Forest Fires, Lies and Chainsaws

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.

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 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.

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.

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.


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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

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 and Montana Magnificent Wilderness. He has visited 15 out of the 16 proposed wilderness areas in the BDP draft legislation.



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