HELENA, Montana – Cooks crowd the kitchen to spice the pot known as the Tenmile Creek watershed on the Helena/Lewis and Clark National Forest.
The city of Helena, Montana’s capital, relies on the 53-square-mile Tenmile watershed as its main source of drinking water for about 30,000 people. The supply system includes almost five miles of wooden flumes and trestles, constructed by the Helena Water Works Company in the late 1800s and purchased by the city in 1911.
Yet the 26,000-acre watershed has the dubious distinction of having the worst conditions of all the national forests and grasslands in Montana and portions of Idaho and the Dakotas, according to a 2011 report, based in part on historic mining and logging activity.
It is home to the Tenmile Superfund Site, which includes about 150 active and abandoned mines in the historic Rimini Mining District, and is undergoing a decade-long cleanup effort under the Environmental Protection Agency’s guidance.
Miners here sought gold, lead, copper and zinc, beginning in the 1870s and continuing through the 1930s. Waste rock, laden with heavy metals, was used to fill roads, yards and local waterways, and continues to contaminate soils and groundwater in the middle of the watershed.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality watches over scores of the abandoned mines dotting Tenmile’s mountainside, knowing they occasionally fill with water and blow out, sending a toxic slush downhill.
In addition, the Lewis and Clark County Health Department oversees a number of non-conforming septic systems that lie in the floodplain around the town of Rimini, home to about 30 families, further endangering the watershed.
Complicating the management effort is the mountain pine beetle epidemic, which raced across the watershed beginning in 2007, killing almost every pine tree in sight. And, by law, any work on the watershed has to take into consideration that it’s a designated travel corridor for grizzly bears and Canada lynx, animals protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
“The management of this area affects everyone, especially those individuals, businesses and others who have city water, so it’s been a productive and positive experience to have all of these groups working cooperatively toward a shared vision – a healthy municipal watershed,” she said. “The forest specialists serve as technical advisers … when they have specific resource and/or management questions or clarifications.”
Helena city manager Ron Alles agrees with Bushnell, noting that the city and Forest Service officials have had a strong working relationship “for as long as I can remember.”
“I think we’re in a good place,” Alles said. “I think the Forest Service has come a long way; our collaboration has worked well.”
Nearly 10 years ago, in 2008, at the request of then-forest supervisor Kevin Riordan, the city pulled together a few dozen people into a diverse group, known as the Tenmile Watershed Collaborative Committee, to develop recommendations to address issues in the watershed.
They were dealing with a forest where 90 to 95 percent of the lodgepole pines were dead, leaving only a few Douglas firs and scree fields among the beetle-killed pines. The threat of a devastating wildfire was on everyone’s mind, with fears that the aftermath would result in ash and sediment soiling the city’s water supply.
With the aid of facilitator Brian Kahn, the group met weekly to reach consensus on goals to protect and restore the watershed. The city approved the group’s plan in 2009, and six goals focused on improving water quality and quantity, as well as enhancing wildlife and fisheries habitat.
Those goals, in turn, came with multiple recommendations for action, including removing the dead trees to reduce the threat of a major wildfire in the drainage.
“We came up with an agreement; the main sticking point was that before they built any temporary (logging) roads, they had to first take out an equivalent amount of permanent roads. The scientists told us that decreasing road density would be a good thing,” said Mike Garrity, executive director of the Helena-based Alliance for the Wild Rockies who sat on the collaborative committee.
About half of the land along the five-mile stretch of the Red Mountain Flume was on private property, some of which previously was logged, and the rest was on national forest land.
By then, most of the timber was beetle-killed, with little to no economic value. So after adopting the plan, the city used a $312,800 federal grant, plus $104,000 in matching funds, to clear trees on 72 acres of private land in the watershed near the flume in 2011 and 2012, creating a 432-foot buffer zone in some places.
Meanwhile, the Helena/Lewis and Clark Forest removed dead trees on public lands, including around Chessman Reservoir, and decommissioned some roads.
“The purpose was to remove the threat of damage from the (beetle-killed) hazard trees away from the city’s flume and the reservoir,” Bushnell said. “Eighty to 90 percent of the trees along the flume and around the reservoir were dead lodgepole pine and threatening damage – possibly irreparable damage – to the water transport system.”
“If we can remove the trees mechanically, it costs about $1,000 to $1,300 per acre,” said Sharon Scott, timber management officer for the Helena/Lewis and Clark National Forest. “If we treat those same acres by hand, along the flume it cost between $8,000 to $11,000 per acre. Overlay that with the fact that the trees were becoming more and more unstable, and we’re asking folks to work in that environment, and it gets pretty expensive.”
Scott noted that the Forest Service also was focused on removing hazard trees in areas where the public regularly recreated, and made that its priority.
“We first started to see the impacts of the beetles in the summer of 2008, and we projected a 13-fold increase in dead trees,” Scott said. “Through 2009, there was unprecedented mortality from the mountain pine beetle. In 2013, we presented a forest-wide beetle strategy and were working on how to immediately keep the public safe in that environment. This was a matter of public health and safety, and we removed hazard trees along roads and in developed campgrounds.”
But additional logging and prescribed burning on national forest land in the Tenmile watershed came to a halt, in part because of the forest’s non-conformance with elk hiding cover standards in the 25-year-old forest management plan, and because of the watershed’s road density.
More tree removal would push the forest further out of compliance, so officials first had to update the forest plan – an effort that is still under way. A draft Environmental Impact Statement, which is part of the forest plan revision process, ended its public comment period on March 31, 2017.
In 2014, a second group – the Ten Mile-South Helena Forest Restoration Collaborative Committee – was created. They met 19 times in 15 months and developed 36 recommendations split into 10 subcategories to address watershed enhancement.
Today, the Forest Service is in the final stages of putting together the 61,395-acre Tenmile-South Helena Project, which proposes to use both commercial and non-commercial logging and prescribed burns on 6,551 acres of public land across 34,169 acres in the Tenmile watershed. Treatments also are planned for 24,745 acres to the east, closer to the cities of Helena and Unionville, including work on some Bureau of Land Management land.
The treatment has multiple objectives, including maintaining consistent water quality and quantity for the city of Helena; protecting the infrastructure; improving conditions for the public and firefighters in the event of a wildfire; and generally improving forest and watershed health across the project areas. The final Record of Decision is expected to be released in June 2017.
“By modifying the vegetation and fuels structure through vegetation treatments and prescribed fire … we are creating a mosaic within the forest that will help make it more resilient to natural disturbances such as insect and disease, and wildfires,” said Helena National Forest Supervisor Bill Avey.
Garrity worries about sediment runoff from the thinning and logging and from any new roads that go along with the work. While he hasn’t sued to halt the proposal, he noted that’s always a consideration for the Alliance.
“They shouldn’t be trying to get the cut out, especially in a municipal watershed,” Garrity said.
However, it’s not a “get the cut out” project, Scott said, because most of the dead trees have lost their value and they’re difficult to reach. She added, however, that some components will include timber sales that will generate revenue to make the project more economically feasible.
And while the Forest Service is also worried about sedimentation, Scott noted that it’s a short-term impact and plans are in place to offset and mitigate the runoff.
“The goal is for the long-term health of the watershed,” Scott said. “We’re replacing and upgrading 17 culverts, with 56 miles of road work. The fuels component definitely will cost money to treat those acres, but overall this will benefit everyone.”
Eve Byron is a longtime journalist in Helena, Montana, who covers natural resources, the state and federal courts, and state government. She can be reached at [email protected] or follow her on twitter @Evefolomoney.