Draft decision released for Mid-Swan Project that emphasizes fuel reduction and restoration activities
By Moosetrack Megan

Posted: September 11, 2021

Kalispell, MT – September 10, 2021 – Forest Supervisor, Kurt Steele of the Flathead National Forest has released a draft record of decision and final environmental impact statement on a 174,000-acre forest restoration project in Swan Valley, south of Kalispell, MT. The Forest Service has prepared this final environmental impact statement to evaluate and disclose the predicted environmental effects of the Mid-Swan Landscape Restoration and Wildland Urban Interface Project. Through this project, the Forest Service is proposing to: treat vegetation; use prescribed fire; restore whitebark pine and western white pine; decommission, store and improve existing Forest Service roads; construct permanent and temporary Forest Service roads; remove existing fish barriers; enhance suitable beaver habitat; and amend the Forest Plan through project level Forest Plan amendments.

For the past four years, a team of Forest Service scientists have assessed nearly 250,000 acres in Swan Valley, looking at how the forest has changed following nearly a century of fire suppression and timber harvest. Their assessment uses data collected from the field and historical photos to document forest conditions found 60-90 years ago, and projects what may be found in this landscape decades from now.

From that assessment, they’ve designed the Mid-Swan Landscape Restoration and Wildland Urban Interface Project (Mid-Swan Project). The project will address multiple environmental needs across a large landscape, restoring and maintaining plant and animal biodiversity in light of a changing climate, and reducing the effects of wildfire to adjacent local communities and neighboring forests. “This project is about doing the right thing on the ground for our forest and our local communities,” said Flathead National Forest Supervisor Kurt Steele. “Its thoughtful approach to large landscape habitat improvement, along with listening to the needs of rural residents in Swan Lake and Condon related to wildfire risk will serve this area for decades to come. I am excited to release this draft decision and final environmental impact statement to hear what the public thinks of this larger landscape approach. The project is anchored in the ecology of the area. The rural residents of the valley and the communities of Swan Lake and Condon will benefit from the proposed active management in the area to reduce the effects of future wildfires and to create a more diverse, resilient landscape. By looking at the larger landscape, we can begin to move the needle and make meaningful change at a scale that matters as we move into the future.”

A large landscape approach would particularly benefit Canada lynx and aquatics habitat. Activities to improve Canada lynx habitat would focus on restoring conditions to how the forest functioned historically. The best lynx habitat includes areas with mature tree stands next to younger trees. Lynx also need ways to travel to different forested areas across multiple watersheds. Large high-severity fires or other climate-related disturbances can cause significant Canada lynx habitat loss because large areas of dead trees don’t provide the tree cover and landscape diversity that lynx need.

Activities to improve aquatics habitat, including species like threatened bull trout, would focus on comprehensive road system improvements. Rather than maintain or improve only a small number of road segments that would be typical in a smaller project, crews would maintain, improve, and in some cases decommission segments of the area’s existing 600-mile road network. Approximately 225 miles of road would be improved to reduce the risk of sediment delivery into streams. Road culverts and other barriers that prevent fish passage would be removed or upgraded. There would be no changes to current open public motorized access. The project would require 10.7 miles of new road to allow access for timber harvest and hazardous fuel removal and would remove 23.5 miles that are in poor condition or otherwise no longer needed.

Due to the level of ongoing fire suppression in the region and because of the area’s proximity to private lands, vegetation management would occur in some grizzly bear secure core habitat and require new road construction in those areas for temporary access. Those activities would be offset by closing and/or removing other road segments. The project aligns with the 2018 Flathead National Forest Plan that supports activities leading to continued grizzly bear recovery. The project would require a project specific amendment to the 2018 Forest Plan to allow vegetation removal in lynx habitat. In the long term, these activities are expected to benefit lynx by creating additional forage and denning habitat where it’s been lost over time and reduce the risk of fire that would negatively affect more lynx habitat.

After considering public comment from letters, field trips, and public meetings, and with ongoing consultations with the Southwest Crown Collaborative and other stakeholders, the team evaluated three alternatives.  Two alternatives address issues and concerns related to a range of forest management activities including commercial tree harvest, mechanized vegetation removal, hand thinning, planting, prescribed fire, and new road construction

In total, the range of proposed activities are expected to reduce the risk of high-severity wildfire that could affect structures, mimic the beneficial effects that natural fire would have played in the area had fire not been suppressed and support long-term habitat restoration for plants, animals and fish.

The public first participated in project development by providing comments in 2018. In response to that feedback, the Forest Service developed two alternatives with a variety of actions that incorporate ideas from the public. On August 28, 2020, a notice of availability was published in the Federal Register, announcing the availability of the draft EIS and beginning a 45-day comment period that ended on Oct 13, 2020. 111 comment letters were submitted on the DEIS within the formal comment period.  Based upon comments received during the DEIS comment period, the IDT refined the proposed treatments to better address the concerns expressed. The following changes were made to the alternatives:

  • reduced the mileage of roads needed to access vegetation treatment needs.
  • reduced the vegetation treatment areas, including the areas proposed for prescribed fire.
  • refined the estimated implementation schedule to include spatially specific information related to where and when activities are expected to occur across the project area.

The project is expected to take up to 15 years to implement. In order to accomplish a project of this scale, it could rely partially on partnerships with local, state, or tribal governments through the Forest Service Good Neighbor Authority or other stewardship contracts that would benefit local economies. The public can find more information about the project at http://bit.ly/midswan or by contacting Project Team Leader Joe Krueger at joseph.krueger@usda.gov or (406) 529-8727.

While the FEIS analyzes actions and effects across the 15-year implementation schedule, the ROD only authorizes a subset of actions associated with alternative B, the preferred alternative. If appropriate, a second record of decision and objection process is required to implement the remaining actions evaluated in the FEIS but not included in this ROD. The purpose of this change is to respond to concerns that the implementation schedule is too long and didn’t adequately allow continued post-decision public involvement. By limiting the scope of this decision, the Agency is committed to further public involvement, allowing interested parties to be meaningfully involved in the remaining actions proposed in the FEIS.