More than 700,000 acres of national forest land across Montana and Idaho burned this summer, and U.S. Forest Service officials are now deciding what to do with it. The agency this fall set up a post-fire incident management team to quickly analyze damage and plan next steps.
Those steps include salvage logging, a controversial process that Incident Commander Mike Elson says will cover about 5 percent of burned areas across the region.
"It sounds small or big depending on which end of spectrum you’re on, in terms of what your concerns are, but I felt like we’re striking a really good balance. And it's actually a pretty good match to what the industry is telling us their capacity is to even utilize these trees."
Elson says that Forest Service managers used models to determine appropriate areas to salvage, avoiding those with poor road access or fragile wildlife habitat. The agency is also using models to determine which areas are likely to recover naturally, and which may need replanting.
That assessment process will end this winter, when the agency will put in an order for millions of seedlings to an Idaho nursery. In a year and a half or two, Elson said, they’ll be ready to plant in national forests.
Because of the accelerated timeline for this response, Elson explained that the usual public comment period mandated by federal law will be truncated. Instead, he said the agency is encouraging public engagement early in the process, ideally through local national forest offices.
Elson is normally a district ranger in Flagstaff, Arizona. He said that the incident management team he’s leading is unusual.
"This is a new approach. Individual forests have established teams similar to this that focused on post-fire response work that needs to be done after a big fire, but it’s the first time that I’m aware of, or any of us are aware of, that being done at the regional level."
Elson says that the rapid assessments of fire impacts are finished, and implementation is underway, to be completed next June or July.
Learn more about the post-fire management planning here: https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/r1/news-events/?cid=FSEPRD565145