District ranger provides update

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Superior District Ranger Carole Johnson met with Mineral County Commissioners on Jan. 19 with an update of current projects her department has been working on. The update included information about salvage projects in the area, the upcoming large mushroom harvest as a result of the fires, and personnel issues facing the department.

Johnson thanked the commissioners for all of their help with the Sunrise Fire last summer. Currently public scoping portion of the Sunrise Fire Salvage project is complete with 60 form letters from Healthy Forest Healthy Communities and 22 individual letters. Johnson reported that they receive mostly favorable input with some requests to increase the number of acres to be harvested.

Currently the post-fire salvage of dead and dying trees is approximately 2,719 acres or 11 percent of the Sunrise Fire. The fire area is located about 7 miles southeast of Superior and the proposed project also includes cutting hazard trees along roads and planting tree seedlings according to the Lolo National Forest’s Schedule of Proposed Actions or SOPA report.

During the salvage process the next step will be one of three options: One is no action, two is to do the proposed action and three is to do the public alternative which is requesting additional volume. Lolo National Forest Supervisor Tim Garcia, along with a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) team, will make the selection as to which option to follow and the project will move forward from that point.

Other projects in the area which are not a part of the Superior District, Moose Peak and Sheep Gap went out to bid but did not receive any offers. Johnson believes this was because of the snow and difficulty reaching the areas to get a true assessment of the volume of timber available. Those projects will be re-advertised this spring after the snow melt.

With this year’s morel mushroom harvest Johnson said they may need to take a more regional approach to monitor and supervise pickers because the fires crossed district and forest boundaries. She feels there may be more pickers in Mineral County compared to the Lolo Peak Fire because this area is more accessible.

The impact on the area could include camping areas, law enforcement, staffing issues at their headquarters in Superior, garbage, and communication problems with foreigners. Both private and commercial pickers descend on burned areas to mushroom which will begin in April depending on the weather. She will be contacting the sheriff’s office and the regional forest service office to ask for additional help and resources.

One thing county planner Tim Read suggested is to create designated areas and make sure people are clear as to where those areas are located. When Lincoln County had a big fire he said people did not know where to go and set up camps all over the place. Many also came in with guns and fights broke out in the camps, “things can get wild and competitive,” he said.

There are also a number of active timber sales including Fire Cracker Annie, and 7 Mag with approximately 87 million board timber under contract in the west zone with more to come with the salvage sales.

As a result, Johnson’s department is short on personnel and she wants to hire an additional sales administrator since they currently only have two. The regional office approved three timber positions, one is in the pre-sale program and small-sale foresters. They are now waiting for approval from Washington D.C.

The other personnel issue the Superior District is facing is the loss of an enforcement officer. Their resident law officer moved away and she is being told that there isn’t enough funding to replace him. As a result it leaves the closest law enforcement in Missoula and Trout Creek, leaving a large area without that resource. If there are serious issues such as fire investigation or major vandalism they will need to call on the other districts for help.

To combat the problem, Johnson said they are working on a local level to try and bring in a part-time enforcement officer. Also, under the new federal administration, a new way of doing business has been implemented called “working pods”. Johnson is in the process of learning about this concept but in broad strokes is pulling together forest personnel from different areas and sharing resources. For example, one pod will be the Kootenai, Lolo, Bitterroot and Flathead National Forest. The pod will have a timber target and with shared resources they’ll work to meet that target.

Johnson’s next scheduled meeting with the county commissioners is scheduled for Feb. 16 at 9 a.m.

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