to interpret the past? And how many use actual documentation, including original land surveys, historical forestry maps and aerials, and eyewitness accounts?

      I do know that ponderosa pine grew/grows under a wide variety of conditions and that Leiberg described thousands of acres of ponderosa pine in the 1890s and early 1900s as “historically open forest with frequent low severity fire”:

  2. While few would disagree that open Ponderosa pine would be the desired condition at low elevations along the edges of the Bitterroot Valley, the Forest Service extends that model to all elevations and aspects in the project area. Being intimately familiar with parts of the project area, I know that the EA maps are very inaccurate and appear to be generated by a GIS modeling process with little ground truthing. This is no surprise given the Bitterroot NF revolving door of biologists, district rangers, forest supervisors, and NEPA personnel. Almost no one, except perhaps the industrial foresters, has been around long enough to gain much knowledge of, or appreciation for, the forest. Bitterroot NF has shown time and time again that their main priority is to get the cut out, using whatever excuse will work, and they won’t let the public get in the way. On the Bitterroot Front project, they even ignored all the recommendations and input from one of their own local collaboratives, instead choosing to suspend all communications with them.

      • The two collaboratives are the Bitterroot Forest Collaborative (BFC) that’s been around since 2007, and the newer, politically appointed Ravalli County Collaborative (RCC) that started about 2019, I’m guessing in response to the BFC’s increasing emphasis on science-based management.

    • I would hope that they spell out what happens on the different aspects in the project areas. While the south-facing slopes seem to fit the ‘model’ pretty well, the other aspects all have multiple species of flammable trees. Thinning from below might be good, but you cannot cut all of the flammable trees on those slopes. ‘Fire Safety’ is relative. The other benefits of thinning should be as visible as fuel reduction and ‘Fire Safety’ are, in the plans.

  3. With “condition-based” NEPA the key thing is the “if this is what we find on the ground…this is what we are going to do”. The maps used for these things are usually modelled and never precise enough to develop site-specific prescriptions, but they can be used at a larger scale to get an idea of the broad-scale existing condition. But the bottom line here, since this is being done under the emergency authority, is that time is of the essence – that is no excuse for doing sloppy work that impacts streams and ESA species, etc. But what is at risk? If we want/need to act sooner rather than later, what are the tradeoffs? I have seen too much planning go on for 2-3 years, only to have a fire come through the area before the decision is signed or the work can be implemented, and all of that time spent on small details in the planning process is moot. To me, many time the question is “What do we want this landscape to look like after the next fire comes through?”

    • “The maps used for these things are usually modelled and never precise enough to develop site-specific prescriptions, but they can be used at a larger scale to get an idea of the broad-scale existing condition.” That is fine, but it will run into the NEPA requirement for site-specific analysis, and proper disclosure of the results of that analysis. So there is not necessarily a problem with the NEPA for this “Project” if they recognize that they will have to do something more with the site-specific data they get later.

      The bottom line is that NEPA requires that before an irretrievable commitment of resources, and the emergency procedures don’t change that requirement. I’m not convinced doing a broad-scale “decision” first (instead of just a broad-scale analysis and deferring the decision) saves time over prioritizing a specific area (based on that broad-scale analysis), proposing a conventional project there and doing the site-specific analysis. The “one gulp” approach also increases the likelihood of opposition (both geographically and legally), and all the eggs in one basket means that a loss in court would leave them with nothing anywhere and delay any management. Of course blaming the lawyers for that instead of their choice of a steamroller strategy.

      I think your last question would be a good way to look at it.

  4. Here’s another emergency project on the Lolo that echoes some of the comments about the Bitterroot Face. This article actually provides a specific reference related to my question about historical open forests: “Garrity cited a 2023 study that suggests the Forest Service has ignored research and other evidence showing that Montana was not historically dominated by frequent low-severity fire, and that high-severity stand-replacement wildfires in dense forest have historical precedent.”

    And the reference is this:
    “Countering Omitted Evidence of Variable Historical Forests and Fire Regime in Western USA Dry Forests: The Low-Severity-Fire Model Rejected (April 2023)
    by William L. Baker 1,*ORCID,Chad T. Hanson 2,Mark A. Williams 3 andDominick A. DellaSala 4
    “Our rebuttal shows that evidence omitted in the review left a falsification of the scientific record, with significant land management implications. The low-severity model is rejected and mixed-severity model is supported by the corrected body of scientific evidence.”

    I don’t see “low-severity” and mixed-severity” as an either-or but as a probability function, and the management question is whether fuel density is within NRV (with weather determining the severity of a fire). Is there a case to be made that (to the extent fuels are relevant to fires) dense fuels in dry forest types are not outside of historical conditions?

    (I’m ignoring questions about whether fuels should be less than NRV in areas with values at risk, or whether they should be less to offset a warmer climate.)

  5. One is the WildEarth Guardians (Tennessee Creek) case discussed here:
    The issue there was pretty specific to Canada lynx.

    The other is Navickas v. Conroy, discussed in comments here:
    It is site-specific enough that it probably shouldn’t be considered outside the normal scope of typical logging projects.

    My impression (without getting to deeply into the record) is that the Bitterroot Front is more similar to the two cases discussed in the Vermont Law Review (the topic of this previous Smokey Wire post) where the process did not comply with NEPA. Feel free to disagree.


Leave a Comment

Discover more from The Smokey Wire : National Forest News and Views

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading