Forest Fires, Lies and Chainsaws



By GEORGE WUERTHNER

The sprawling 3.3 million acre Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest
(BDNF) is one of the most spectacular pieces of public domain in
America. It contains outstanding scenery, superlative fisheries,
abundant wildlife, and unparalleled wildlands. The forest is high, dry,
and generally unproductive in terms of timber production, which is one
reason why the majority of its lands remain roadless. Of the total 3.3
million acres, 1.8 million are still essentially roadless, but only
220,000 are currently designated wilderness. The BDNF is not the
nation's woodbox, but it could be and should be the nation's wilderness
heartland.

In attempt to divvy up lands on the BDNF, the Montana Wilderness
Association (MWA), National Wildlife Federation (NWF), and Trout
Unlimited (TU) have reached a joint agreement with representatives of
the timber industry and other interest groups called the Beaverhead
Deerlodge Partnership (BDP). With the support of these conservation
groups, this plan proposes logging up to 730,000 acres of the BDNF in
exchange for timber industry support of 570,000 acres of new wilderness
areas. Not only is this proposal a tripling of logging over what the
BDNF originally determined as suitable for timber cutting in its forest
plan, but it also involves potential entry into 200,000 acres of
roadless lands.

The BDP is based upon false premises. To justify this increased logging,
these conservation groups have adopted the pejorative language of the
timber industry, including words such as "unhealthy" forests,
"catastrophic" fires, and other terms that feed public misconceptions
about our forests and associated natural processes like wildfire and
periodic insect population increases.

And in what can only be called Orwellian, these conservation groups also
support increased logging to fund rehabilitation of past, present and
future logging impacts. This is like advocating the construction of
casinos and using their profits to fund rehabilitation of gamblers.

Nearly all of the roadless lands proposed for wilderness lie outside of
what the FS considers the suitable timber base. In other words, the
timber industry would never get to log these lands anyway. With the full
complicity of the MWA, TU, and NWF, the timber industry is getting
access to more logs than they could even get from the Forest Service,
while giving up virtually nothing by supporting wilderness.

What we are getting as protected wilderness in this plan is essentially
the highest, steepest, rocks and ice country like the West Big Hole-with
heavily forested roadless areas with gentle terrain (read good for
logging) such as the West Pioneers gaining only a small core proposed as
wilderness.

All of this is justified by flawed science, faulty economics, and
deceptive ecological accounting. Here's the some of the details that
MWA, TU, and NWF, along with their "partners" in the timber industry
don't want you to know.

LOGGING JUSTIFIED ON FALSE PREMISE

Flawed assumption number one is the assertion that forests of the BDNF
have missed multiple fire cycles as a consequence of fire exclusion, and
thus have unnatural accumulations of fuels that are responsible for
large blazes. However, the majority of the BDNF forests consist of
higher elevation forest types like
<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1597260878/counterpunchmaga>lodgepole
pine, subalpine fir, aspen, and other species that are naturally
dominated by mixed to high intensity blazes that occur at long
intervals. In other words, these forests don't burn frequently, but when
they do, the fires tend to be large and intense. For the most part, even
if fire suppression were always successful, which clearly it is not, the
past fifty years or so of active fire suppression has not been long
enough to significantly alter historic fire regimes in most of these
forests.

Even the lower elevation Douglas fir forests on the BDNF may not be
seriously out of whack. New research is calling into question the
assumption that fire exclusion is responsible for increasing stand
density of lower elevation forests. For instance, one recent study on
the Black Hills NF in South Dakota found that it was wet years that
increased seedling survival, rather than fire exclusion, that has led to
higher tree density.

Other studies are calling into question the entire validity of fire
history studies, particularly lower elevation forests. Some researchers
now believe that fire intervals may have been longer than previously
assumed, and that stand replacement blazes may not be unheard of in
these forests. All these new insights into fire ecology suggest that the
forests of the BDNF may not have experienced a significant departure
from historic conditions; therefore they are not "unhealthy" and there
is no problem that needs fixing, particularly by logging.

DROUGHT AND WIND--NOT FUEL--DRIVES LARGE BLAZES

The second flawed assumption is that fuel accumulations drive large
blazes. Rather than fuels, it is drought, wind, and low humidity that
drive all large fires. When these conditions prevail, large blazes are
the natural outcome. Prominent fire ecologist Tom Swetnam, long an
advocate of that the fuels due to fire exclusion is driving large
blazes, has reconsidered his opinion. Swetnam is now convinced, as are
an increasing number of fire ecologists that climatic conditions are the
driving force behind most large blazes we see today. With global warming
we are seeing a lengthening of the fire season and drier conditions,
which in turn creates ideal fire conditions. Drought and higher
temperatures are also the reason insect populations like mountain pine
beetle have swelled in recent years.

If climate is the driving force in tree establishment and large blazes,
this calls into question whether forests are truly out of balance and
"unhealthy" as the timber industry and groups like TU, MWA, and NWF
would have you believe. In fact, large fires, insect outbreaks, and
other changes that some are mistakenly characterizing as "unhealthy,"
are really indicative of a healthy forest response to changing climate.

And the assumption that fuels are driving large blazes ignores the fact
that we had plenty of big fires in the past, and well before fire
suppression had any influence. The huge 1910 Burn raced across more than
3 million acres of western Montana and northern Idaho long before the
Forest Service even thought about suppressing fires.

THINNING DOES NOT STOP LARGE BLAZES

This brings us to flawed assumption number three. There is a growing
body of anecdotal and scientific evidence to suggest that thinning, or
fuels management-by whatever euphemism logging is called-does not slow
or reduce the likelihood of large blazes. Again, this goes back to the
fact that large blazes are primarily a consequence of climatic
conditions. You can have a ton of fuels on the ground, but if you don't
have the right conditions for a fire to spread, fuels don't matter; it
won't burn.

On the other hand, if climatic conditions are severe, with extended
drought, high temperatures, low humidity, and most importantly high
winds, then fires will burn through all kinds of fuel loadings,
including forests with very light fuels. Wildfires will roar through
clearcuts, thinned forests, and even naturally thin forest stands with
surprising vigor. We have seen many examples of this in recent years,
including some of the larger blazes that burned in western Montana this
summer. The Jocko Lakes fire by Seeley Lake, Montana, and the Black Cat
fire by Frenchtown, Montana are only two of many recent fires that
burned through heavily logged and managed forest stands.

In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that thinning the forest can
actually acerbate fire spread and intensity. Remember that fires spread
quickest and burn hottest under conditions of drought, wind, and high
temperatures. When you thin the forest, you open it up to solar
radiation which dries out fuel, and increased temperatures result in
additional heat stress on trees which respond with greater evaporative
transpiration from needles and leaves, further drying soils and wood.
Both of these factors increase flammability. And thinning allows the
wind to penetrate further into a stand so that even a small 10 mph
increase in wind speed can lead to a huge increase in fire spread, since
wind increases fire spread exponentially.

In addition, opening up the canopy by thinning increases available
sunlight, and the reduced competition for nutrients spurs rapid growth
of small trees and fine fuels like grasses, thereby increasing the
relative flammability of the forest stand.

LOGGING--BY ANY NAME-- IS NOT BENIGN

The fourth problem is that while conservation groups have adopted the
deceptive language of the timber industry, using "Stewardship Logging"
to mask what is nothing more than the same old logging with a new twist,
they gloss over the many proven negative impacts that come with logging.

For instance, logging roads are major vectors for the spread of weeds.
They are major sources of sedimentation. Logging equipment compacts
soils, reducing infiltration of water, resulting in more surface runoff
and erosion. Roads alter surface and subsurface water drainage patterns.
Roads provide access to hunters and ORVs ensuring additional impacts and
disturbance to wildlife. Logging removes woody debris (i.e. logs) from
the forest that results in a loss to wildlife habitat and nutrient
cycling. Logging disturbance can negatively impact mollusks, ants and
other invertebrates that are important to forest ecosystem function.
And, of course, logging alters natural processes like wildfire and
insect populations which have proven positive benefits to the forest
ecosystem.

Logging proponents counter by suggesting all logging roads will be
temporary, and will be "restored." However, this ignores the on going
negative effects summarized above that will occur while the "temporary"
road is being used, plus the fact that full restoration of soil column,
slope, and natural vegetation is very expensive and takes decades-- if
ever-to be successful. Given the rather poor timber growing conditions
on the BDNF, it is doubtful that any logging program can pay for full
restoration of roads.

In addition, logging will be concentrated in the most productive sites
valley bottoms and lower elevations, and the most critical aquatic and
wildlife habitats on the BDNF. Thus any logging and human intrusion has
a disproportional impact on the biological integrity of the forest. By
contrast the proposed wilderness areas are dominated by high elevation
subalpine forests and peaks-nice to look at it, but having little
biological value.

Plus, disturbance of wildlife from logging activities extends from roads
and logging operations to affect far more than the acres actually being
cut, another point glossed over by BDP proponents. Elk and bear, for
instance, have been shown to avoid areas for up to a mile from intensive
human activities, thereby removing considerable potential habitat from
these animals.

OTHER NON-INTRUSIVE METHODS IGNORED

The fifth problem with the BDP is that the plan immediately defaults to
a very intrusive proposed action-namely logging-as its method of choice
to reduce the threat of so called "catastrophic" fires to private
property. BDP supporters conveniently ignore less intrusive alternative
means of reducing fire risk such as prescribed burning or reducing house
flammability. Studies by Jack Cohen at the Missoula Fire Lab have shown
that reducing house flammability is the most cost effective and, in
fact, may be the only effective means of reducing fire risk.
Retrofitting homes with metal roofs, removing of fine fuels from the
proximity of homes, and other procedures can significantly increase the
chances that any individual home will survive a blaze, even a crown fire.

LOGGING NOT IMPORTANT TO ECONOMY

The sixth faulty assertion made by BDP proponents is that logging is
important to the regional economy, and that greater logging of the BDNF
will have a positive economic impact on communities. Again, this is more
wishful thinking and propaganda from the timber industry than truth. The
most important values on the BDNF are fisheries, wildlife, scenery and
wildlands. As University of Montana economist Tom Power and others have
shown the economy of western Montana is now and will be in the future
driven by these amenity values, all of which will be degraded and
compromised by logging. Plus, all indicators suggest that the timber
industry will continue to employ fewer and fewer people due to
automation as well as a general decline in the industry-regardless of
timber supply. Building an economic future based upon timber production
while degrading the very things that are truly valuable like wildlands
and wildlife of the BDNF is insanity.

STEWARDSHIP LOGGING IS A DANGEROUS EUPHENISM

Like the Bush administration's use of "Clear Skies Initiative" which is
actually designed to promote dirty air, the new positive-sounding
euphemism for logging bantered around is "Stewardship Contracts." But
like Clear Skies, stewardship logging is equally deceptive. Stewardship
logging, or logging by any other name is not benign. Stewardship
contracts will direct all of the profits from logging back to the forest
instead to the federal treasury. Proponents see this as a funding source
for the forest, but it can easily be abused, since local forest
officials will have a direct financial incentive to log. In a perverse
way this may ultimately lead to even more logging of the BDNF as the
agency seeks to maximize financial returns by selling off more of the
public forests.

ORV AND LIVESTOCK THREATS IGNORED

Finally the BDP supports ORV use on more than 1.6 million acres and
leaving 2.2 million acres to snowmobiles, despite a litany of negative
impacts that these machines cause to our collective natural heritage.
And the "partners" say nothing about the detrimental effects of
livestock grazing, especially its impacts upon riparian areas and
wetlands, all the while giving lip service about the need for restoring
aquatic ecosystems.

RESOURCE ADVISORY COUNCIL (RAC)

Another long-term problem with the BDP is that it proposes creation of a
Resource Advisory Council to be made up of industry, recreation,
livestock and conservation interests to advise the agencies about how to
spend money from logging receipts. Such a stacked deck ensures that RACs
represent local economic interests. Keep in mind that conservationists
chosen to serve on RACs are typically those known to be sympathetic to
ranching, logging, and other extractive industries. The dominance by
extractive interests ensures that RACs are a vehicle of local control of
public lands. Though these councils are technically only "advisory,"
most federal employees know that they can only ignore the RAC at their
peril.

MORE WILDERNESS NEEDED

Most of the US is already developed, given over to human industry.
Ninety percent of Montana is already roaded and developed. We are
fighting over the last few scraps of relatively undeveloped landscapes.
If we were to really have a genuine compromise we would be advocating
the closure of all roads, termination of all logging, grazing, ORV use,
and mining so that restoration of the entire BDNF back to
wilderness-like conditions could occur.

To reiterate the BDNF has some of the finest wildlands in the nation. It
is not the nation's woodbox, nor should it continue to be a livestock
feedlot or an ORV "abusement park." What is truly valuable on the BDNF,
and nationally significant, are its fisheries, wildlife, and wildlands.

Instead of pandering to local parochial cultural and economic interests,
we need conservation groups that will fight for every last acre of wild
country by promoting ecologically based comprehensive legislation like
NREPA, rather than promoting timber industry propaganda and building
compromises based upon misinformation. The biggest compromises made with
this BDP have been truth, courage and the long-term public interest.

Comments on this scheme can be submitted to the Forest Service's
website: www.b-dpartnership.org <http://www.b-dpartnership.org/>

*George Wuerthner* is an ecologist, photographer, and writer. He is the
author and/or editor of 34 books, including Wild Fire: A Century of
Failed Forest Policy
<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1597260878/counterpunchmaga>
,Thrillcraft: The Environmental Consequence of Motorized Recreation, and
Montana Magnificent Wilderness. He has visited 15 out of the 16 proposed
wilderness areas in the BDP draft legislation.