The Bitterroot National Forest is releasing details of an extensive plan to cut the risk of a massive wildfire on the east side of the Bitterroot Valley. 

Forest managers say it's a critical step because the Bitterroot is at the highest fire risk of any area in Montana, with six of the top ten communities in danger of being destroyed by fire. 

The Eastside Project, developed in cooperation with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, will allow thinning and other forest work on a broad swath extending through both the Stevensville and Darby/Sula Ranger Districts. The work area starts at the 8 Mile drainage on the north, extending all the way to Connor on the southern end. 

That's similar to what Bitterroot National Forest managers have done along the west side of the valley over the past decade. Various projects have been focused on removing dead and dying trees and clearing the forest floor of debris which can allow fires to "crown" by climbing into the trees. The agency also says the projects are helping to make timber stands healthier, with a focus on native, fire-resistant species which also helps improve wildlife habitat. 

Some of those projects have been challenged in court by conversation groups, who object to logging. 

“Implementation of portions of this project could begin as soon as this spring,” said Steve Brown, Stevensville District Ranger. “We are really looking forward to working with CSKT on this project. The work that we've identified is integral to restoring fire to its proper role on the landscape and being able to maintain that into the future.”

The non-commercial thinning operations will be done manually, and with some equipment, such as hand tools, chainsaws, and brush saws. And the work could take place over a 20-year period. 

More information on the Eastside Project is available at the Bitterroot National Forest website.

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