The U.S. Forest Service proposal to reduce high-risk loads of combustible fuel on Mount Howard will move forward with the drafting of an environmental assessment, following a public meeting held last Thursday in Enterprise and comment period that will extend to April 24.

The Mount Howard Fuel Reduction Project, with an estimated total cost of $2 million for planning and implementation, would begin as early as next spring, pending approval of the environmental assessment, final decision by the Forest Service and availability of funds through the Healthy Forest Restoration Act.

Thinning and the clearing of understory around the unincorporated community at the head of Wallowa Lake has already been completed to form a community fuel break. Further fireproofing by private landowners, funded through federal grant programs, is the next step in the wildfire protection plan. The removal of dead and downed fuels on 68 acres of public lands by the Forest Service, and continued maintenance of the resulting clearings, are the final steps of the proposed project.

USFS Natural Fuels Specialist Jenny Reinheardt said the proposed clearings on Mt. Howard are designed to appear as natural as possible and would be located on the north and west slopes of Howard, where computer wildfire simulation has indicated the highest effectiveness.

Forest Service crews would begin the process of fuels reduction by hand-piling downed material. Helicopter logging of larger-diameter trees, to cost an estimated $375,000, would be partially offset by the estimated $310,000 value of the logs. The whole trees removed during helicopter operations would be flown to adjacent RY Timber property for processing. Barbara Walker, District Ranger, said the agreement with RY for use of the nearby log decks would allow for reduced flight time and costs of the logging. The treatment of Forest Service land bordering their own would be a benefit to RY, Walker said, adding that no financial agreements are involved and the timber sale process cannot begin until final approval of the fuels reduction proposal.

Final stages of the fuels reduction process would involve the cleanup of logging slash, followed by a series of prescribed burns over a number of years to be determined by burning conditions and availability of funds.

Steve Ellis, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest supervisor, said, "I'm optimistic that we will get the funds, if we do this in stages."

The high concentration of fuels adjacent to the homes and strong tourism population at the head of Wallowa Lake contributed to the high-risk classification of the Mount Howard proposal on the federal fire registry. With one road serving the head of the lake, where Wallowa Lake State Park estimated 589,000 day-use visitors last year, concerns were raised at the meeting Thursday as to whether the proposed Mount Howard Fuel Reduction Project would be completed soon enough to address safety issues and, once completed, whether the clearings would be extensive enough to provide an adequate wildfire buffer to people and property at the head of the lake. In response to those concerns, Forest Service personnel recommended the best immediate action as continued efforts by private landowners to fireproof their property.

Computer simulations of fire scenarios on Mount Howard, according to fuels specialist Reinheardt, indicate the 68 acres of proposed clearing as the point at which fuel removal showed a high rate of effectiveness, after which further clearing did not produce significantly higher results. Responding to whether the project acts quickly enough, Ellis said, "This is the first step."

Public comment on the proposal before the drafting of the environmental analysis extends through April 24. There will be a 30-day comment period after the release of the analysis, followed by a decision notice on the proposal and a 45-day appeal period. For more information on the Mount Howard Fuel Reduction Project, or to request a copy of the environmental assessment, contact District Ranger Walker at 426-5581.

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