Cathedral Cliffs

The majority of logging proposed along the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway would extend from just east of the Cathedral Cliffs, shown here, east to Antelope Mountain.

BRETT FRENCH, Gazette Staff

Touted in travel and promotional journals for its jaw-dropping beauty, the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway that winds through the mountains between Cody, Wyo., and Yellowstone National Park is being recommended for a haircut of sorts.

The Shoshone National Forest is proposing to log 2,000 acres along about 9 miles of Highway 296 near Crandall, Wyo., to remove dead and dying trees. The trees are under attack by the western spruce budworm — an insect the Forest Service has dubbed “the most widely distributed and destructive defoliator of coniferous forests in Western North America.”

“Spruce budworm has devastated that corridor,” said Amy Haas, Shoshone forester. “Usually budworm does its thing and the trees recover. But we’ve had four years of it.”

Trees in the project area include lodgepole pine, Englemann spruce, subalpine fir, Douglas fir and aspen.

Forest fires

The scenic corridor isn’t without its battle scars.

The region suffered through the Clover Mist fire, one of the 1988 blazes that scorched Yellowstone Park. In August, lightning ignited the Hunter Peak fire, which burned 3,500 acres just northwest of Crandall, a collection of mostly vacation homes with a few guest ranches.

At least one resident supports the logging idea.

“They need to get that done,” said Dave Segall, co-owner of the K Bar Z Guest Ranch. “It’s a big fire hazard.”

The forest is taking public comment on the plan for the next 30 days. No action will be taken until the agency writes an environmental analysis and solicits public comment on that document.

At the earliest a plan would be signed by September 2017 with implementation either starting that winter or the following summer. The timber sales would be spread over the next five years and combined with tree planting to generate new growth along the corridor, Haas said.

Proposal

Under the proposed action the agency would use ground-based logging on 1,600 acres along with cable logging on another 400 acres. About nine miles of temporary road would be built in addition to the reconstruction of another 16 miles of road. Some of the roadway would be decommissioned after work is completed. 

The proposed project would include logging in about 125 acres of the Windy Mountain Roadless Area, treatments that are consistent with the 2001 Roadless Area Conservation Rule, according to a Shoshone National Forest press release.

Also, “several proposed units are adjacent to the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone Wild River corridor,” the Forest Service said. In 1990 a 20.5-mile segment of the Clarks Fork downstream from Crandall was added to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

“Nothing is proposed in the Wild and Scenic River corridor,” Haas said. “No treatment goes on within that boundary.”

Because the infestation has been so deadly to trees along the popular route to and from Yellowstone, the forest staff determined that it would be “impossible to respond to the budworm infestation and comply with (Land Management Plan) standards for Scenic Integrity Objectives in the Scenic Byway corridor. Leaving sufficient live trees post treatment to meet visual standards isn’t possible in the heaviest-hit timber stands.”

“That leaves us with a huge planting effort along that corridor,” Haas said.

No estimates have been made on the volume or value of the logged timber or the cost of the road building and tree planting, she added.

The bug

Spruce budworm outbreaks are known to be devastating, especially in East Coast states like Maine and in Canada. A 2006 outbreak in Quebec has consumed more than 15.5 million acres of timber and continues to grow, according to an article in Entomology Today. More the 160,000 acres of white spruce were defoliated in 1992 in Alaska, according to the Forest Service.

“Although hundreds of papers have been published on this topic, there is still no general consensus on what drives the (spruce budworm) population oscillations,” the Entomology Today article stated.

Haas said the entomologist who examined the Shoshone National Forest had “never seen anything like it.” The worm doesn’t limit itself to just mature trees, either. So part of the treatment plan is to cut down any smaller trees that have been infected, a laborious process.

Common treatments have included aerial spraying of pesticides, which the Shoshone has experimented with at campgrounds to preserve foliage. But it is not practical on a larger scale. The other tactic has been large-scale logging, which makes use of the dead timber.

Some environmentalists argue that logging does no good in halting the spread of spruce budworm, short circuits the forest’s natural processes and can disturb the soil leading to weed infestations. They also note that dead trees are part of a natural forest ecosystem, creating habitat for wildlife.

Even the Forest Service has noted in its literature on spruce budworm that, “Managing budworm infestations by silviculture, however, is not practical in many western forests.”

“I think the bottom line is what we see out there is going to change, and we’re going to manage those effects,” Haas said.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.