RED LODGE — To see how a wildfire can affect the landscape of the Beartooth Mountains, curious folks need drive no farther than 10 miles west of this mountain community, up the West Fork of Rock Creek.
In 2008, the Cascade fire burned about 10,000 acres in the drainage and adjoining mountains, threatening summer vacation homes in an old dude ranch at Camp Senia and the nearby Red Lodge Mountain ski area. Four houses and a few sheds burned to the ground.
About a dozen members of the public and Forest Service recently toured the area as part of a discussion of the nearby Greater Red Lodge Forest and Habitat Management Project, a plan that could remove trees from as much as 2,200 acres of forest land from near Red Lodge west to Red Lodge Creek. A tour of that area is planned for June 28 at 10 a.m.
The overriding concern, according to Custer National Forest officials, is to make homes on adjoining private lands safer if there is a fire like the one in 2008. A secondary purpose is to increase room for more fire-resistant aspen stands and halt the encroachment of Douglas fir into meadow areas, while also protecting streams important to community water supplies.
“We’re not trying to make the comparison that this is the same problem we have in Red Lodge Creek,” said Traute Parrie, Beartooth District ranger, sweeping an arm to the burned trees surrounding Camp Senia. “But there are some lessons to be learned here.”
She noted that some folks took offense at Thursday’s tour starting at Camp Senia, claiming it was a scare tactic, but Parrie said that wasn’t the case.
“Fire is a part of life on the Beartooth District,” she said. “We’re trying to present facts or observations and let you draw your own conclusions.”
Although the gathering was small, the people seemed to represent the widely varying views on what the Forest Service should do. At one end of the spectrum was John Simmons, a retired Absarokee welder, who advocated greater use of trees as a renewable product.
“It almost seems like the Forest Service is becoming the Park Service,” he said. “I like the idea of using more of the trees.”
Representing the opposing view was Sara Jane Johnson, a onetime Forest Service biologist who founded the Native Ecosystems Council in Three Forks. She has partnered with the Alliance for the Wild Rockies in challenging such forest projects across the state on environmental grounds.
Johnson said there is no way that the Forest Service could fashion such a project to suit her because it takes place in grizzly bear and Canada lynx habitat.
“It’s just an excuse to log, really,” she said. “It’s a subsidy for corporate America and the public gets screwed. Logging has no benefits to wildlife in this landscape.”
The Forest Service is trying to find a compromise, but environmental groups like Johnson’s typically exhaust all appeals and then take the issue to court, stalling any implementation for years. Bozeman’s Gallatin National Forest has been working on a similar but more extensive project for more than five years.
The Beartooth District has held several meetings to present its proposals. Draft alternatives have been released and modifications can be made until mid-July. After that, the comment period will be closed and a decision could be issued by October, with implementation starting in 2014.
Under its proposed action, the Forest Service would remove timber from more than 2,200 acres, much of it in the Red Lodge Creek area south of Luther. That section abuts several sections of state land that are also proposed for logging. The cumulative effect of the two projects has some residents concerned about their views, the effect on wildlife, as well as the addition of roads that could attract unauthorized motorized vehicle use.
Parrie said some homeowners within the forest said they’d rather see their homes burn than have the surrounding timber removed by logging. Johnson claimed that what the Forest Service calls fuels reduction projects gives woodland homeowners a false sense of security that their structure won’t burn.
Jeff Stockwell, Beartooth fire management officer, said even the burned areas of the West Fork of Rock Creek are ripe for another fire.
“This was kind of a first stage for another event,” he said of the Cascade fire. “We’ve got heavy, heavy fuels jack-strawed through there. It’s just a setup for another major fire to come through. So we’re not done here, either.”
Evidence of the Cascade fire’s reaction to different forest treatments is evident throughout the West Fork drainage. A stand of state land that was clearcut has young trees that the fire only burned around the edges, because the blaze was being carried up in the taller tree crowns. The fire also left undisturbed another section of forest and a campground that was thinned. And then there’s Camp Senia, where many of the cabin owners had removed trees around their property, giving firefighters a safe place to stage to protect the structures.
Such forest treatments, especially by hand, are expensive; and the Beartooth District has limited road access to much of its timber, both of which make forest projects difficult to execute. Also complicating the forest’s mission is the time and money spent developing such projects. Parrie said that while the agency used to spend about 70 percent of its funds on implementing projects, now that amount goes into planning with only 30 percent left for the actual work.
That’s why the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have moved to stewardship contracting, which allows the agency to get its work done by a partner who offsets their costs by keeping a portion of the timber for sale. The method has been criticized by some groups as the only reason that the Forest Service allows merchantable trees to be cut – to fund the rest of the project’s work.