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Finding a solution for reducing fuel load conditions in the Salmon Municipal Watershed is the most important project ever undertaken in Lemhi County according to former County Commissioner and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Bob Cope. Cope has been involved in the Lemhi County Forest Restoration group since 2006.

He gave the Salmon City Council the history of the fuel load problem during a Forest Service update at the council’s May 3 meeting. Cope’s account began with the 1964 Wilderness Act, progressed to Rare I and Rare II during the early 1970’s, the 1978-79 Roadless Area Inventory, and the 2001 Clinton administration Roadless Rule which he said looked alright on the surface but actually turned the acreage into de-facto wilderness areas making them, by law, managerially untouchable.

Cope said Idaho took the lead in the 2005 Bush Planning Rule efforts to manage the Inventoried Roadless Areas (IRA’s). Locally, public input meetings were held throughout Lemhi County to get input from people familiar with this area. The result of the public input was much more livable designations and new inventories. The inventories tabulated a 300 mile stretch of timber that due to federal regulations has been unmanaged for decades. The swath of unmanaged timber runs from the South Fork of the Salmon River through the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area, through the IRA’s and up to Jesse Creek which is the Salmon Municipal Watershed and the town’s water source. Cope said that without treatment it is a matter of when, not if, that 300 mile stretch will burn and when it does it will take the town with it.

The key to creating a west side barrier between the town and an out of control forest fire is Jesse Creek.

The designation assigned to the Jesse Creek area is Back Country Restoration. Temporary roads can be built for a community protection zone however; building a road in that incredibly steep and rugged terrain is highly unlikely. The group of Forest Service representatives at the meeting agreed that prescribed burns will probably be the main treatment tool.

Cope said that Jesse Creek and Boundary County’s Myrtle Creek in North Idaho are considered the state’s most threatened areas.

He said the Idaho Roadless Commission is due to meet the week of May 8th to consider the proposed plan for the Salmon Municipal Watershed project and Cope guaranteed the first comment made will be, “It’s about damn time!” followed by the question, “What took you so long?”

Cope commended the Salmon Valley Stewardship for bringing various interest groups together in a united effort to resolve the looming threat.

Forest Service Fuels Project Manager for the North zone, Wade McPhetridge, delivered a packet to each councilman. The information documents tree species in the Salmon Municipal Watershed area as well as vegetation, percentage of slopes, percentage of trees per acre, tree diameters, photos showing the degree of down and dead fuels plus where the cattle are most likely to be.

For the last year McPhetridge has been doing on-the-ground research of the area as to where work can and can’t be done due to terrain and access. He has also monitored prevailing wind directions and studied the wind eddies that would take a fire to the fuel load. He said the fuel load in the watershed is from two to 23 duff tons per acre which is enough to cause soil damage if the woody materials burned.

A Jesse Creek fire simulation has been created based on the fuel load statistics and fire growth data from the Mustang and Salt fires. McPhetridge said the simulation shows that in three days the entire watershed could be gone.

McPhetridge said the maximum flame length allowed for ground crews fighting a fire by hand is four feet. Due to watershed terrain a large portion of the area would have to be fought by hand. McPhetridge has also found areas that are simply too rocky and too dangerous for ground crews to treat or fight fires. He said the most important element is potential crown-fire risk and he will be targeting those areas first in terms of possible treatments such as tree spacing.

Maggie Seaberg, Timber North Zone Management Assistant and co-Planning Team member, provided GIS maps showing where commercial timber harvest is currently allowed. There are some areas along the ridge road and along the Leesburg Road. She said the current forest plan, along with the area’s steepness, restricts harvest potential. She and McPhetridge will continue to determine if there are any commercial or firewood opportunities in the watershed but are waiting until snow levels allow access.

North Fork District Ranger Ken Gebhardt referred to the 1975 Forest Service Management Plan which has restrictions that would impede some of what needs to be done in the Salmon Municipal Watershed. He recommended revising that plan and talked about the 1939 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Forest Service and the city. He proposed that the Forest Service consult with the city regarding terms of both agreements.

Salmon-Cobalt-Leadore District Ranger Jay Winfield thanked the evening’s speakers for describing the need to protect the water shed. He said if the area can be manipulated to a degree, a fire’s intensity and duration can be lessened which in turn will protect the water system. He said he has learned there are 13,065 mother cows grazing the watershed area. He predicted plans to revegetate, create open areas and do some burning will definitely generate a need to resolve some livestock issues. Fencing is also mentioned in the old agreements and he thinks this will be a good opportunity to take a hard look at all the details. Winfield said revising the MOU could lead to improving the landscape, protecting the watershed and coming out with a desirable product.

Salmon Valley Stewardship Executive Director Toni Ruth reported on a March public meeting attended by 15 people. She said citizens talked about values of the water shed providing water to the community, esthetic and recreational values of the water shed, water quality and quantity, stable soils plus forest treatment preferences. Burning was generally thought best in view of the inaccessibility of the area. She said invasive weed species were discussed as well as no chemicals being used near the watershed. Concerns included a lack of public education, communication and involvement. The fear was that no action will be taken.

Gebhardt said there will be many more Salmon Municipal Watershed public meetings before a decision is made sometime in 2018.

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