Responding to their own well-deserved bad PR following decades of unsustainable logging and road building on national forest lands in the Northern Rockies and elsewhere, the U.S. Forest Service has been attempting to redefine the terms of the debate so the public will accept more industrial logging and roadbuilding on our public forests.
These days, as we pore over the governments’ environmental documents, rarely are timber sales offered up solely for economic purposes. In almost every proposal, we read that “vegetation restoration” (i.e., logging) is needed, ironically enough, in order to compensate for the negative consequences of earlier logging and fire suppression, the latter of which was often done at the behest of the logging industry.
But whereas there is a vigorous scientific debate over whether industrial logging can actually restore our forests, there is simply no debate over the immediate need to restore watersheds–with stream ecosystems unraveling and native fish habitat choked by sediment following decades of road building and logging. The watershed restoration needs here in the Northern Rockies are immense with Forest Service estimates indicating that nearly 85% of the fish-passage culverts in our region are currently impassable to fish coupled with a road maintenance backlog of over $1.3 billion on the 67,000 miles of roads that crisscross our forests and watersheds.
Unfortunately, Congress has yet to appropriately prioritize and adequately fund genuine watershed restoration for our national forests. Perhaps this is due to the fact that since 1990 the logging industry and their lobbyists have given members of Congress $39 million in campaign contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In recent years, the Forest Service has been displaying the disturbing tendency to utilize industrial logging as a way to raise funds for watershed restoration through something given the positive sounding name of “stewardship contracting.” One such example is the Fishtrap logging project located twenty miles north of Thompson Falls, within a remote corner of the forest. The Fishtrap project calls for 3 1/2 square miles of industrial logging in unroaded wildlands, old-growth forests and important habitat for grizzly bears and bull trout.
The Forest Service wanted to “implement the Fishtrap project through stewardship contracting in order to accomplish as much of the identified restoration opportunities on the ground as possible. Stewardship contracting facilitates land restoration and enhancement efforts by using value of the traded goods (timber) for important work on the ground”
In some ways, this seems almost like extortion, forcing the public to permit logging in what are usually heavily logged watersheds so that some watershed restoration can be achieved. Obviously, this begs the question: how many timber sales would the agency have to hold in any given watershed, in order to get the excessive roads removed, the sediment sources fixed, the streams and streamside zone fully functioning, the fish populations recovered and the weeds controlled?
The WildWest Institute raised this question in the case of the Fishtrap project. The answer we got back was a tacit admission that the Forest Service’s logging-for-watershed-restoration paradigm won’t net nearly enough money to restore all the identified road and watershed problems in Fishtrap Creek. The Lolo National Forest stated, “Because road management and watershed restoration opportunitiesfar exceeded anticipated revenues, only the highest priority road treatments” were included in the decision, thus other watershed restoration needs were put on indefinite hold until funds might be found. However, the 3 1/2 square miles of industrial logging are fully funded by the decision.
Another, perhaps more insidious, form of extortion involves the Bitterroot National Forest, where the agency is resorting to a different sort of propaganda. In recognition of a legitimate need to reduce fire risk to a narrow stretch of private land along the East Fork of the Bitterroot River, the agency offered up the Middle East Fork logging project, under the auspices of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act.
However, instead of focusing limited fuel reduction resources along the ownership boundary, the Bitterroot National Forest also proposed to log nearly 4,000 acres of unlogged, old-growth forests far from the community. In response to agency scientists and other researchers who indicate that fuel reduction must be more narrowly prioritized, and to counter the Forest Service’s unfounded claims that logging old-growth would “restore fire-adapted ecosystems,” the WildWest Institute and Friends of the Bitterroot–together with retired Forest Service rangers, loggers, hikers, hunters and local residents–proposed a smaller, more focused alternative that, according to the Forest Service, would have reduced fuels on 1,600 acres, created 45 jobs and pumped $1 million into the local economy.
Our alternative was also in recognition that the Middle East Fork project area is still recovering from past Forest Service mismanagement including clearcutting, terracing and excessive roadbuilding, which was so egregious that it lead to Congress passing the National Forest Management Act in 1976. In fact, a third of the entire analysis area has already been logged and the roads in the project area are currently dumping over 150 tons of sediment into streams annually.
We also requested that the Bitterroot National Forest create a list of all needed watershed restoration actions for the Middle East Fork project area, so that the Environmental Impact Statement would inform the public how much money it would take–and how many jobs would be available for local workers–to restore the badly damaged watersheds in the project area.
Unfortunately, Bitterroot Supervisor David Bull refused to provide such information, saying, “The Healthy Forests Restoration Act does not address or authorize such unrelated activities for watershed improvement purposes.” If the HFRA is truly about restoring healthy forests, we wonder just how in the world that goal is accomplished without bona-fide, ecologically-based watershed restoration work. And what good is a “Healthy Forests Restoration Act” if the best that can be provided to the imperiled bull trout is an impaired status quo?
In order bring to light our federal government’s disingenuous and ineffective logging-for-watershed-restoration paradigm–and due to other illegalities within both the Fishtrap and Middle East Fork logging projects–we have initiated the checks and balances provided by the third branch of government, by filing suit in U.S. District Court, in order to hold the Forest Service accountable and make sure that this government agency follows the law.
As the old saying goes, “When there’s a will, there’s a way.” In the case of restoring our national forests, the WildWest Institute is working with diverse interests on many levels to find alternatives to the current, dysfunctional paradigm. We believe the opportunities are nearly endless and bona-fide restoration work could provide jobs for generations.
Unfortunately, until Congress and the Forest Service demonstrate the same willingness to make watershed and ecologically-based restoration activities a top priority, our public watersheds, forests and wildlife will continue to be compromised.
JEFF JUEL is Ecosystem Defense Director of the WildWest Institute in Missoula, Montana.