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W Marks the Spot

Bait and Switch in the Bitterroot

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

Like Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, the Forest Service under George W. Bush runs on pr, corporate cronyism, an obsession with secrecy and the rapid-fire deployment of fabricated justifications for cutting down old-growth forests.

In Bush’s war on the wild, the trees themselves are portrayed as standing weapons of mass destruction, which must be leveled by chainsaws before they ignite into raging wildfires that threaten to incinerate the towns of the rural West. Such is the tale of the spin, any way.

Much of this struggle has played out in Montana, where Bush’s chainsaw crusade has been blessed by the state’s leading Democrat, Senator Max Baucus, who has long been an obedient wind-up doll for the timber giants of the Big Sky country.

Ground zero in this war is the Bitterroot National Forest, a 1.6 million acre chunk of public land, adorned with Ponderosa pine, serrated mountain peaks and alpine lakes, that sprawls along the spine of the Continental Divide in western Montana.

Beneath the rugged peaks and park-like forests lies the stunning Bitterroot Valley, once the province of working cattle ranches. In the last few decades, though, the ranchers have been pushed out and the valley has been re-colonized by the super-rich, who have erected multi-million dollar weekend retreats, ornamented with private airstrips and helicopter pads, from which they survey their boutique ranches and decamp for fly-fishing expeditions on the Big Hole River. The Bitterroot Valley, meandering southward from Missoula, is swiftly becoming one of the most elite strips of real estate in the Rocky Mountains–Montana’s version of the grotesque compounds defacing Jackson Hole. Parcels of land that only a few years ago sold for $5,000 an acre and now on the market for upwards of $50,000 an acre.

By and large, the new land lords in the Bitterroot these days are richer than those nameless executives who brunched with Dick Cheney during the conclaves of his energy task force. "There’s nothing of the Old West in those places, and you see lots of fur coats and Rolls-Royces,” Montanan Wes Spiker recently told Bloomberg News. "Montanans are afraid to death that little towns are going to become like Aspen or Vail, where the billionaires chase out the millionaires, and employees have to live 45 or 50 miles away to drive to work."

Perhaps that invasion of the wealthy explains why the Bush administration has chosen to make the surrounding Bitterroot National Forest an ecological version of their assault on Fallujah.

There’s money in that valley. Tons of it. And the Lear Jet Rancheros who own most of the land there now are jittery pyrophobes, fearful that their rustic palaces, ludicrously implanted on the fatal fringe of one of the most fire prone forests in the West, will be annihilated in a wall of flames.

So the Bush administration opted for a pre-emptive strike, with bulldozers and chainsaws serving as ecological cruise missiles.

On December 3, 2003, Bush signed into law the cunningly-titled Healthy Forests Restoration Act. This bill, a kind of War Powers Act against old-growth forests, was adeptly maneuvered through congress by Mark Rey, Bush’s Undersecretary of Agriculture in charge of the Forest Service, who once toiled the mean blocks of K Street in DC as the timber industry’s top lobbyist.

Offering fantastical claims about the coming sylvan inferno, Rey, with the timely connivance of a few key Democrats, was able to intimidate the congress into giving the Bush administration a free hand to assault western forests without having to abide by the troublesome constraints of environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act.

All of this in the name of saving the forest from itself.

One of the first assault plans to emerge from this Act is slated to demolish a swath of old-growth forest along the East Fork of the Bitterroot River, close to the pass where the Nez Perce, under the leadership of Chief Joseph and Looking Glass, executed their dramatic escape from the murderous troops of the 7th Infantry into the what they believed to be the sanctuary of the Big Hole valley. The Nez Perce were wrong, of course. The deranged Col. John Gibbon and his soldiers tracked them across the pass and opened fire on their encampment in the predawn hours of August 9, 1877, slaughtering dozens of women and children, as the weary Indians slept in their lodges. Lewis and Clark also poked around in these canyons and forests. The area has a profound historical resonance. No matter.

The Bitterroot logging plan targets an area near the town of Sula. Forest Service officials contend that their timber cutting scheme is designed to serve as a protective buffer for this bucolic hamlet, a kind of levee of stumps against the coming firestorm. Under the Forest Service plan, more than 4,000 acres of prime old-growth forest, posing little or no fire threat, would be opened to industrial logging, while the agency offered to do only a token amount of work that might qualify as fire-protection or ecological restoration.

But many long-time residents and environmentalists didn’t immediately swallow the Forest Service’s apocalyptic rants.

In the Rockies, the Forest Service’s ratings for veracity rank somewhere between Bush’s and Plum Creek Timber. Perhaps the old-timers and greens in western Montana understood that clearcutting generally increases the risk of big wildfires, instead of dampening it. Perhaps they feared logging would flush tons of sediment into the fabulous trout streams of the East Fork. Perhaps they suspected that the logging would destroy habitat for the elk, goshawk, bear and wolves that roam these forests. Perhaps they suspected that instead of aiding the economy of the Bitterroot Valley, the money from the timber sales would end up in the coffers a couple politically-wired timber companies.

In a rare coalition, greens, local foresters and firefighters, hunters and fly-fishers came together and drafted their own homegrown plan for protecting the town of Sula from wildfires and restoring parts of the Bitterroot Forest and its streams that had been mangled by past logging and roadbuilding projects. They called this the Community Protection and Local Economy Alternative.

Although some environmentalists believe even this compromise plan is too generous with application of the blade, it enjoyed widespread community support. The Forest Service didn’t look so kindly on it. Indeed, the Bitterroot’s Forest Supervisor, Dave Bull, arbitrarily yanked out all mention of watershed restoration and road closures from the citizens’ alternative, claiming that the Healthy Forests law doesn’t allow any kind of restoration work that isn’t directly tied to logging. This policy nicely mimics the Bush administration policy on birth control, which prohibits federal-funded programs from mentioning the word "condom"-except to describe the failure rates of the prophylactics. Bull was apparently acting on orders from his boss, timber supremo Mark Rey, who moonlights as Undersecretary of Agriculture.

Sensing rejection in the wind, the Bush administration summoned a PR team, working in tandem with the Montana Logging Association, to help market the clearcutting plan. Still the desperate fear-mongering from the Forest Service and its allies about catastrophic fires sweeping down the valley with genocidal intent didn’t sell to the locals. According to internal documents pried out of the Forest Service by the Native Forest Network using the Freedom of Information Act, we know that the public almost unanimously rejected the agency’s war plan for the Bitterroot. When the Bitterroot plan was presented for public inspection, it generated an impressive 10,000 individual comments. It turns out that 98 percent of those comments opposed the Forest Service plan and supported the restoration alternative prepared by local citizens. The Forest Service tried to bury these results and scuffed their feet at releasing them under FOIA, an act the Bush gang desperately wants to obliterate in the name of national security. (Read: Covering its ass.)

Here’s were the story takes a brutish turn and the Bush administration’s pious encomiums to democracy, collaborative experients and local control are once again proved to ring hollow. For, that very same FOIA request also brought with it an unexpected trove of papers proving that the solicitation of public input was nothing more than a choreographed charade. At the precise moment the agency was supposed to be considering the views of locals and deliberating over the ecological merits of the competing plans, the Forest Service had secretly dispatched a kind of special operations force into the Bitterroot Forest, armed with cans of spray paint, which they used to covertly mark stands of old-growth trees targeted for elimination. This operation cost the agency $162,000 of public money.

In other words, the fix was in. The public debate over the impending destruction of the West’s premier forests was a theatrical exercise, like Colin Powell’s vaporous musings before the United Nations.

"The marking of these logging units before a decision had officially been made shows explicitly that the Bush administration’s so-called ‘collaborative’ efforts were simply a bait and switch con game," says local resident Larry Campbell, a member of Friends of the Bitterroot.

There’s a final irony here. After learning of the preemptive targeting of the old-growth stands along the East Fork of the Bitterroot River, environmentalists went out to inspect the doomed groves for themselves. Usually, the condemned trees are marked with an X. Here in the Bitterroot, though, the Forest Service spray-painted the big, yellow-bellied Ponderosas, some more than 400 years old, with an all-too familiar brand: "W".

Calling all human shields.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and the forthcoming Grand Theft Pentagon: Tales of Corruption and Profiteering in the War on Terror.


















CLARIFICATION

ALEXANDER COCKBURN, JEFFREY ST CLAIR, BECKY GRANT AND THE INSTITUTE FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF JOURNALISTIC CLARITY, COUNTERPUNCH

We published an article entitled "A Saudiless Arabia" by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the "Article"), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, www.counterpunch.org (the "Website").

Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.

As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.

We are pleased to clarify the position.

August 17, 2005