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Gold Creek advocates worry timber sale could nix wildlife habitat

Gold Creek Trees
Posted at 12:00 PM, Jan 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-01 14:00:20-05

MISSOULA — After discovering a timber sale being planned near Gold Creek, a Missoula group that fought a 1992 sale in the same location has concerns about how many old trees might be lost.

In September, Tarn Ream and her mother, Cathy, were hiking in one of their favorite spots near Missoula, a state-land section near the confluence of Gold Creek and the Blackfoot River. With a Ph.D. in zoology, the 82-year-old Cathy still loves to wander through the towering larch and ponderosa pine and catch glimpses of the creatures that live there.

The two have seen elk, whitetail and mule deer, lions, wolves, bears and numerous bird species, including nesting pairs of pileated woodpeckers and Williamson’s sapsuckers. They’ve followed numerous tracks and pinpointed rub trees.

“This is an area where she likes to go,” Tarn said. “When you’re familiar with a place, you know what critters are there and how they move through the landscape. And you know how it might respond (to disturbance).”

What the pair didn’t expect to see were spray-painted marks on some of the trees, indicating the trees were selected for logging. Concerned, Cathy called the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to ask what was going on. DNRC Trust Lands Forester Scott Allen told her the agency was planning to thin it for fire management.

But an announcement on the proposed timber sale wasn’t published until three months later when the project was dubbed the “Goldielogs Timber Sale.”

“(The trees) were already marked – this is how they roll,” Tarn said. “When I saw that name, I thought ‘Oh. My. God.”

The Dec. 2 announcement said the DNRC intends to harvest 2.5 million board-feet out of the 570-acre parcel. Existing roads would be upgraded, and 1.5 miles of road would be rebuilt while up to a half-mile of permanent road would be built.

But prior to writing an environmental assessment, the DNRC is inviting public comment until Jan. 4.

Calls to Scott Allen weren’t returned by press time.

Having requested information on the project, Tarn and Cathy emailed the announcement to their followers, alerting them that they need to comment soon if they care about how logging crews might handle one of the last bits of undisturbed forest in the Gold Creek drainage.

Tarn and Cathy aren’t necessarily opposed to the timber sale – it’s just that so little information has been provided that they don’t know what harm it could do.

As part of her comments, Tarn wrote, “The value of this land in its undisturbed condition for education, research, recreation, and wildlife habitat far exceeds the fiscal returns that could be accrued from timber harvest—and the value will increase every year as places with old trees become less available. The proximity to Missoula provides opportunities for people to appreciate being in the presence of large trees in a natural setting.”

The words came easily because this isn’t the first time the Ream’s have fought for this section.

In 1992, the Reams and the Gold Creek Resource Protection Association went to court to stop the state from going forward with the Burnt Bridge Timber Sale, slated to log 1.67 million board feet from 181 acres. Even then, the group defined the untouched state land surrounded by Champion International clearcuts as “an island of trees in a sea of deforested slopes.”

An aerial photo taken in 1990 shows a clearly defined dark square of state land – dark because it’s covered in trees – surrounded by wide empty regions of orange and yellow clearcut land.

Aided by a talented young Missoula attorney, Jack Tuholske – who took the case pro bono as his first foray into Montana Environmental Policy Act law – the Gold Creek Resource Protection Association won after asserting that the Montana Department of State Lands hadn’t done an adequate environmental study.

Missoula District Judge Douglas Harken told the agency to redo its assessment. Instead, the agency pulled the project, leaving the association to assume an accurate study would have prohibited any logging.

A similar effort can’t save the land this time. Sadly, Tuholske died in October, and Montana law offers less protection.

“Back then, the MEPA laws were a lot stronger. In the last 10 years or so, the Legislature has basically gutted a lot of the MEPA stuff that applies to state land,” Tarn said.

The state collects money from state trust lands in the form of timber sales or mineral, grazing or outfitting leases to support public schools. But some argue that maybe not every timbered acre needs to be harvested. Especially in an area as battered and burned as Gold Creek.

Tarn and Cathy saw how vulnerable the land was becoming in 2012 when the DNRC pushed through the McNamara Landing timber sale to log 1.8 million board feet from more than half the property. The 2012 environmental assessment claimed no old growth trees were present based upon the DNRC’s criteria and the agency’s assumption that the Anaconda Company had probably clearcut the area.

Still, after the pair accompanied DNRC foresters to the site and saw which trees had been marked, they didn’t oppose the sale, agreeing that some thinning was needed and it was better than housing development.

However, since 2012, weeds have invaded the area in spite of DNCR documents promising that weed infestations would be controlled. Tarn expects the weed issue could worsen with this next project.

The crews also cut more trees than were marked in the McNamara Landing project, and the agency didn’t close or revegetate the roads it had built as promised, Tarn said.

“The feller-buncher cut trees that were in the way to get to the trees that were supposed to be cut,” Tarn said.

In 1992, reports claimed some of the trees were aged at more than 200 years old. In a Nov. 18, 1992, Montana Kaimin column, R.L. Scholl concluded, “Whatever old growth is, this stand is the most extensive old growth on lower Gold Creek.”

Now almost 30 years later, the remaining trees are even older, but the stands are dwindling.

If the Goldielogs sale is poorly conducted, the bears may no longer visit. Wildlife could lose what refuge remains among the multiplying houses and former clearcuts, and the Reams could lose their reason to visit.

“(This fall), we saw a huge bull moose, and at the same time, these wolves were howling and these big huge tracks… it’s one of those experiences where you’re like, ‘Whoa, it’s so cool to have this happen in our lifetime,’” Tarn said.