Ice Cream Wilderness?

The recently announced collaborative timber-wilderness deal for the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest (BDNF) between the timber industry and representatives of the Montana Wilderness Association (MWA), Trout Unlimited (TU), and National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has been hailed a break through or a sell out depending on your perspective.

Key features of this proposal call for 570,000 acres of new wilderness, but also a tripling of logging over what even the BDNF had proposed in its forest plan, permitting logging of over 700,000 acres of the forest. On the face of it, this may seem like a reasonable compromise: timber companies get to take public trees at bargain basement prices to keep their stockholders happy and hikers get some beautiful alpine country to explore.

I know and love the BDNF from first hand experience. I shot my first mule deer on the slopes of the Madison Range near Cowboy’s Heaven. I once spent an entire day tracking the largest bull elk I’ve ever seen outside of a national park among the doghair lodgepole pine forests along the lower slopes of the Pintlers. I caught my first big bull trout from the cold headwaters of Rock Creek and I’ve pulled many grayling from some of the clear creeks in the West Big Hole. Indeed, I have fished, hunted, hiked, skied, and camped among 16 of the 18 magnificent areas that would be protected as wilderness by this proposal. So I don’t take this opportunity to permanently protect 570,000 acres as designated wilderness lightly.

But read the label. I read labels on the food I eat. Take ice cream, for instance. I love it. It tastes good. But I also know from reading the label that it’s high in fat, sugar, and calories. It’s not the kind of diet that can sustain a healthy person. In fact a diet of only ice cream would likely kill you over time. Most of the acreage in this proposal is like ice cream– high alpine country. It tastes good. It looks yummy. But in terms of sustaining the biological heritage of the BDNF, it is sorely lacking in nutrition. There may be a lot of “wilderness acres” in this proposal, but not that many acres protecting ecologically important lower elevation productive landscapes.

Not withstanding that these areas are worthy of wilderness designation based on their scenic values alone–the West Big Hole, East Pioneers, Italian Peaks, Lima Peaks, Mount Jefferson, Flint Creek Range, Snowcrest-these are some of the most spectacular alpine landscapes in Montana. But for the most part, they are lands that no one wants to exploit-and thus in little need in the way of protection. These lands are steep, snow covered most of the year, and lacking in any developable resource or they would have been logged, mined, or drilled a long time ago. They are, with some notable exceptions, not even that attractive to ORVs. In other words they are “self protected”. Having a lot of acres of these lands “protected” is a hollow victory if you give up a lot of the biologically important landscapes to resource exploitation. Unfortunately that is just what is proposed.

By contrast, the 700,000 plus acres that will be logged will impact much of the forest’s most productive wildlife and fish habitat. Whether “stewardship” or otherwise all logging has unavoidable negative costs including the removal of woody debris, disruption of natural fire regimes, forest fragmentation, loss of old growth forests, changes in forest stand age and structure, and so on. Anyone who suggests that commercially viable logging can be done in a benign manner is glossing over substantial ecological impacts. The only way timber companies make any money cutting trees on the low productivity BDNF is because taxpayers pay many of the real costs of production such as constructing roads, while at the same time industry is permitted to marginalize the genuine environmental costs to our collective national heritage.

Proponents of logging further try to minimize this damage by stating that “only” 7000 annually or 70,000 acres over ten years will be logged-a small amount of the forest they assert. But that is somewhat disingenuous. It’s like the oil companies claiming that only 2000 acres of the coastal plain of Alaska’s Arctic Refuge will be impacted by drill pads. The oil company and their supporters ignore the many miles of pipeline, winter service roads, and so on that will come with development that will be scattered across nearly a million acres of the coastal plain among what is the refuge’s most important wildlife habitat.

Similarly proponents of this logging ignore the fact that these 7000 acres are not concentrated in one patch-they will be scattered in many different drainages on the most productive lands of the forest. And their effects are longer lasting than the single year when trees are cut on those acres.

Cumulatively this proposed logging will affect far more of the landscape than the mere acres that will be logged annually. For instance, the roads constructed for this logging-whether temporary or not– will cause some sedimentation for years. They will disrupt natural drainage and water flow-and may never be restored. They will be pathways for the introduction and spread of weeds. The road system will invite ORVs use whether legal or otherwise. And the human activity associated with logging and subsequent human use will negatively affect wildlife from elk to grizzly bear. And these impacts extend well beyond the acres that may be roaded and logged so influence far more of the forest than these numbers represent.

And just as the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is the most biologically rich portion of the entire refuge, thus any energy development has a disproportionate negative impact on the entire landscape, most of the BDNF logging is by default targeted for the most productive lower elevation wetter lands-thus the most important wildlife and fish habitat. Though “only” 70,000 acres will be logged over any ten year period, the overall ecological impact of logging to the BDNF ecological integrity is amplified many times that amount.

Given the fact that the BDNF is one of the least productive forests in Montana with slow-growing, small trees, steep slopes, poor soils and high erosion rates; does it make any sense to log even an acre of it? What this forest does better than just about anyplace else in the country is produce high quality water, wildlife, wildlands, and fisheries. Why risk degradation of these nationally significant assets to enrich some private timber companies’ bottom line to get something like 2 x 4s you can produce someplace else at far less ecological and economic cost? Logging the BDNF for timber is like burning priceless paintings from the Metropolitan Museum to warm your house-it just doesn’t make any economic, ecological or ethical sense. It’s a crime against our collective heritage.

The MWA, TU, and NWF have the best intentions and goals and I want to see new wilderness designations as much as they do. There is no doubt that there are some important wildlands that will be designated if this proposal is enacted into law. Yet if these lands are given Congressional wilderness designation , it will be mostly a symbolic “win” since most of these land are not now under immediate threat, nor will most of these acres ever be threatened by development. At the same time we will be giving away the low elevation forestlands for certain development, including hundreds of thousands of roadless acres to logging interests. Worse yet there is no way this development will truly “pay” for itself. It will only occur with public economic and environmental subsidies.

Some may suggest signing on to legislation that gives away public resources to private industry is the “cost” of new wilderness designation today, but if all we get is empty acres of rocks and ice, in exchange for ecologically degraded lands, and at the same time shifting the economic burden to the public through direct and indirect economic and environmental subsidies, it’s reasonable to suggest as some have done that the cost of this proposal is unacceptably high.

GEORGE WUERTHNER is an ecologist, writer and photographer. His new book is Wildfire: a Century of Failed Forest Policy. He is also a former Montana hunting guide and once a board member of the MWA. He is the author of 32 books including Montana Magnificent Wilderness.




George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy