Today Forest Supervisor Bill Avey announced that as a result of the 2017 lightning-caused Park Creek and Arrastra wildfires, some resource conditions have changed enough within the burned areas of the Stonewall Vegetation Project that additional analysis is needed to assess the affects of the fire on the project before moving ahead with remaining treatments. Late last week, the Forest Service filed a status report to that effect with the Federal District Court in Missoula. The Forest Service also filed a request that the Court return the issue to the agency pending the completed analysis. The Forest plans to have the supplemental analysis completed by late summer.
The Stonewall Vegetation Project has been enjoined by court order since May 2017, as a result of a lawsuit filed by two environmental groups: Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council. In response to the litigation, 15 groups and individuals collectively filed an amicus brief in support of the final decision for Stonewall.
While the injunction was in place, in July 2017, two wildfires—Park Creek (July 14th) and Arrastra (July 19th) that later merged* into one fire on August 18th—were ignited by lightning on the east and west sides of the Stonewall project area. The Forest Service conducted a Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) assessment which found that the Park Creek Fire burned 13,390 acres (56%) of the project area, of which 2,719 acres (11%) were identied for management activities. As a result of the fires, the Forest Service requested, and the District Court allowed, the agency additional time to evaluate the impacts of the fires on the Project area. That preliminary analysis led the Forest Service to conclude that its analysis of the Stonewall Project should be revised to account for the impacts of the fire on some of the affected resources.
“Our preliminary review showed that this summer’s wildfires impacted some aspects of the wildlife, soils and hydrologic conditions enough within the Stonewall project area to warrant additional review of those resources before we conduct any other ground-distrubing activities,” Avey said. “I’m not withdrawing my decision for this project, but we must review changed conditions when they are relevant to the environmental effects of an ongoing action. Implementation is on hold briefly until this additional work is completed.”
The 2016 Record of Decision for the Stonewall Vegetation Project authorized management activities, including prescribed burning and mechanical treatments, on 4,869 acres within the overall 24,010-acre project area that was analyzed. The intent of the project was, among other objectives, to help improve forest health and resiliency, which in-turn could modify fire behavior to enhance community protection while creating conditions within the forest that allow for the re-establishment of fire as a natural process.
“My decision is based on what we need to do to comply with our obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act, and to allow the court to make a fully informed decision,” Avey said. “Based on the information about changed environmental conditions we received from the BAER assessment and my staff’s initial review of that information, it’s evident that we need to review the effects the fire has had on some key resources before we more forward.”