SHERIDAN — The Bighorn National Forest Steering Committee discussed a host of topics including wildfire preparedness, federal regulations and the best ways to maintain forest lands and services in light of budget cuts at its regularly scheduled meeting Wednesday at the Sheridan County Courthouse.
The steering committee is comprised of Forest Service managers, county commissions, conservation districts and other state agencies. It meets twice per year to discuss current issues of concern, future plans and projects and updates from all three ranger districts.
The Bighorn National Forest runs from the Montana border to just south of U.S. Highway 16 out of Buffalo.
It is 80 miles long and 30 miles wide, sitting between Dayton and Lovell in the north and Buffalo and Ten Sleep in the south. It covers 1,115,073 acres and includes elevation ranges from 5,500 feet to 13,175 feet at the summit of Cloud Peak.
“We had a good exchange, and we had some issues come up,” Forest Supervisor Bill Bass said following the meeting. “I heard grazing issues. I heard some recreation issues, water issues, so that’s success.
“Having that feedback is very important to us to be able to have relevancy with the surrounding communities,” he added.
Bass said even with budget shortfalls, the forest is operating in the 95 to 100 percent range for most services.
“It’s our intention to live up to the obligation we have as trustees of the national forest, which belongs to the American people,” Bass said.
Bernie Bornong, resource staff officer with the Bighorn National Forest, said snowpacks are over 100 percent and the National Interagency Fire Center predicts the 2013 wildland fire season to be normal for the forest. The forest service has 25 firefighters, three engines and three handcrews on deck for the season. The Wyoming Hotshots out of Greybull, the Veteran’s Green Crew — a six-person fuels crew — and various “militia” from the counties are also ready to be part of the initial attack team for any fires this summer.
Bornong emphasized the importance of early discussions with partners — landowners, county fire crews, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service — to be prepared for fires that may move off forest land. Crews are working on managing fuels in areas close to towns and mountain cabins and in the foothills. Bornong said 98 percent of fires are suppressed in the forest but that in the higher country, a fire may be managed as a resource benefit fire if it is the right time and place and can foster age diversity for vegetation and provide a future staging point (called an anchor point) for fire management.
Roads, trails, campgrounds
Scenic Byways planning meetings for both Highway 14 and Highway 16 are planned for June to discuss ways to find and document stories and photos about the forest. The committee hopes to enrich the byways with interpretive signs.
“My hope is that visitors would start to see the mountains not just as a pretty place to visit with their suitcase but as a place that is connected to the surrounding communities,” said Ruth Beckwith of the forest supervisor’s office.
Jason Ruybal, civil engineer for the forest, said the roads program is being maintained as lined out in the 2005 Forest Plan. Higher use roads are bladed at least once per year and lower use roads are bladed every three years. Ruybal also said crews are working on a travel analysis to identify the minimal sustainable road system the forest needs based on values (recreation access, connectivity, etc.) and risks (maintenance costs, safety, etc.) for each road. The analysis must be completed by 2015 in order to keep federal road maintenance funding.
Dave McKee with the forest supervisor’s office said maintenance of campgrounds and trails will hold steady this season. He doesn’t anticipate any campground closures. The forest offers more than 30 campgrounds and more than 1,500 miles of trails.
Rules and regulations
Bighorn National Forest staff will be working to stay up-to-date with federal rules and regulations in coming months.
On March 27, Code of Federal Regulations rule 218 was amended to require the USFS to establish a pre-decision objection process for projects and activities in place of the old post-decisional appeal process used since 1993. This means written comments submitted during public comment periods regarding land management plans must be dealt with before decisions are made.
The 2012 Forest Planning Rule will also require action by the forest. An interdisciplinary team will be used to bring the 2005 Forest Plan up-to-date with new federal requirements, Bass said. Past planning rules have been challenged in court and found deficient, so personnel are moving towards compliance while waiting to see if the 2012 rule will stand the test of court.