Triple Tree Logging Proposal

Triple Tree Trail winds into the mountains recently next to Limestone Creek.

State officials approved a logging project proposed for south of Bozeman and left open the option for opponents of the sale to bid on a 25-year deferral of any logging there, setting the stage for a first-of-its kind bidding war between timber companies and conservationists.

The Montana Land Board voted unanimously to move forward with the Limestone West Timber Sale, a 443-acre project the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation proposed for state school trust lands southeast of town.

The agency will also offer a 25-year conservation license in lieu of timber sale, an option requested by Save Our Gallatin Front, a group opposed to cutting down trees in the area. It’s the first time such a license has been offered for an entire logging project, and the land board kept that option intact despite a raft of public comment from the timber industry in opposition to offering a conservation license.

Whether any timber harvest happens will depend on who offers the most cash. Officials expect to begin accepting sealed bids on Wednesday with a minimum bid of $17.06 per ton, which results in a total price of just more than $376,000. The bidding period will last 30 days.

DNRC first proposed logging near the Limestone Creek drainage in 2016, prompting considerable outrage from nearby residents and others in Bozeman who are concerned logging would disrupt wildlife habitat and sully a roadless area on the front of the Gallatin Range. The agency issued a final proposal for the sale in late December that was smaller than the original proposal but still disappointed the sale’s opponents.

Dan Rogers, trust lands forest management bureau chief for DNRC, told the land board that the final proposal was the result of a lengthy public input process.

“This is really a solid sale package built on extraordinary public comment and project compromise,” Rogers said.

DNRC has offered timber sales on the trust lands near Bear Canyon several times over the years. Limestone West is aimed at getting money out of dead and dying lodgepole pine trees west of the Limestone Creek drainage that may lose their value in the next several years. The agency also wants to add to the road system there, a move it argues will help future fire suppression efforts.

The final proposal would produce an estimated 3.29 million board feet. It includes more than 6 miles of new roads. A little more than half of the new road system would be reclaimed after the project and the rest would be open for administrative use but not public motorized use.

The conservation license portion of the sale is an anomaly, having been used only once before to block a small portion of a sale in northwestern Montana. For the Limestone West sale, DNRC set the term at 25 years because that’s when DNRC officials believe the value of the logs will drop off significantly. The license reserves rights for DNRC to access the land for some work but blocks timber harvest for the entire term.

In addition to the bid price, the license buyer would be required to hold liability insurance for the entire 25-year term, according to a draft of the license. The buyer would also have to pay forest improvement fees and pay a bond worth a minimum of 5 percent of the deferred stumpage value.

During public comment Tuesday, several timber industry representatives told the board that it should approve the sale without offering a conservation license.

Ed Regan, of RY Timber, said the state’s timber supply is crucial to the survival of his business and several others, and that offering a conservation license could have a major impact on that supply of logs.

“Such a precedent would probably invite every cash-rich NGO to come to Montana and obstruct” logging projects on state land, Regan said.

Mark Lambrecht, of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, also opposed the conservation license, saying it would be bad for a local elk herd and wildfire risk.

“Kicking the can down the road will delay important management that would benefit that herd and also increase the risk for wildfire,” Lambrecht said.

No one opposed to logging the area spoke at the meeting. In a phone interview, Tim Tousignant, director of Save Our Gallatin Front, said he and the group still believe logging could jeopardize important wildlife habitat in the area. He added that the process seemed biased toward the timber industry.

He said he and the group would review the bidding process and the requirements that come with a conservation license and then form a plan for trying to outbid the timber companies, something he acknowledged would require a lot of money.

“We believe it’s important to protect,” Tousignant said. “Now our challenge will be working with the Bozeman community to see if we can find a way to do that.”

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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

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