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The third time may be the charm for the Custer National Forest's logging and prescribed fire project near Ashland in southeastern Montana.

In its latest proposal, the forest is proposing to treat about 7,000 acres by mechanical means and 8,000 acres with prescribed fire.

"It's leaning more toward the prescribed-burning side to reduce fuels in the area," said Marna Daley, public-affairs officer for the Gallatin National Forest.

The project area is 17 miles east of Ashland and north of Highway 212 in Powder River County.

The idea behind the project is to reduce the potential for large wildland fires by removing ladder fuels, spreading out the canopy between mature trees and getting rid of dense understory. The thinning would also reduce the spread of destructive mountain pine beetles, the agency claims.

The public can comment on the draft environmental impact statement for the Beaver Creek Landscape Management Project through Nov. 29. 

The Forest Service estimates that 20,300 cubic feet of timber could be sold to sawmills during the logging. Mills in Wyoming and South Dakota have expressed interest, Daley said.

Of the proposed work, about 2,700 acres would be cleared with machinery. Usable trees would be set aside for commercial use. On about 4,200 acres, hand and mechanical thinning would remove noncommercial trees. Following the logging, fires would be set to treat 4,400 acres across the two areas. In addition, prescribed fire is planned on another 3,600 acres.

The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks had expressed concern when the project was initially announced. One of the worries is that the work would wipe out hiding cover for wildlife. The Ashland District is a popular area for hunters pursuing elk, deer and turkey. The forest is also a rare, large block of public land in an otherwise privately held corner of Montana. One FWP estimate put the number of hunters in the general area at 3,000 to 5,000 a year.

Under the newer proposal, forest density for wildlife would be "slightly" and temporarily reduced on 5,400 acres, according to the draft environmental impact statement. The canopy cover at Holiday Springs Campground would be kept at 60 percent and goshawk nesting areas would be protected.

The Beaver Creek project is a combination of two other projects that were initially designed separately — the 2007 Whitetail and 2008 East Otter fuels reduction plans. Those plans were withdrawn after the Forest Service decided they didn't meet the standards for categorical exclusion, which would have allowed the projects to proceed with minimal environmental review.

A decision on the Beaver Creek project could come by spring or early summer.

Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor, at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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