U.S. Forest Service tree specialist Amy Haas has seen enough.
For five years now, Haas, Rapid City, S.D., Forest Service entomologist Kurt Allen and USFS landscape architect Paul Valcarce have watched as an infestation of the spruce budworm expanded its footprint on a nine-mile long corridor alongside the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway.
Haas said she hopes 2018 will be the year when a longtime plan to log the dead wood out of the area goes through.
By harvesting, the Service aims to decrease fire risk and spur faster regeneration of the forest rather than to halt the spread of the insect.
According to an environmental assessment published last month, the Service is planning to put 2,078 acres of timber out for bid along WYO 296.
The public comment period on the proposal closes Dec. 14, and Haas said if everything goes to plan, bids could be put out by March or April of the coming year.
Harvesting operations would begin by fall, and the Service expects 35,000 hundred (3.5 million) cubic feet of commercial timber product to be produced according to the assessment.
“Usually budworm is not catastrophic or in epidemic proportions. It will affect the trees for one or two years [and then recede],” Haas said.
This time the insect has acted differently.
Douglas firs, rather than spruce, are the trees most susceptible to the bug, and in this infestation, Haas said affected trees “haven’t had any foliage for almost five years, so we’re looking at death.”
Allen’s theory about the spread of the bugs is that similarly-aged trees and minimal regeneration on the forest floor have created a two-tier environment that’s “this perfect storm for the budworm,” Haas said. “I rely heavily on [Allen],” she added.
“For 2018, he’s already told me there’s tons of egg masses in those trees. It’s going to be there again next year,” Haas said.
The insect has become so prolific it’s even attacking spruce, and Haas said, “You know it’s bad when it’s hitting the next conifer.”
One goal is speeding up nature’s timeline.
“If we clear out the dead and dying trees, that will increase the chance that when [other trees are planted] they could be more resistant to the next insect and disease,” Haas said. She estimated a logging operation could accelerate regeneration by 50 years.
The harvesting could also reduce the risk of future catastrophic fires.
Dead trees provide a particularly volatile fuel source for wildfires, and logging would allow the Service to both capture value from the dead timber and reduce the amount of fuel near some structures around Crandall.
“A commercial timber sale is our tool, [to achieve those objectives]” Haas said. Such a sale would be structured in different-sized units in order to attract small firewood choppers, industrial-scale timber operations and everyone in between.
The Service has long planned logging in the area, but a number of factors make the project complicated.
Steep terrain will make more expensive cable logging necessary in approximately 300 acres of the proposed sale.
Cable logging can be less attractive to bidders, Haas said, because of the time and costs involved in what’s essentially ferrying lumber by pulley over the forest canopy.
Another 600 acres would be logged through a combination of cable logging and ground operations, while the remaining 1,100 acres would be logged on the ground.
The proposal calls for 12 miles of temporary road to be built to carry out the ground-based operation, adding a layer of logistical complexity.
About 130 acres of the proposed work would take place in designated roadless areas, Haas said. Due to the designation of those acres, no new roads are being proposed to facilitate that work.
And because much of the logging would take place along the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway and next to a stretch of the Clarks Fork that’s designated as a “Wild and Scenic River,” other regulations apply as well. “It’s right in the public eye on the way to Yellowstone,” Haas noted.
That’s where Valcarce comes in.
Haas said he has suggested more than 80 project features to ensure the operation has minimal visual impact.
Some of the design features include keeping logging roads out of view from WYO 296, and logging some units only in the winter months.
Even the blazes used to mark trees will be less conspicuous than typical, Haas said, and trailheads will be protected.
Sales will be put on timelines to minimize impact to grizzly bears, goshawk nests will be identified and protected and Haas said “We’ve already collected cones and seeds and are ready to plant trees once we harvest.”
Local opinions are firmly in favor of the project, Haas said.
Service personnel dispatched to the area during last year’s Hunter Peak Fire helped sell the proposal at three public meetings. “A lot of time that’s what it takes. When something catastrophic happens it wakes people up to see forest management is needed,” Haas said.
Comments from outsiders are more evenly split.
“[People] say, ‘Oh, I was there 10 years ago, I can’t believe you’re going to do this project,’” Haas said. “They’ve got to realize that [the forest] doesn’t stay stagnant in time.”
Although the forester described the project as “small-scale” compared to the size of the forest, she said it’s gotten attention because of where it is.
“This stuff is going to die and that’s natural. But we’re going to get to that next stage faster [by logging],” Haas concluded.