Forest Service tries to stay on schedule despite furlough

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Despite the 35 day government shutdown, the Superior and Ninemile U.S. Forest Service offices have been working hard to remain on schedule. Superior District Ranger, Carole Johnson, and new Ninemile District Ranger, Eric Tomasik, gave an update report to the Mineral County commissioners on Feb. 22.

Tomasik replaced Erin Phelps who left the position last year. He is originally from Ronan and lives in Frenchtown. Prior to his new appointment, Tomasik was working in the regional office in renewable resources. The Ninemile Ranger District is responsible for the west end of Mineral County with some overlap between the two districts in the Fish Creek area.

Another significant change in personnel with the Forest Service is Carolyn Upton who is the new Lolo Forest Supervisor, replacing Tim Garcia. She will start in mid-March and brings 29 years of forest service experience to the job. Upton worked on many forests and grasslands and was most recently the Deputy Forest Supervisor for the Medicine BowRoutt National Forests and Thunder Basin National Grasslands. Before this appointment, she also served as District Ranger for the Walker Ranger District on the Chippewa National Forest.

“We’re trying to get caught up and are working quickly to keep on track with projects,” said Johnson. This includes rescheduling meetings and training programs to try to avoid potential delays on timber sales and other forest projects. Their office was allowed to keep a few employees working during the furlough using money that was not a part of this year’s appropriated funds.

This included some engineers and Wanda Smith and her staff who work with timber sale packages. They’ve also been working with some road packages which have been submitted to the supervisor’s office for review. “Those sales, if they stay on-track, will be available in the third quarter which is April through June of this year,” Johnson said.

Other timber sales packages the Superior office is working on includes Jam Cracker and Johnson Camp. Jam Cracker is approximately 83,000 acres located between Superior and South Fork of Nemote Creek near Tarkio. With the Second Chance package at Jam Cracker ready for sale in the fourth quarter of July through September. However, Johnson said it was not a very good package and they may need to cut more costs on it.

With Jam Cracker, the Forest Service had hoped to join the State and do a Good Neighbor Authority (GNA) with Deep Jam or Stark Contrast. They were hoping the State could help with marking the trees and some other activities. The Good Neighbor Authority allows the Forest Service to enter into cooperative agreements with the State to perform watershed restoration and forest management services.

However, Montana is still working to appropriate funds and hire foresters. Johnson said if they wait until the State is ready it could delay the entire project. Therefore, they are not going to use GNA for this project. Instead, the Forest Service will be looking at an acquisition contract and possibly hire local crews to help out with the project.

There is currently logging activities on Smoke Trout, Smokey Quartz, Camouflage and the Sunrise Salvage project with good timber coming out of the burn area. Johnson also reported that Northwestern Energy had cut down approximately 60 ponderosa pine trees along their lines at Camels Hump just outside of St. Regis. She said they didn’t coordinate very well with her office however they were within their rights to cut down the trees. However, her office is working with Northwestern Energy to pull together a small sale of that timber.

Another small project is the next phase of the road realignment on Cedar Creek located south of Superior. The project will resume in April or May with Trout Unlimited directing it in partnership with the Forest Service. They plan on taking out three to five loads of cedar trees which will probably be sold to local contractors. With some of the woody debris used in the creek itself to enhance fish habitat.

Also, the Lookout Pass Ski Resort will continue their expansion project to open new runs on their mountain. Johnson was not sure of the volume of timber that will come out of the project, however the Montana side will be handling the prep and sale of it. The resort straddles the Montana/Idaho state border with the Idaho Forest Service dealing with some of the contracts and permit process.

Both the Superior and Ninemile District offices are hiring personnel. The Superior office has some long-time employees retiring. Wanda Smith who handles timber management will be leaving at the end of April. Her sister, Deb Job will also be retiring on April 1 as the department’s GIS person. In addition, their sales administrator, Laurie Lewis retired at the end of December, 2018. Applicants for her position will close at the end of the month. In the Ninemile office, Tomasik said they have two openings for a fisheries and a wildlife biologist.

Engineers will be doing road work on the Camouflage and Seven Mag up Tamarack over the summer, as well as replace a bridge at Van Ness. Tamarack is located near St. Regis to the Coeur d’Alene/Cabinet Divide. Also, an identification team will be refining a proposed action on the nearly 90,000 acre Redd Bull project located south and west of St. Regis. They are hoping to put out a scoping letter for public comment this spring.

In other news, Johnson and Heather Burman, who handles recreation projects, met with Brook Lincoln and members of the local snowmobile club regarding grants and funding for the Saltese Trestle. The century-old trestle is located 23 miles west of St. Regis and is a crucial component to the Route of the Olympian Trail. Which is popular for outdoor enthusiasts including snowmobiles and bikers. They are continuing to look into grants and other revenue sources to repair the trestle which will cost an estimated $1.2 million.

Open burning season begins on March 1 and runs through April 1. The Forest Service plans on spring burning in the West Trout; Lower Thompson; Middle Rock Creek, Tamarack Creek and Seven Mag areas.

Johnson also reported that she had just received a letter from a lawyer representing Dave Bridges. Bridges owns property near the old Diamond Mill plant near Superior. The letter states that the bridge that leads up the Cyr-Iron Mountain Road is private and there “doesn’t appear to be any legal easement” to the bridge. The lawyer, Thomas Ore Law offices, advised the landowner to gate the bridge.

Johnson’s real estate advisor looked into the matter and found that Diamond International had a 1960’s agreement with the Forest Service for access across the bridge. However, they will need their attorney’s to look onto the matter more closely, Johnson said.

Tomasik reported that his office will have an environmental assessment out on Soldier Butler in about a week. They hope to have a public meeting soon regarding the 46,160- acre project located northwest of Huson. The meeting will also include other projects, Quartz-Rivulet and Sawmill-Petty however the focus will be on Soldier Butler. This will include a bio assessment which has been written up for review. He said this is the first project to go through since the Forest Service Plan Amendment which came out at the beginning of this year. The amendment includes new habitat management for grizzly bears on the Helena-Lewis and Clark, Kootenai and Lolo National Forests.

The new plan probably won’t affect the volume of timber sales but may impact motorized route management. The Soldier Butler project is also a Stewardship Contract Project which will keep more sale receipts local.

The Ninemile District is also planning on holding a public meeting in Alberton this spring with emphasis on Quartz-Rivulet and Saw-Mill Petty located south and west of town. Tomaski said those projects are in the planning stage and they won’t see timber sales for a few years.

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