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Marna Daley, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, walks among a large pile of logged trees near Hebgen Lake in Yellowstone National Park.

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The Forest Service is planning another logging project near West Yellowstone.

The South Plateau Landscape Area Treatment Project could involve up to 4,600 acres of scattered clear cuts and up to 15,100 acres of forest thinning, according to the Forest Service’s draft environmental assessment. The work could occur within a 40,000-acre area that stretches south from Highway 20 and west from the boundary of Yellowstone National Park.

This project follows a few others in the area in recent years, including work on the shores of Hebgen Lake and at ski trails south of town.

Jason Brey, Hebgen Lake District Ranger, said the South Plateau project is part of the broader push to improve forest health in the area.

“The South Plateau project is the next logical step where we look at fuels and forest health,” Brey said.

Forest Service officials released the South Plateau project’s draft environmental assessment and scoping at the same time, meaning there will only be one 30-day public comment period, which ends Sept. 16. According to a recent legal notice from the Custer Gallatin National Forest, there likely won’t be a second opportunity for comment.

Logging and thinning is aimed at protecting structures in the area where the forest meets the town of West Yellowstone, officials said at a virtual open house Wednesday. Work would likely be most concentrated in areas closest to the town.

The area is predominantly lodgepole pine and is susceptible to mountain pine beetle infestations, according to Johanna Nosal, a Forest Service silviculturist.

“We have a 93% probability that this specific area will experience a high severity mountain pine beetle outbreak during the next period of beneficial climate,” she said. For pine beetles, that means a long drought.

About every 20 years, major mountain pine beetle outbreaks kill large swaths of trees. Diversifying the size classes of trees across the landscape by clear cutting will lower the risk of a large outbreak, Nosal said.

Jeff Shanafelt, a fire management officer for the Custer Gallatin National Forest, said the small, scattered clear cuts proposed for the project would diversify the landscape “so it’s not just an entire monoculture of lodgepole.” That would improve foraging habitat for species like elk, he said.

Reducing the number of trees per acre would also reduce the risk of crown fire, according to Shanafelt. Crown fires move through the tops of trees and are more difficult for firefighters to contain.

“Proposed activities would reduce hazardous fuels to increase fire suppression effectiveness and reduce risk to the public and first responders,” Forest Service officials wrote in a news release about Wednesday’s open house.

The project would also involve permanently closing the portion of Forest Service road 478 that runs along the South Fork of the Madison River. A section of Forest Service Road 1704, a parallel administrative route, would be opened to enable travel through the area.

Brey anticipates a decision on the South Plateau project will be reached by March 2021. If approved, work could begin summer.

Recent timber projects throughout the basin include the Lonesome Wood 2 project on the west shore of Hebgen Lake and the Rendezvous Trail Thinning Project south of West Yellowstone.

Work on a 5,600 acre timber project approved for the north shore of Hebgen Lake in 2017 was stalled by conservation groups this April. A federal court judge ruled the Forest Service needed to further analyze the project’s impacts on elk and wolverine habitat before work could proceed.

This June, after the Forest Service updated its wildlife analysis, the judge ruled the North Hebgen Multiple Resource Project could move forward.

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

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