The Flathead National Forest last week released an environmental assessment of the Crystal-Cedar project last week, which, when fully implemented, would add about 25 miles of new non-motorized trails on Forest Service lands just north of Columbia Falls
The project area, all of it on federal lands, includes Crystal Creek, Cedar Flats, Spoon Lake, Blankenship Road and Teakettle Mountain.
The project would also log or thin about 3,876 acres of lands in various units, with the object to produce commercial timber harvest of about 9 million board feet of sawlogs. The project would also look to reduce wildfire risk in the area. Just under 300 acres of birch trees along existing roads would be open to firewood cutting under the plan.
The Forest Service held a scoping open house on the project last fall, with more than 200 comments on the project.
While it has support of local mountain bikers and other recreationists, some private landowners have shown concern about trespass on private lands and other impacts by the project.
“We are excited to see this project moving forward and continue the community dialogue about the proposed trail network,” Jeremiah Martin said. Martin is president of Gateway to Glacier Trail, who has offered to partner with the Forest Service to construct and maintain the proposed trail network.
Project leader Sarah Canepa said other groups, including Dream Adaptive, have also show interest in the project. It will likely take several years for the trails to be put in. Some will utilize existing tracks, while others will be built from scratch. The entire trail network will be built to Forest Service standards and partnering groups will also be required to enter a maintenance agreement, she noted.
The city of Columbia Falls has also shown support for the project, as a person could, conceivably, start riding a bike in downtown and end up in the hills north of town completely by trail if the project comes to fruition.
The project would create two new trailheads with bathrooms. One trailhead would be located at the end of Fourth Avenue West North and another off Forest Road 1690.
Two short sections (about two-tenths of a mile each) would connect existing motorized trails in the area as well.
Of the non-motorized trails, all would be open tho bikers and hikers, while some would also be open to horses.
The trails are primarily loop routes — so a person can start and stop at the same trailhead.
The logging units are scattered throughout the project, including units along the Blankenship Road.
Logging sales would probably happen before trail construction, but if they happen afterward, new trails that have been built in logged areas would be restored.
The project did not consider a trail up Teakettle Mountain — which some people wanted to see. The Teakettle trail is outside the scope the project, which is identified as a “Focused Recreational Area” under the 2018 Forest plan.
There would be some ecological impacts associated with the project. The region is good grizzly bear habitat, particularly in the spring.
The project will look to mitigate the impacts, the environmental assessments says.
“Recreational improvements are proposed in areas known to receive seasonal use by bears due to high quality forage, therefore the likelihood of a human-bear conflict is moderate,” it states. “Project design features for maintaining sight distances along trails, educational signage at trailheads, and design of the trails would contribute to decreasing the potential for human-bear conflict and associated grizzly bear mortality ... High densities of berry-producing shrubs attract grizzly bears to the project area from June through October. In the past 20 years, there have been three documented grizzly bear mortalities in the affected subunit. All three mortalities occurred on private land and were human-caused, including a train strike, defense of life, and mistaken identity.”
Maps and the environmental assessment are available for review online at www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=52844.
The release of the environmental assessment marks the beginning of a 30-day public comment period.
Public input will help the Forest Service determine if they have adequately considered the effects to potential resources.
Comments will also be used to refine the draft decision for the project, The Forest Service notes.
For more information about the Crystal Cedar Project please contact Project Team Leader, Sarah Canepa, at (406) 387-3800.
The Forest Service will look to release a draft decision notice later this summer, with a final decision in December.