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A tremendous victory. A kick in the ass of the timber industry. A huge step forward for native fish conservation. A win whose significance cannot be overstated. These are the chest-beating sound bytes that have been broadcast by a cadre of environmentalists to support their settlement of a lawsuit against the Forest Service over plans […]

Clearingcutting Montana

by Jeffrey St. Clair

A tremendous victory. A kick in the ass of the timber industry. A huge step forward for native fish conservation. A win whose significance cannot be overstated. These are the chest-beating sound bytes that have been broadcast by a cadre of environmentalists to support their settlement of a lawsuit against the Forest Service over plans to clearcut thousands of acres in Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest, along the spine of the Continental Divide.

But it turns out that the deal is much less than its cracked up to be by the green dealmakers. Indeed, the vaunted settlement, hatched with the Bush administration, will give a greenlight to one of the largest timber sales ever on public forest lands in the United States in an area that is home to grizzlies, wolves and rare trout.

Here’s the story.

In the summer of 2000, fires raced across the Bitterroot forests, charring trees, burning down houses, generating media hysteria and whetting the appetite of the big timber companies, who’ve come to learn that when there are fires, cheap timber sales soon follow. There’s an old saying among loggers that sums this up:: "The blacker the trees, the greener the paychecks."

Of course, summer fires are nothing new for these Rocky Mountain forests. It’s a fire-dependent ecosystem, the very forests themselves having evolved with fire. But the Bitterroot valley is no longer a wilderness landscape and you can put part of the blame for that on John Denver, whose song Wild Montana Skies hit the airwaves in the 70s like a real estate ad for this once sleepy valley. "He was born in the Bitterroot Valley in the early morning rain / Wild geese over the water headin north and home again." With these treacly lyrics, Denver launched a land raid of rich back-to-the-landers, who now inhabit multi million dollar hobby ranches at the edge of the wilderness. They like the view, but they don’t like the rhythms of the ecology: they want fire suppression, predator control, and privacy from hikers.

After the fires, the locals wanted the scorched forests logged, buying into timber industry hype that clearcutting reduces fire risk. In fact, just the reverse is the case. Logged over forests produce more and bigger fires than natural forests. But the Forest Service was only too willing to comply. They quickly cobbled together what would be billed as the largest timber sale in US history, offering at a bargain rate more than 190 million board feet of timber from 46,000 acres of forest.

But they overreached. Anxious to please its financial backers in big timber, the Bush administration issued an emergency ruling exempting the sale from any kind of administrative challenge or appeal. The Sierra Club and six other groups (Friends of the Bitterroot, The Ecology Center, American Wildlands, the Center for Biological Diversity, Pacific Rivers Council, and the Wilderness Society) quickly filed suit against the plan.

A huge victory was won in the courtroom of federal Judge Don Molloy, who excoriated the Forest Service for traducing numerous federal laws. A preliminary injunction against the sale was handed down. The Forest Service took its appeal of the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court, which sent the case back to Judge Molloy asking him to rule quickly on whether or not some sales could proceed. In particular, the Forest Service wanted approval to log 15 timber sales, before this winter’s snows melted. The judge ordered both sides to enter into a mediation process, overseen by federal Judge Michael Hogan. Hogan is a notorious rightwinger and born-again Christian whose loathing of environmentalists is equaled only by his hatred of abortion providers.

It’s important to note that Judge Molloy did not order the parties to agree to a settlement, but merely to attempt to reach a deal. He was prepared to make a final ruling in the case within a week. But the environmentalists were apparently itching to deal. In a revealing story in the Missoulian, Sheri Devlin quotes Sierra Club president Jennifer Ferenstein as saying the plaintiffs met on February 3 and faxed a settlement proposal to the Bush administration that included a concession that would allow areas to be logged within days. "The signal we gave is that we are willing to consider an option that put people [ie., loggers] out on the ground," Ferenstein said. "We can be flexible."

This new sense of "flexibility" came after the enviros were tweaked by Montana Senator Max Baucus, a conservative democrat who is up for reelection in the fall. Baucus applauded Molloy for "knocking their heads together" and urged the enviros to agree to a settlement that would permit some logging this winter.

The Bush administration said that the enviro proposal was a good starting point for negotiations. The opposing sides convened for a two-day session in Missoula and the deal was hatched. It calls for 60 million board feet of timber sales and clearcutting on about 14,000 acres of land. The enviros signed away the right to challenge those sales, regardless of their environmental consequences.

Then came the blizzard of self-serving press releases. "This is a great improvement for our wild forests, wildlife habitat, native fish, and, perhaps most importantly, public participation," crowed Ferenstein. "We have preserved the right of the public to appeal Forest Service decisions that would harm the National Forests they enjoy and want to protect."

"Once we were finally able to sit down and talk, we made some real headway. It was the kind of productive discourse that would have been silenced had we not challenged the original Bitterroot plan," said Ferenstein. "The original Bitterroot plan was a transparent attempt by the Bush administration to increase commercial logging on our National Forests, skirt public scrutiny and circumvent important environmental regulations."

This effusion is a little bit much to take. Ferenstein is talking about a mediation session that put her face-to-face with the Prince of Darkness himself, Mark Rey. Rey, formerly the timber industry’s top lobbyist, is now the undersecretary of agriculture overseeing the Forest Service. Rey doesn’t play nice and he’s not given to gentle "discourses" with environmentalists, who he considers to be the equivalent of domestic terrorists.

Others painted a different picture. One plaintiff spoke of the negotiating session as "grueling," "painful" and "torturous." These kinds of remarks make it sound like the plaintiffs were under the kind of duress that an East Timorese human rights organizer might have suffered in an interrogation by one of Suharto’s henchmen. Such hollow posturing makes the redwood-sitting Julia Butterfly Hill seem like Nelson Mandela in comparison.

But to be fair apparently Ferenstein wasn’t the dealmaker. She’s merely the Katie Couric of the environmental movement, a perky face ushered forth to dispense the bad news. The real deal was apparently cut by the lawyers and the Wilderness Society’s forest guru, Michael Anderson.

The chronology of events as detailed by Devlin’s story makes it clear that the environmentalists’ had decided to sell-out long before their grueling negotiations with Rey and his flacks in the Forest Service. If their was any armtwisting going on, it must have been between the plaintiffs.

Some people never learn.

A few years ago we exposed the saga of Jon Roush, the former head of The Wilderness Society, who logged off a few acres of big Ponderosa pines on his multi-million dollar ranch in the Bitterroot Valley. At first, Roush tried to lay the blame for the whole deal on his wife, who was divorcing him at the time. Then he sent us to his forester, who said that the logging was needed to improve "health" of the forest stands. At the time, "forest health" logging was viewed, even by ecologists at the Wilderness Society (perhaps the most cautious of mainstream environmental groups) as a pr gimmick designed by the timber industry, a kind of feel-good clearcutting. By and large, environmentalists– including some of the plaintiffs on the Bitterroot lawsuit–were appalled at Roush’s hypocrisy. He resigned his position a few months later.

But Roush’s predations were puny compared to the all-out assault sanctioned by the Bitterroot plaintiffs. Instead, this deal reminds many forest veterans of the so-called Deal of Shame, the 1993 debacle where enviromentalists agreed to a request from the Clinton administration to give up an injunction blocking timber sales in ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest. The deal fractured the environmental movement, jumpstarted logging in the Northwest and set the tone for the Clinton administration’s duplicitous environmental policies.

Revealingly, the Bitterroot deal involves many of the same players, most notably the environmental attorneys who signed off on the deals: Earth Justice (aka the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund) and the Western Environmental Law Clinic.

A scrutiny of the fine print of the Bitterroot settlement may reveal what was truly afoot. In part the settlement says: "(10) Nothing in this settlement shall be construed as an admission of fact or law by any party on the issue, including plaintiffs’ claim that the Forest Service has violated the Appeals Reform Act. (11) These settlement resolves all claims that Plaintiffs have asserted or could have asserted in this litigation, except as provided in paragraph 12 below. (12) Plaintiffs retain the right to seek attorneys’ fees under applicable law. (13) This agreement embodies the entire terms and conditions of the agreement between the parties."

In other words, it seems the only real victory in this case was the right of the enviros’ attorneys to petition the court to have their legal fees reimbursed.

"This is another trees for fees deal," says Michael Donnelly, a forest organizer from Oregon. "It’s no longer about what gets saved, it’s about how they can get their expenses paid for and then spin it in the press. This is what happens when the environmental movement becomes bureaucratized, when it lives off of foundation grants and political pats-on-the back. It’s lost its spine and its moral purpose."

So 60 million board feet of clearcuts are sanctioned without regard to their damage to an already stressed ecosystem. The enviros involved have tried to downplay the damage these clearcuts will cause. But think of it this way: it will still represent one of the largest timber sales in Montana history. The sale volume is four times what the entire Bitterroot forest has been logging per year for the past decade or so. The amount of acreage that will be clearcut is 2,000 acres larger than the Charles C. Deam Wilderness on the Hoosier National Forest in Indiana.

"The fact is that the salvage sales released without appeal in the settlement will be the single largest timber sale in the United States, including Alaska, that is currently in play," says Bryan Bird, an ecologist with the Forest Conservation Council. "People on the ground in the Bitterroot have stated that several of the salvage units are in areas of low intensity burn and contain some rather healthy and large trees. I believe that these sales could have been stopped for sure on the procedural claims and possibly stopped on the substantive claims. But the public now believes that large-scale salvage logging is not a problem. We will face this for years, as fire is not going away and the USFS knows its last stronghold for the logging program is salvage and "fuels reduction."

In theory (and its fundraising letters), the Sierra Club is a "zero cut" organization, meaning it opposes commercial logging on all national forest lands. The other plaintiffs on the suit are members of the Roadless Area coalition, meaning they oppose all logging in roadless areas, which are de facto wilderness lands. The Bitterroot settlement not only gives the green light to a blitzkrieg of new logging, but much of it will take place inside these roadless areas, the most sacrosanct and vulnerable lands in those mountains.

"This deal stinks so badly it makes me feel like never identifying myself as an environmentalist again," says Steve Kelly, a longtime forest activist in Montana. "There was no reason to throw in the towel, the fight had only started. If the enviros had really won, the timber industry would have sent out log truck convoys in protest. Instead, they’re waiting in line for the clearcutting to begin."

Victory? Somebody should ask the grizzlies and bull trout. They won’t be around long if these kinds of sell-outs continue to be hailed as triumphs on their behalf.