Federal officials have OK’d a logging project in the northwestern portion of the Crazy Mountains.

The U.S. Forest Service released a decision on the Smith Shields Forest Health project, a logging operation near Wilsall. The agency plans to harvest trees on roughly 1,660 acres in the Smith Creek and Shields River watersheds in the name of reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires and improving tree health.

“This project represents a continuation of good common sense forest management around an area with significant human dwellings,” said Alex Sienkiewicz, the Yellowstone district ranger for the Forest Service. “It’s an area that’s faced stress and forest health issues due to a number of ecological and climatic variables.”

But Sara Johnson, the director of Native Ecosystems Council, said she worries the project might reduce cover for wildlife, cause snow to melt earlier and reduce shade that keeps water temperatures low.

“(Logging is) devastating to wildlife and now it will increase the warm water in rivers and it’s going to increase your early snowmelt,” Johnson said.

The Forest Service used a special authority under the Farm Bill to push this project through. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock requested that this area be considered a high priority for logging within the state.

It went through the lowest level of environmental analysis allowed under the National Environmental Policy Act. Forest officials began developing the project in July. The agency held public meetings and field trips to the project area before this decision was issued.

Along with the signed decision, the Forest Service released a 49-page decision memo detailing the project. The document says the work will reduce wildfire risk, improve conditions for firefighting and improve trees’ resistance to insect and disease outbreaks in the watersheds of Smith Creek and the Shields River.

Sienkiewicz said trees there have suffered from insect outbreaks and drought stress in the past. He also said a lot of the project is near homes and cabin sites in the area, something forest officials call the “wildland urban interface.”

The project calls for more than 300 acres of clear cuts. Most of the rest of the project would be more selective — either clear cuts of smaller areas, thinning, or the salvage of dead trees.

It will also include building roughly six miles of temporary roads and maintenance on nearly 40 miles of existing roads. Sienkiewicz said that while all activity affects wildlife to some extent, he doesn’t expect the temporary road building to do much harm.

“I don’t see any significant or long term effects,” Sienkiewicz said.

Johnson said that area had been logged recently and that she doesn’t see why they want to do more work there. More logging will reduce available habitat for forest predators and other wildlife, she said.

“It’s a huge deal. You can’t just keep logging and expect to have your wildlife,” she said. “It’s very frustrating for me.”

She also criticized the level of analysis the project got from the Forest Service, saying it didn’t include enough public involvement. She said the level of analysis the project was given is a “shortcut to make it easier to log” and that it cuts the public out of the process.

Work on the project is expected to begin this summer.

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

Michael Wright covers the environment and wildlife issues for the Chronicle.

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