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Fuels reduction project targets areas north of Kootenai River

| February 27, 2007 11:00 PM

By BRENT SHRUM Western News Editor

A 2,500-acre fuels reduction project in the area north of the Kootenai River near Libby is moving ahead with a decision possible by early summer.

Comments are still being solicited on the project, which if approved could go out for bid by September, Forest Service officials said at a public meeting Thursday. The project is expected to take one to three years to complete.

"Earliest you could see anyone out there on the ground doing anything as far as implementation would be next winter," said Kootenai National Forest fire/fuels specialist Nikia Hernandez. "It could be as far out as three years.

Most of the comments received so far have been from people who live near areas proposed for treatment, Hernandez said. Those comments will be taken into account as the project is finalized, he said.

"It's you who are living there, so you should have some say in what happens there," he said.

All project areas are within a half-mile of private property. The primary goal of the project is to reduce fire hazard in the wildland-urban interface with a focus on restoring historical tree densities and species composition. Smaller trees and underbrush would be removed while larger, more fire-resistant trees would remain.

Forest Service archaeologist Mark White provided a glimpse of what the area looked like before major logging operations in the early 20th century. White showed historical photographs and quoted from a 1901 story in The Western News that described the area north of the Kootenai River as "like a big park" with trees so far apart and so little underbrush that "a buggy can be driven for miles" through the forest.

In drier areas, open stands of ponderosa pine predominated while wetter areas had denser stands of larch and other trees, White said.

"It was a mosaic," he said.

Studies indicate that fires in the Sheldon Flats area occurred about once every 11 years from 1665 to 1880. Similar rates would be expected in other relatively dry areas, while more moist sites experienced fires every 30 to 100 years, White said.

Project plans include leaving untouched "islands" for wildlife habitat along with small openings within the treatment areas, said Forest Service sylviculturist Anne Weber.

"We don't want the entire area to look like a park-like area on every acre," Weber said.

About 15 to 30 percent of the overstory would be removed. The total cut would be about 1 to 2 million board feet, said Libby District Ranger Malcolm Edwards.

Ed Levert, a forester employed by Lincoln County as an adviser on forest stewardship issues, said there is a "serious effort" ongoing to tie such projects in with new industries that can make use of small-diameter wood.

"We think there's a real opportunity here," Levert said.

The Forest Service has been working with the Kootenai Stakeholders Group to formulate the project. The group represents the timber industry, environmentalists, recreation groups, educators, fire management personnel, the public and non-government entities and is charged with finding consensus on projects within the wildland-urban interface.