A logging proposal just north of Whitefish seems to have widespread local backing. It’s also raised a few quality-of-life related concerns.
Whitefish residents will get a chance Tuesday to learn more and weigh in on the collaborative project. Its supporters say forests in the municipal watershed should get thinned out before a wildfire gets there first.
The Flathead National Forest’s Deb Bond:
"This is where the city of Whitefish gets its water."
Some believe wildfires would automatically contaminate the local water supply with ash and increased sediment from runoff. Bond says that’s not necessarily the case.
"There may not be as much damage to the watershed as we thought there might be, but there is a potential that there could be if it all burns at once. We want to be able to protect those structures where they actually get the water out and send it to treatment."
Proposed activities include timber harvesting on about 260 acres of forest land and fuels-reduction treatments – primarily prescribed burning – on almost 900 acres.
Sarah Lundstrum of the National Parks Conservation Association says there’s a legitimate need to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire. But Lundstrum’s group wants it done right.
"You’re talking about this iconic backdrop of our community here in Whitefish. You see tourists all the time stopping in the middle of the road to take pictures of Big Mountain and Haskill Basin and this area. It’s a big concern for folks up there," Lundstrum says.
Meaning some residents are worried about how local scenery – or the viewshed – would change after the fuels reduction work ends.
"We don’t want to see it change that much. Grant it, if a fire burns through we wouldn’t get to control that change. In that sense I think it’s important to do what we can to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire, but taking those concerns to heart, making sure people understand what the viewshed might look like in the future."
The Flathead National Forest’s Deb Bond says that message has come in loud and clear.
"That is one of the biggest issues that I’ve heard, that is the effect to the viewshed."
She says some of the the proposed work will alter the local scenery. That’s why the Forest has hired a Washington-state based landscape architect.
"We identified several viewpoints around Whitefish from the Flathead Valley. She’s done some analysis to identify which units will be visible from those viewpoints and hopes to then show what it might look like (after treatment)."
Bond adds change on the landscape is inevitable regardless of whether it comes at the hands of humans or Mother Nature. She points to previous local timber operations and wildfires as proof.
"If you look at that whole Whitefish Range, if you go sort of northwest, there was a big wildfire up there not too far out of Whitefish. You can, from Kalispell see that whole range and the changes there. We’re hoping it’ll sort of blend together – but it’s all in the eye of the beholder."
The National Parks Conservation Association’s Glacier Field Representative, Sarah Lundstrum, looks forward to seeing the final proposal.
In the meantime, she praises the Flathead National Forest for how it’s handling the process.
"I do think that they’re really trying to take the pulse of the community to see where they might need to do extra work to make sure that this project has community support. I applaud that because I think sometimes people think the Forest Service goes out and does their own thing and doesn’t pay attention to the community."
Provisions in the latest Farm Bill passed by Congress allowed Montana Governor Steve Bullock to designate the area as a so-called "priority landscape." That means it’s eligible for a faster than normal review and approval process from the U.S. Forest Service.
The Tally Lake Ranger District has scheduled a public meeting on the Whitefish Municipal Watershed Fuels Reduction Project.
That’s slated for Tuesday, March 29 from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m. at the Whitefish City Hall council chambers. A decision on the project is expected by September.