Burn blocks on the northern Caribou forest

Caribou-Targhee National Forest plans to burn 22 “burn blocks.”

A proposal to use prescribed fire on hundreds of thousands of acres of the Caribou-Targhee National Forest has emerged from a withdrawn plan’s ashes, and is now being assessed on the forest’s southern Caribou portion.

Originally, managers of the 2.6-million-acre swath of federal land — which includes portions of both Teton Counties (Wyoming and Idaho) — sought to have the latitude to burn virtually anywhere outside of wilderness and a few other designations of land.

That plan, however, drew lots of flak, with opponents criticizing the forest over the “blank check” approach, impacts to threatened species and purported violations of the National Environmental Policy Act. Caribou-Targhee officials withdrew those plans in April.

Then, last week, a more-targeted prescribed burn plan emerged that’s limited to the Caribou.

“Part of the deal is with species,” Forest Fuels Planner Dylan Johnson told the Jackson Hole Daily, “because the Targhee has a lot more threatened and endangered [species] than the Caribou does.”

A significant change in the 2.0 version of the prescribed fire plan is that it’s being studied in more depth. During the first go around, the Caribou-Targhee announced intentions to use only a “categorical exclusion” to NEPA, which is the minimal level of analysis.

But last week the forest posted and began taking comments on a 52-page “environmental assessment,” which assesses 22 “burn blocks,” averaging 12,000 acres, that Johnson and his team have delineated.

“We thought we better focus it down to what we really, honestly thought we could treat in a 15- to 20-year period,” Johnson said.

Those burn blocks are mostly located in Idaho, though one spills over the state line and includes the western reaches of Star Valley in the Thayne front area. Altogether they encompass about 266,000 acres, although only 30% to 50% of each block would be burned with the goal of creating a “mosaic” of burned and unburned areas.

The national forest is shooting for about 6,000 acres per year, Johnson said, which would be split roughly 50-50 between wooded maple, juniper and mountain mahogany habitats and unforested mountain shrub plant communities.

Burn areas won’t include phosphate mines, research areas, developed recreation sites, special-use sites and areas of concentrated development and utilities. The Targhee half of the forest and Curlew National Grassland, under the same jurisdiction, are also off-limits, though flames will be allowed to fly in recommended wilderness and inventoried roadless areas, which is permitted under the Caribou Forest Plan.

The Caribou and Targhee forests were administratively combined differently than the Bridger-Teton National Forest, where management is charted under a unified forest plan. On the Caribou-Targhee there are three: one plan each for the two forests and a third for the grassland.

Comments on the environmental assessment outlining the Caribou Forest’s plans are due in by Oct. 1. The document is attached to the online version of this story at JHNewsAndGuide.com.

Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or env@jhnewsandguide.com.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them since 2012. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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