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Marna Daley, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, walks among a slash pile near Hebgen Lake.

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Federal officials have advanced a large timber project southwest of West Yellowstone, meaning people who submitted comments on the project can now file their objections.

On Tuesday, the Forest Service released a draft decision approving the South Plateau Area Landscape Treatment Project — an approximately 16,500 acre timber project that borders Yellowstone National Park.

Work on the South Plateau project will involve thinning approximately 9,000 acres of forest, 5,600 acres of scattered clear cuts and burning around 600 acres, among other treatments. The Forest Service also plans to restore aspen trees on approximately 160 acres and build up to 57 miles of temporary roads, according to the draft decision.

Local Forest Service crews and contractors will complete the work, which officials expect will begin in the fall and continue for 15 years. Workers plan to close Road 478 along the South Fork of the Madison River to preserve water quality. They’ll open Road 1704 to maintain public access.

People who submitted comments on the project now have 45 days to file their objections. The project’s comment period ran from Aug. 16 to Sept. 16.

Though the South Plateau project calls for just under 16,500 acres of work, it spans across 40,000 acres. It’s part of a larger effort by the Forest Service to promote ecosystem health, reduce hazardous wildfire fuels and promote forest resiliency to insects and disease throughout the Hebgen Lake Ranger District.

Lodgepole pine trees that are “highly susceptible to widespread and long-term loss” dominate the South Plateau, officials wrote. The losses could come from insect infestations or disease outbreaks in trees or wildfires.

Treating stands throughout the plateau will improve resilience on a “broad landscape scale” and minimize risks when a wildfire breaks out, according to the Forest Service.

Jason Brey, Hebgen Lake district ranger, said the Forest Service’s broader-scale management approach offers forest managers more options, depending on conditions at specific sites.

However, the strategy also includes “numerous rigid sideboards,” which include parameters for reducing habitat impacts on grizzly bears, Canada lynx and other species. In response to issues brought up during the comment period, the Forest Service increased secure habitat for grizzly bears within the project area by 1,000 acres.

Mike Garrity, executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies, said he plans to file an objection to the project on behalf of his group because the work threatens important habitat for grizzly bears and lynx.

Of particular concern to Garrity are the 57 miles of temporary roads the Forest Service plans to build.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service has said that roads are the biggest threat to grizzly bears,” he said.

Garrity added that opening up the forest canopy through forest thinning could harm lynx, as the species’ primary prey — snowshoe hare — tend to live where there’s ground-level cover.

Science indicates that improving defensible space around homes and using more fire-resistant materials can work, “but there’s no science that shows logging prevents fires,” Garrity said. “If anything, (logging) can make them worse.”

Nancy Ostlie, leader of Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Bozeman Broadband, wrote in her comments to the Forest Service that “logging the forest because something ‘might’ kill the trees in the future is based on a flawed assumption.”

A pine beetle outbreak may not occur for decades, if at all, and logging roads “cause sedimentation in streams, spread weeds, reduce hiding cover for wildlife, disturb sensitive wildlife, and fragment the forest,” she wrote. The roads also increase potential for wildfire ignitions since more people will travel those routes, according to Ostlie.

“Best science does not support removing forest material,” Ostlie wrote. “In fact, current peer-reviewed science demonstrates that leaving existing forests intact is the strongest measure we can take now to conserve the resources we have left.”

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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