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Public comment sought on Rye Creek land exchange

By Michael Howell

Bitterroot National Forest officials are seeking public comment on the Environmental Analysis (EA) of a proposed land exchange between the federal government and the CB Ranch located on the Darby Ranger District. The Forest Service proposes to acquire three parcels of land totaling 1,920.8 acres from the CB Ranch in exchange for 1,940.25 acres in four Forest Service parcels. The exchange would be one of the last land exchanges aimed at consolidating the checkerboard land ownership resulting from the federal government’s land grant to the railroads in the area.

The proposal has been under consideration for quite some time and drew some vocal opponents during the initial scoping efforts back in 2009 that ultimately resulted in an agreement between CB Ranch and the Forest Service on the exact acreages to be included in the swap. Legal notice of the EA examining this proposal and a No Action alternative was published on October 24, 2012 and public comment on the analysis will be accepted through November 23, 2012.

According to the EA, the exchange does not have to be of equal acreage but must represent resource values and public benefits of equal value. The determination of those values involves a complex appraisal process. A number of alternatives were examined and rejected during the scoping process, including a couple involving cash payments to the CB Ranch, one involving an exchange of lands up the West Fork, one that proved to be of cultural significance to the Salish tribe and another that included Section 28. This land was dropped from consideration based on public input, especially from the Off Highway Vehicle users.

“Currently there are isolated federal parcels adjacent to or surrounded by CB Ranch parcels as well as isolated CB Ranch parcels adjacent to or surrounded by NFS lands. Access to the fragmented public parcels along the western edge is limited, particularly for the half-section 9. There is currently no legal public access to section 10 which is surrounded by private land. Isolated land parcels are difficult and more expensive to access and manage. There is a need to consolidate ownership to improve access, reduce management costs, and provide improved opportunities to meet Forest Service and private management objectives for these lands,” states the EA.

The EA also notes benefits for wildlife, fisheries and water quality in the exchange.

“The non-federal parcels to be acquired in the exchange are part of a critical elk migration corridor and provide important elk and mule deer winter range. By consolidating lands and protecting the exchanged lands with conservation easement there is permanent protection for wildlife and critical elk habitat. The exchange will also provide for further protection and restoration of the Rye Creek watershed, benefiting TES-listed native trout and improving water quality to the upper Bitterroot River.”

The net effects of the proposed exchange would result in an increase in federally managed fisheries habitat, including the sensitive Westslope Cutthroat Trout, according to the EA, and the long-term effects of the proposed exchange would result in beneficial effects to fish habitat as well. The land swap would place a portion of Rye Creek in Forest Service hands. This is especially important, according to the EA, because of the potential for recovery of the Bull Trout population, an Endangered Species.

The only stream within any of the federal or non-federal parcels analyzed with documented bull trout use is Rye Creek, which is a tributary of the Bitterroot River, and flows through the non-federal parcel – section 23 – that is proposed to become National Forest System lands. There are only limited reports of juvenile bull trout in Rye Creek from the early 1980s and there has been no documented use by bull trout since the fires of 2000.

The EA states that the Rye Creek watershed as a whole typically has limited bull trout use in recent decades, primarily due to siltation and removal of overstory by commercial logging and by management of previous landowners.

“The restoration of the Rye Creek drainage and removal of roads, failed culverts and other sediment sources will likely recover this tributary and provide important habitat for spawning bull trout in the future,” states the EA.

The entire EA is available for public review on-line at http://www.fs.usda.gov/projects/bitterroot/landmanagement/projects. A limited number of paper copies and CDs are available at the Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor’s Office. Comments on the EA should be submitted to: Responsible Official: Julie King, Forest Supervisor, Bitterroot National Forest, and addressed to Forest Supervisor’s Office, 1801 N. 1st Street, Hamilton MT 59840-3114. For additional information about the EA, contact Jerry Krueger at 363-7109.

Forest officials ask those commenting to provide their name, address, and organization represented, if any; to reference the Rye Creek Land Exchange project; to make specific comments on the proposed action and alternatives to the proposed action “with supporting reasons that you believe should be considered”; and sign it.

Only those who provide comment or otherwise express an interest in the proposed action during the comment period will be eligible as appellants. Interest expressed or comments provided on this project prior to or after the close of this comment period will not constitute standing for appeal purposes.

Written comments can be submitted to the Supervisor’s Office during business hours, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through  Friday, or fax them to 363-7106. Oral comments must be provided at the Responsible Official’s Office during normal business hours via telephone (363-7100) or in person. Electronic comments must be submitted in rich text format (.rtf), Word (.doc) or Word Perfect format to comments-northern-bitterroot-darby@fs.fed.us. The subject line must contain the name of the project for which you are submitting comments. For electronically mailed comments, the sender should normally receive an automated electronic acknowledgment from the agency as confirmation of receipt. All comments, oral written or electronic, including names, addresses, e-mail addresses, and phone numbers of those who comment will be considered part of the public record and will be available for public inspection.

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