Impending Temporary Closure of Spencer due to Timber Salvage Sale by DNRC: Submit Your Comments to the DNRC by 6/14/21
On Monday, May 24, the DNRC issued a Scoping Notice for a Checklist Environmental Analysis they are conducting on a proposed timber salvage sale at Spencer to harvest downed trees from a winter 2021 blowdown event.
The bad news:
FAMB has met with the DNRC and it seems very likely this salvage operation is going to happen, likely as soon as mid-July. During the salvage operation, the Twin Bridges trailhead and trails at North Spencer will likely be closed for up to 30 days. Some of the trails might remain closed for longer if they need to be repaired after the salvage operation.
FAMB has several concerns about this salvage operation, and we have submitted our comments to the DNRC on May 30, 2021, shown below. Specifically, FAMB is extremely concerned that this salvage operation could result in significant unnecessary damage to certain trails that we manage and maintain at Spencer, with Otter Pop, Maple Syrup, Big Gulps, and Malice in Plunderland likely to suffer the brunt of the effects of logging operations. We have made several specific requests that the DNRC take all necessary steps to limit unnecessary damage to trails and technical terrain features during this salvage operation by imposing specific restrictions on the salvage operator.
How things work at Spencer generally:
Spencer is located on state trust lands, which means the DNRC is statutorily mandated to maintain the land for the financial benefit of designated Montana public educational institutions. Recreational use is made possible by a ten-year Special Recreational Use License (SRUL) granted to the City of Whitefish in 2014 by the DNRC. Under this license, the primary use or purpose of these state trust lands is to raise funds for the designated educational institutions, which generally means harvesting timber for profit. Recreation is the secondary use at Spencer under the SRUL as it is on all state trust lands.
What exactly is FAMB’s role at Spencer?
FAMB signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in 2013 with the City of Whitefish to assume the responsibility of managing and maintaining the freeride trails at Spencer and paying the annual SRUL fees, which in 2021 come to $5,290.43, plus FAMB’s share of paying for supplies and upkeep of the vault toilet at the Twin Bridges trailhead, which came to $405 this year. Whitefish Legacy Partners also pays their share of the SRUL fee for Whitefish Trail segments and half of the vault toilet upkeep each year. WLP and FAMB also share the cost of upkeep at the Twin Bridges trailhead.
What can you do about this?
Submit comments to the DNRC to let them know how important recreating at Spencer is to you. Here are a few things we suggest you include in any comments you submit to the DNRC, which can be addressed to Riley Stevenson at firstname.lastname@example.org:
FAMB will continue to work with the DNRC to minimize the impacts at Spencer, and your comments show the DNRC that there is community support for those efforts. FAMB recognizes and supports the DNRC’s obligation to manage the forest at Spencer and generate revenue for Montana public schools, and with some reasonable accommodations, we’re sure this salvage sale can happen without excessive damage to the trails. We certainly recognize that the prospect of Spencer closing in the middle of the summer is disappointing, but this is the nature of trails existing on school trust lands. So we encourage you to submit comments and support FAMB’s positions, but we respectfully request that any comments you submit to the DNRC are civil in nature and avoid derogatory language. FAMB values our partnership with the DNRC, and your treatment of their employees reflects directly on FAMB. Thanks in advance for your support in this and all things mountain biking in the Flathead.
Here is the DNRC’s scoping notice and public comment solicitation.
Email your comments by June 14, 2021 to:
Riley Stevenson, email@example.com
Here are FAMB’s comments submitted to the DNRC on May 30, 2021:
May 30, 2021
Department of Natural Resources and Conservation
Attn: Riley Stevenson
655 Timberwolf Parkway
Kalispell MT 59901
This letter is in response to the Scoping Notice alerting the public to the proposed Spencer Mountain Blowdown Salvage Permit, dated May 24, 2021. FAMB appreciates its partnership with the DNRC throughout the years as we’ve managed and maintained a portion of Spencer Trails for recreational use for the benefit of the public pursuant to our Memorandum of Understanding with the City of Whitefish dated as of August 21, 2013, as amended on March 22, 2017 (the “MOU”). We acknowledge and understand that, pursuant to the Special Recreational Use License granted to the City of Whitefish by the DNRC dated as of January 6, 2014 (the “SRUL”), the primary use of these state trust lands is income generation for the benefit of various Montana educational institutions, and that the recreational use is a secondary use under the SRUL.
In terms of trails managed and maintained by FAMB, this salvage operation as proposed has the potential to directly and significantly impact Otter Pop, Maple Syrup, Recess, Malice in Plunderland, and Big Gulps, Eh?, plus impacts to the rest of the trail system and trailhead indirectly via closures that may be required due to the presence of logging trucks and other hazards.
We were dismayed to hear that you were not willing to postpone this timber salvage sale - as FAMB has requested - to the Fall months when recreational use is not at its peak as it is during the midsummer months, which is when this salvage sale is targeted for. We do understand that there is very real risk for resource damage from Douglas Fir bark beetles. We also understand that this salvage sale is motivated by the current high market price of lumber and that the DNRC is statutorily obligated under Montana state law to manage these state trust lands for the financial benefit of several Montana educational institutions.
That all being said, we have made several requests to you in this matter that we hope you will honor and follow through on, and recent conversations with you have provided us with encouragement that this will be the case. Our requests are squarely aimed at preventing and/or mitigating damage to the trails, technical terrain features (TTFs), and the trailhead at North Spencer. FAMB has invested heavily in Spencer Trails over the last seven years - to the tune of $83,000 in RTP-funded trail and TTF construction and maintenance costs, and 2,528.25 hours of FAMB volunteer trail construction and maintenance labor (which has a value of $63,206.25 at $25/hour), plus significant administrative payroll costs, all for the benefit of the public. A substantial portion of that money has been spent on trails that are within the salvage sale project area.
The SRUL requires the DNRC to work with the licensee to minimize impacts to recreation, stating in Section 7(C) that “licensee will be invited to participate in the MEPA process to develop a solution that minimizes impacts to licensed activities while meeting Trust Land Management goals.” The SRUL also provides in Section 26(E) that “when forest management activities are scheduled that may impact the SRUL corridor, DNRC will take reasonable precautions within the scope of the logging process to avoid unnecessary damage within the trail corridor.” Below, FAMB lays out several safeguards that we believe must be taken by the DNRC in order to minimize unnecessary impacts to recreation on Spencer Trails.
First, we are happy to hear that the DNRC intends to limit any temporary closure of any or all of Spencer Trails, including the trailhead amenities, to a 30-day period as required under Section 26(G) of the SRUL. Because the DNRC has the ability to place restrictions and requirements in the unit card and resulting salvage sale contract, FAMB has requested that the timber salvage operation cross trails only in this manner so as to “minimize impacts to licensed activities while meeting Trust Land Management goals”, as mandated under Section 7(C) of the SRUL:
-with skid trails no wider than 15',
-as infrequently as possible but no more than every 200', and
-to avoid all built trail features including bermed turns and freeride features (with a 50' no-work zone around any built wood features to protect approach/landings which take significant investment to construct and often help provide stability to the structure).
We have also requested an explicit ban on skidding up or down trail corridors “to avoid unnecessary damage within the trail corridor” pursuant to Section 26(E) of the SRUL, and have requested that the DNRC walk the affected trails with a FAMB representative to flag zones where skid trails would be best placed, and to designate zones as “off-limits” for skid trails due to significant past investments made by FAMB in certain trail features and TTFs. Furthermore, we request that the salvage operator be contractually obligated to abide by these restrictions during the salvage operation. These safeguards would help satisfy section 7(C) of the SRUL mandating that the licensee “be invited to participate in the MEPA process to develop a solution that minimizes impacts to licensed activities while meeting Trust Land Management goals”.
When we last spoke, both FAMB and the DNRC were committed to doing this “walk-through”, and FAMB was encouraged that both parties seemed to agree that skid trails could be placed so as to minimize unnecessary damage yet still allow for the practical harvest of timber, and that such zones could be marked and dictated to the operator. FAMB’s key objective here is to ensure that the salvage operator is contractually obligated to abide by these requirements and that there be a mechanism for such contractor to be held accountable for disregarding any such requirements and inflicting significant, unnecessary damage to the trails and features. As such, we would like to do this walk-through at a time that allows for these safeguards to be placed in the unit card and salvage contract. FAMB also extends the offer to be a point of contact with whom the operator can consult during the salvage operation for any questions the operator has, with the understanding that the DNRC is the operator’s main point of contact during the salvage operation.
FAMB has requested that log landings and slash piles be located away from trail junctions and trail corridors, since they can create a safety hazard if located in a runout zone or near a trail intersection and the woody debris left over from log decks and slash piles is detrimental to the trail tread and difficult to repair. We would like to cover this during the above-mentioned walk-through with the DNRC and are happy to serve in a consulting role with the salvage operator if necessary and helpful.
FAMB requests that the DNRC give as much prior notice as possible to the City of Whitefish, Whitefish Legacy Partners, and FAMB of trail closures and restrictions of public access. The DNRC is the appropriate party to take on the responsibility of providing to the public via on-site signage all necessary information regarding trail closures at trailheads and anywhere else in the project area deemed necessary or appropriate, as well as a public announcement in print and/or social media if this isn't already part of the salvage sale process. FAMB is happy to assist in this process by getting the word out about closures via social media or subscriber email communications.
FAMB has specifically requested that every effort be made to limit the time span of trail closures, as well as the overall trail mileage of closures, with the recognition that closing a significant portion of a trail effectively closes the entire trail for recreational use. This is especially true in the case of trails that are designated primarily for downhill traffic, which includes all trails managed and maintained by FAMB at Spencer.
Additionally, FAMB requests that the contract require the salvage operator return the trailhead to the same condition it was in prior to the salvage operation. FAMB, along with Whitefish Legacy Partners, has invested substantial funds in the grading and graveling of the trailhead, and any damage needs to be promptly addressed. Since repairing the trailhead will almost certainly require a continued closure of the trailhead, FAMB requests that this work be completed within the 30 day period required under Section 26(G) of the SRUL.
FAMB also anticipates that, even with the salvage operator taking reasonable precautions to preserve and avoid damaging the trails, some damage is inevitable. As such, as part of this project, FAMB requests approval to use a mini-excavator (no larger than 10,000 lbs) to repair all trails within the project area, as needed. As with past use of a mini-excavator, FAMB would notify the DNRC prior to moving the machine on site and would ensure that the machine had been cleaned so as to minimize the spread of noxious weeds.
As we have discussed, this process will require some “give and take” on both sides. If this project is slated for completion during peak recreational use months (now through the end of October), FAMB formally requests a pro rata refund or credit of SRUL fees proportionate to the acreage and mileages of trail affected (keeping in mind the point above regarding “effective closure” of entire trails and networks when a significant portion of a trial or network is closed) and a pro rata refund of the Base/Recreation Use fees associated with that time frame (recognizing here that the apex of of recreational use occurs midsummer and slowly tapers until dropping steeply in October). This pro rata refund should extend to the time when FAMB is next able to conduct repair and reconstruction work on damaged trails, most likely Spring of 2022.
This gesture would serve to recognize that the licensed use FAMB will have paid for as of June 15, 2021 is being temporarily taken away. A refund/credit determined in the above-mentioned manner is arguably just a de minimis cost of doing business (the salvage sale), especially when taken in the context of the substantial income likely to be generated by the salvage sale. FAMB would invest these funds instead in repairing damage done during the salvage operation, although we anticipate this may not even come close to covering the cost of repairs after this operation.
FAMB is committed to a continued partnership with the DNRC, the City of Whitefish, and Whitefish Legacy Partners at Spencer Trails. We appreciate the time DNRC has spent explaining the timber salvage sale process and its justifications. FAMB is contractually obligated to manage and maintain Spencer Trails for the benefit of the public - specifically recreationalists. We take this responsibility very seriously, and feel that the requests made in this letter are those that we must make in order to prevent unnecessary damage to a trail system in which FAMB has invested a total of $146,206.25, plus significant administrative payroll, since 2014. Although recreation is the secondary use under the SRUL, the SRUL requires the DNRC to work with the license holder to prevent any “unnecessary damage” to trails and trailhead amenities. We have laid out some achievable objectives toward accomplishing this goal, and we are encouraged by the willingness expressed by the DNRC to do what is necessary to minimize any such unnecessary damage.
/s/ Dan Hansen
Flathead Area Mountain Bikers, Inc.
Flathead Area Mountain Bikers, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is working to promote mountain biking and improve trail access in the Flathead Valley.