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News : Local (Mineral Co) Last Updated: Mar 8th, 2006 - 22:36:17

Community effort in Mineral County yields collaborative wildfire plan
By PERRY BACKUS of the Missoulian
Mar 9, 2006, 22:12

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Bruce Charles lives next to a tinderbox on U.S. Forest Service lands.

“The forest near my home is extremely thick. There are four or five layers of dead lodgepole,” Charles said of his home near DeBorgia. “If it lights, the fire is going to be spectacular. It certainly makes me nervous.”

Charles hopes the agency will step up and get something done soon to reduce the potential for a giant blaze.

He's not alone.

Community members of DeBorgia, Saltese, Haugan and Cabin City started meeting in early 2005 to begin considering opportunities to lessen the threat of fire by reducing fuels in and around those towns on surrounding forested lands.

Charles and another relative newcomer to the area, Phil Fingers, helped launch that effort. After hearing about Mineral County's efforts to develop a community wildfire protection plan, they volunteered to lead the push to get something done on the western edge of the county.

It took some time to get up to speed.

“I didn't know anything about fuel reduction projects or how a forest should look,” said Charles. “I'm an old fighter pilot. I know how to start fires with napalm. I don't know how to put one out.”

They reached out in all directions - talking with Forest Service firefighters, community members and the local loggers from Tricon Timber. The men also invited environmentalists from Missoula to participate in the process.

“We knew we would have to work with environmental groups if we were going to play on the national forest,” said Charles.

The DeBaugan collaborative group - named for the communities of DeBorgia and Haugan - began meeting in the DeBorgia Schoolhouse in an effort that would stretch well into the summer and include a pair of field trips into the woods.

“We had great turnouts,” said Superior District Ranger Rob Harper. “There were meetings with more than 110 people packed into the schoolhouse. Folks came with a lot of concerns and questions and often stayed long after the meetings were formally over.

“By the time the meetings concluded, they'd helped us identify a proposal to reduce the intensity of wildfires around those communities,” Harper said.

The group's recommendations were finalized in December in an “overwhelming” vote that asked the agency to begin evaluating a project under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Based on what it heard from the DeBaugan group, the Forest Service is now in the midst of putting together a hazardous fuels reduction project near those communities. The proposal calls for reducing short and long-term hazardous fuels accumulations using a variety of methods, including prescribed fire, mechanical piling and burning, harvesting commercially useful trees and slashing small trees with no commercial value.

The project area lies roughly between Twelve Mile Creek and Saltese, about 90 miles west of Missoula. The plan calls for treating a total of 5,732 acres in the 232,250-acre St. Regis River drainage.

More than half of the acres would be treated with a light thinning under the agency's initial proposal. The proposal also calls for building 3.2 new miles of permanent road. It would also decommission 15.3 miles of existing roads and reconstruct another 46 miles of existing road to meet state standards.

The project is still in its infancy and probably will change as it works its way through the process.

When the group agreed unanimously to ask the Forest Service to proceed with a project, it understood there would likely be some changes, said University of Montana's Jim Burchfield, who facilitated the consensus process.

Burchfield has been involved in many collaborative efforts around the state. He's seen firsthand what happens when people talk openly with each other.

“For me, it was incredibly gratifying to see people get to the point that they can learn from one another that they're not helpless and that a community can support an agency and, in turn, an agency can support a community to their mutual benefit,” Burchfield said. “It's nice to see that happen, even in this time of cynicism.”

Matthew Koehler, director of the Missoula's Native Forest Network, was impressed with the openness of the process.

“It was considerably different than our other experience with a Healthy Forest Restoration Project,” Koehler said. “This project had six collaborative meetings and two field trips. We hope the Forest Service and the public will see this as an example of how to collaborate correctly.”

Koehler said the groups he represents are very supportive of reducing fuels up to a quarter mile from the communities and more skeptical of work proposed to occur outside of those boundaries.

“We've openly and honestly expressed our concerns,” Koehler said. “The way the proposal is right now, we do have some concerns.”

Those concerns include thinning in old growth and lynx habitat as well as new road construction.

“We'll see if our concerns bear out in the EIS,” Koehler said. “Then we'll go from there. We're certainly not trying to pour cold water on the process.”

Koehler's group has secured a grant to start some fuel reduction work around the communities in May. The funding will help pay for local contractors, who will supplement the work of a contingent of volunteers.

“We're very excited about getting this work started,” Koehler said.

Angelo Ververis, Tricon Timber's assistant plant manager, is hopeful the project will turn out to be something that both benefits the local communities as well as helps the mill in St. Regis.

People from all walks stepped forward and participated in the collaborative process. Ververis hopes that will make a difference in the end product.

“It's either collaboration or litigation,” Ververis said. “Nobody wins when it goes to litigation.”

“None of us got everything we wanted,” Charles said. “All of us could see the need and everyone was willing to work to create a package that everyone could use.”

To get there, Charles said they all agreed to stay away from the “fighting edge.”

“We shot for the middle of the bell curve as opposed to the edges,” he said. “We found that there were 75 to 85 percent of the issues that we could all agree on. We tried to stay away from those we couldn't.

“Now we have our fingers crossed and we'll have to wait and see how it all works out.”

© Copyright 2005 by MCIC

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