Clean | Green | Sustainable

Stimulating Bittersweet Bitterroot Restoration

Posted by Matthew Koehler on March 13, 2009

Last week the US Forest Service announced the first batch of projects moving forward courtesy of the $1.15 billion Congress allocated to the agency in the American Recovery and Reinvestment act, more commonly called the Stimulus Bill.  Like other government agencies, the Forest Service was asked to put together a list of “shovel ready” projects, which could be implemented quickly, thereby providing a needed jobs boost in rural communities by knocking out some needed restoration, maintenance and improvement work.

While it’s common in these parts to hear people complain that “the Forest Service can’t do nuttin’ because their hands are tied by the damn environmentalists,” it should be pointed out that this $1.15 billion in “shovel ready” projects funded by the Stimulus Bill will create 25,000 jobs. Oh, you mean the Forest Service had a bunch of important working literally just sitting on the shelves collecting dust, waiting for funding? Yep. So much for that tired, old argument of “analysis paralysis,” eh?

In Montana, one of the first projects to move forward with the stimulus money will be reconstruction and drainage improvements for a road that runs along Rye Creek in the Bitterroot National Forest. Historically, Rye Creek was a stronghold for bull trout (now a threatened species), but decades of heavy roadbuilding and clearcut logging in the Rye Creek watershed have taken their toll on native fish and the entire watershed.

Much of the problem with the Rye Creek Road is that it was built way too close to the actual creek, a common problem found throughout Forest Service lands. You see, when many of these roads were built there was little environmental knowledge or oversight, so the “path of least resistance” seemed to rule the day. Short of removing the road completely (not an option in the Rye Creek case) or rerouting the road (a very expensive option) the best option is to mitigate the amount of sediment bleeding from the road bed into the creek, which in a nutshell is what they intend to do up Rye Creek.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that this important road and watershed restoration work up Rye Creek will finally take place and I think it’s great that this restoration work will help create a few more jobs in the Bitterroot Valley. However, it’s somewhat of a bittersweet situation. Let me explain why.

The origins of this Rye Creek watershed and road restoration work can be traced to the Bitterroot Burned Area Recovery Plan, which followed the fires of 2000. Originally, the Forest Service pushed forward with a “recovery” plan that was actually one of the largest proposed timber sales in the history of the agency. The plan called for nearly 70 square miles of logging, half of which was to take place in key watersheds for those threatened bull trout and sensitive westslope cutthroat trout. The industrial logging also targeted roadless wildlands and previously unlogged, old-growth forests.

Local conservation organizations took the Forest Service to court and following two days of back and forth negotiations (while literally being locked in the federal courthouse in Missoula with the likes of Mark Rey) a settlement agreement was reached on February 6, 2002. Basically, conservation groups agreed to the settlement because while it allowed the Forest Service to move forward with logging on approximately 14,000 acres, the court-sanctioned settlement also contained the promise of $25 million worth of very important watershed and forest restoration work, including that work up Rye Creek.

At the time, Dale Bosworth, Chief of the Forest Service, told the public, “The most important thing to me is getting on with the restoration work. There’s lots of other work we wanted to do – roads we wanted to obliterate, watershed work, reforestation. The idea of the whole project was fire restoration.”

What transpired was a far different story. You see, the logging component of the Burned Area Recovery project was completed years ago, but the majority of the promised restoration work has either lagged far behind – as in the case with Rye Creek – or may never be completed, despite promises and rhetoric to the contrary. Unfortunately, this is a very common practice. Something we’ve seen happen time and again with the Forest Service’s use of “stewardship contracting.”

What makes the Bitterroot situation all the more frustrating is that back in 2002, when the settlement agreement was signed, the Bitterroot National Forest had in-hand the $25 million to complete all of the promised restoration work. It just wasn’t their priority.

Unfortunately, yet predictably, the Forest Service put all their time and energy into the logging part of the project. During that summer of 2002, when I took a USA Today reporter on a tour of the “recovery” plan his cover story pointed out what we had been warning about all along, “The work in the Bitterroot is also emblematic of the controversy dogging the fire plan. The logging here is 10 miles from the nearest community at risk from wildfire. And the burned trees being salvaged are the largest, most commercially valuable ones, not the smaller ones that would likely ignite most easily in another fire.”

A few weeks later, Forest Service brass in Washington DC, despite being party to the settlement agreement, decided to use the $25 million set aside for the promised Bitterroot restoration work to pay for the costs associated with fighting fires in Oregon, Colorado and Arizona. Conservation groups howled, but not a peep of protest was heard from the logging industry.

For those interested in a more detailed blow-by-blow of how this all went down, we put out press releases on the two year and three year anniversary of the settlement agreement.

Like I said, it’s great that the important restoration work up Rye Creek is moving forward. We’ve supported and fought for this work all along. It’s good for fish, workers and the entire watershed. However, I can’t help but see the irony that it’s taken over 7 years, and the near-complete collapse of the US economy, to finally get this work started. Talk about not taking “the path of least resistance!”

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One Response to “Stimulating Bittersweet Bitterroot Restoration”

  1. Chris said

    I agree that fire restoration is a very important issue. I just hope that those money will help us all.

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