Cheap Chips, Counterfeit Wilderness

The Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest (B-D NF), the largest national forest in Montana, encompasses 3.3 million acres. An estimated 1.8 million (55%) acres remain undeveloped and unroaded (roadless). Only 220,000 acres (15%) have been designated wilderness by Congress.
The Forest Service can recommend roadless areas for wilderness protection, but only Congress can designate wilderness.

Straddling the Continental Divide, most of the B-DNF is a fragmented mix of high-elevation, semi-arid sagebrush, grasslands and low-productivity forest. Lodgepole pine, dry-site Douglas fir and whitebark pine are common, with scattered pockets of spruce, fir, aspen and juniper.

Annual average growth capability is low, estimated at 45 cubic feet per acre per year. A merchantable tree takes over 100 years to grow.

Logging is ecologically unsustainable, and heavily subsidized to generate short-term “profit” for out-of-state industry CEOs, shareholders and marginal blue-collar jobs.

The B-D NF has always been a classic “timber mining” operation.

The B-D NF is predominantly a (cow/calf) national forest sanctuary for livestock. Ecologically damaging livestock (sheep and cattle) grazing is the dominant use on adjacent private property. Grazing is maximized on most public grassland-sagebrush acres, causing incremental harm to fish and wildlife habitat, and undermining important multiple-use/sustained-yield principles Congress established in 1960.

Despite decades of red-line management to benefit timber and grazing interests, a majority of B-D NF lands still include outstanding public values of national significance.

Most importantly, the B-D NF is a hub of biological connecting corridors that link core habitat areas of the Glacier-Bob Marshall, Greater Yellowstone and Greater Salmon-Selway-Frank Church Ecosystems. This landscape literally holds the Wild Rockies bioregion together.

Failure by the FS and Congress (and “neo-liberal greens”) to defend, regulate and control “pop” western culture and corporate special-interests has created a multiple-abuse nightmare on one of the most spectacular and ecologically sensitive forests in America.

The B-D NF feeds the headwaters of the famed trout fisheries of the Madison, Beaverhead, Big Hole, Ruby and Rock Creek. Water quality and quantity determine habitat effectiveness for these aquatic ecosystems, upon which the survival of bull trout, westslope cutthroat trout and fluvial arctic grayling depend.

Although wildlife abounds, the quality of wildlife habitat is threatened by excessive road trail densities, logging, mining and grazing practices, and unregulated ORV and snow machine use.

B-D NF Forest Plan Revision

In the past, management direction and project decisions have been somewhat grounded within a legal framework established by the Forest Plan and Congress. When laws are broken, environmentalists ask reluctant federal court judges to intervene.

Soon after the Bush Administration took office in 2001, it initiated a dramatic shift away from the regulated, value-based planning processes familiar to most Montanans. Bush, Inc. directed the Forest Service (FS) to privatize and outsource much of the work agency professionals had done for over 100 years. In 2002, use-based decision-making began replacing the old values-based system, just in time to redirect the B-DNF Forest Plan Revision process.
In August 2003, the B-DNF issued its Draft Proposed (Plan) Action for public review, which proposed a net decrease in suitable timber base acres, while dedicating only 9 of 87 management areas to non-motorized recreation. As expected, this upset industry and conservationists.

21st Century Manifest Destiny

What followed is a truly bizarre collaborative response by the timber industry, the Montana Wilderness Association (MWA), National Wildlife Federation (NWF), and Trout Unlimited (TU). They formed a new (stakeholder/consensus) group called the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership. The Partnership, already ideologically aligned with Bush, Inc., wrote a whole new forest plan that reads like a dusted off “Sagebrush Rebellion” handbook from the Reagan/Watt years. It’s all about serving up public land like apple pie to selective user groups – damned the science and legal framework.

One would think at some point rural communities would resent being treated like lab rats in yet another doomed-to-fail experiment in social engineering.

Next, The Partnership drafted congressional legislation to side-step the Plan Revision Process. Their clever proposal, called the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Conservation, Restoration and Stewardship Act of 2007 (The Bill), mandates tripling the “suitable” timber base to 730,000 acres, including 200,000 acres of inventoried roadless lands suitable for wilderness designation. Timber industry has pushed this kind of quid-pro-quo legislation for years. Without giving up a single tree, industry says it will support adding 570,000 acres (32% of eligible acres), mostly “rocks and ice,” to the National Wilderness Preservation System.

To be fair to MWA, NWF and TU it could be argued that this represents a relatively stronger (albeit smaller) wilderness position than they have taken in the past. In the early 1990s they supported 1.3 million-acre statewide omnibus bills, or 20% of the 6.5 million acres eligible wilderness acres in Montana. They also supported the (6.5 mm-acre) Clinton Roadless Rule that included all inventoried roadless areas. Apparently, they’re more comfortable protecting uncontested rocks and ice. Comfort, isn’t that what small (neo-liberal) government is all about?

The Bill purports to further the purposes claimed by the B-DNF in its 2003 Proposed Plan Revision. But there are a few notable (goal) differences between the FS and The Bill. Here are a few: “reduce gridlock,” “promote local cooperation and collaboration,” “stewardship contracting” and “generate a more predictable flow of wood products for local communities.”

These ideals and objectives come right out of the timber industry/Heritage Foundation play book. Mesmerize, localize, and privatize – replace big (federal) government control with local good-ole’-boys and county commissioners. Industry scores big when it can play local bully by creating a political mismatch and co-dependent (federally-subsidized) jobs.

It’s hard enough for federal agencies and Congress to resist the power of industry lobbyists. Poor counties in Montana will always go along go get along, especially when given political power that extends outside their legal jurisdiction. Colonial capitalism, corporate feudalism, call it what you like. Bad public policy harms Montana and the national public interest.

Neo-liberal greens have given industry exactly what it has wanted for years: an admission on the part of the “conservation community” that road-building and logging is needed to restore the out-of-whack environment. “Ecologically driven timber harvest” is a false premise that has failed repeatedly in the past. Those touting the Beaverhead-Deerlodge deal know first-hand of the repeated failures of timber sales to restore watersheds and remove roads and culverts, yet they continue to push it anyway.

Fair and Open Public Process Subverted

Proponents have shown nothing but contempt for fair and open public participation. The Bill is anti-democratic. It subverts the principles and procedures of transparency and full-disclosure mandated by NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act of 1969) and NFMA (National Forest Management Act of 1976). “Stakeholder” partners meet in secret. What Gifford Pinchot called “the (national) public interest” has been supplanted by “pop” local political opinion and “professional” elitism. “Stakeholders” (oligarchs) with a vested (typically short-term monetary) interest aren’t the most objective thinkers when it comes to long-term (…greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time) allocation of increasingly scarce natural resources, irreplaceable public values and shrinking agency budgets.

Not a shred of (peer reviewed or published) scientific evidence has been presented to support such a radical departure from the legal bedrock of NEPA and NFMA. There is no analysis of alternatives, environmental effects on various resources, and no economic analysis. There was no opportunity for individuals or groups to participate before the decision was made – oligarchy trumps democracy again.

And here’s a déjà vu for media fans. With no investigative reporting whatsoever, the Missoulian recently endorsed passage of The Bill, calling it “an idea worth repeating.”

So, what happened to good old journalistic skepticism? Wouldn’t “a step in the right direction” or a “risky experiment that deserves due consideration” gotten the job done? Our out-of-state-owned media is cheerleading when it should be investigating.

Isn’t this precisely how the press kept the public in the dark about WMD’s, the Osama-Iraq connection and other unchallenged, and incorrect, presumptions (pure “spin”) prior to America’s unprovoked attack on Iraq? Opinion has become news, and news opinion. Why investigate when you can, for a lot less thought and money, regurgitate?

And for the grand (don’t confuse me with facts) finale, witness our own Montana congressional delegation’s reaction. Just weeks ago the delegation grumbled about the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Act of 2007 (H.R. 1975).

It’s bad because it’s “top-down,” “outside-in,” and sponsored by a bunch of “easterners” trying to tell Montanans what to do, they said in perfect bipartisan harmony.

Just a few short weeks later, they’re whistling a different tune. Now it’s okay for Smurfit-Stone, headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri; R-Y Lumber and Roseberg Lumber, both Oregon-based; and national NGOs with home offices in Washington, D.C (Trout Unlimited and the National Wildlife Federation) to call the shots on federal public lands.

Don’t hold your breath expecting a public hearing in the Senate on the merits. The B-D NF deal is an “earmark” or an appropriations “rider” in the making. It is hard to imagine it surviving a Senate Resources Committee hearing, and a Senate floor debate and vote.

Scrutiny in the House would be intense, where Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-MT), and a Natural Resources Committee hostile to unfunded (sans “pay-go”) pork, lay in wait. And what are the odds President Bush would sign into law a stand-alone bill opposed by Rehberg? Baucus, or maybe Tester, will have to attach it to an appropriations bill, or this turkey will never fly. Remember (Senator) Melcher’s “fall-out” in 1988?

Myths About Sustaining Economic Development

The good stuff has already been logged. The Bill turns over most active forest management (projects up to 50,000 acres in size) to “stewardship contractors” (read timber industry), under (5-10 year) contracts, on six designated “stewardship areas” totaling 2.27 million acres (69%) forestwide. It is unclear what role the FS might play after losing jurisdiction (and discretion) over such vast areas of once-public domain.

So, who’s accountable when this deal goes belly-up? It’s reminiscent of the 100-year “sustained-yield” Plan Congress wrote for Shelton, WA in the 1960’s. From from old growth forest to wall-to-wall clearcuts, the conversion took 30 years, no apologies.

Clean water, trout fisheries, big-game hunting, upland bird hunting, camping, hiking, sightseeing and other values far outweigh the negative financial and economic impact of extending, and expanding, corporate welfare payments to the five lucky businesses driving this deal.

Wilderness is the least-cost method of managing public forests. It also generates net positive asset value in perpetuity. Why deplete the positive values that give Montana its comparative economic advantage in exchange for highly subsidized, uncompetitive chipping operations totally dependent on public trees and public taxdollars? It makes no sense to throw more money at businesses that cannot stand on their own in the national or global marketplace.

Timber supply plays a minor role in the success or failure of Montana’s timber industry, which employs fewer people per unit of production over time as machines continue to replace people to achieve greater efficiency and productivity. Industry sees employees as a liability (machines are a tax-deductable expense). Subsidies boost profits for partners, shareholders, and CEO bonuses at the expense of the environment and labor.

The Bill forces the federal government to behave like Goldman Sachs (isn’t this the bank that took down Montana Power?) in the midst of its recent collateralized mortgage obligation (CMO) crisis. Goldman Sachs underwrote and injected toxic financial products into the world’s commercial bloodstream for years. It sold worthless investments to overly eager investors the same way Big Timber peddles the myth of “restoration logging.” But while Goldman Sachs was peddling junk CMO’s, it was also shorting the junk through index sales. In other words, it knew how bad the product was it was selling, and profited anyway.

This is where “green-washers,” federal agencies and Congress, whether they know they’re being duped or not, simply cannot compete. There is no way to collateralize and simultaneously short the junk (below-cost forests) being sold. When Congress makes poor investment decisions with our taxdollars, it’s a total loss. There’s simply no way to restore habitat or put the trees back on the stump. For all the obvious financial, economic and ecological reasons, this is a big-time loser.

Roads, Roads and More Roads.

Logging roads are the greatest threat to already depleted fish or wildlife populations and their habitats. Logging roads contribute 90% of the sediment pollution that degrades water quality. What about quantity concerns? Soil compaction (even on “temporary” roads) creates channelized runoff, and heavier pulses with less infiltration. Runnoff comes earlier and faster, creating water shortages earlier in the short summer growing season, adversely affecting forests and irrigators on private lands.

Logging roads spread weeds, always and everywhere.

Compaction from heavy logging equipment reduces growth and regeneration. Roads disturb surface and subsurface water migration patterns. Roads reduce habitat security by shrinking roadless areas and old growth patch size.
Roads provide access to drive-by hunters, firewood gatherers and ORVs, which decreases the number of snags, increases wildlife displacement, poaching and competition on fewer secure acres.

Roads sever connecting biological corridors.

New logging roads will sacrifice secure areas in the most productive lower elevation roadless areas. Undeveloped lower elevation lands contain the highest value fish and wildlife habitats. Nothing could be worse for wildlife and fish than more (temporary and/or permanent) roads.
Temporary logging roads are not temporary, and are seldom, if ever, completely “restored.” Berms and gates don’t work. Temporary roads often become permanent ORV trails.

The B-D NF’s practice of offering timber credits for road construction should end now, not be expanded. Net negative logging operations generate losses and broken promises. There is almost never cash left over to pay for promised road restoration expenditures, culvert removal and other essential watershed rehabilitation/mitigation.

Examples abound.

Projecting a sustainable economic future for rural communities with a history of dependence on timber subsidies is a cruel joke. After 100 years, show me the prosperity. As has been said many times, “we’re killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.”

Drought, Warming and Massive Forest Dieback

With or without thinning/logging, the changing climate is expected to produce large shifts in vegetation distributions, largely due to mortality. Neither the potential for widespread and rapid forest dieback, nor the cumulative impact of deforestation by logging can be ignored.

Mild winters are likely to produce more sporadic freezing and thawing. Winter downpours, as snow turns to rain, will likely increase erosion and landslides on unmaintained forest roads, and reduce access for winter harvesting.

When aquatic ecosystems unravel, trout and water quality suffer most.

Drought-weakened host trees will become more susceptible to mass attacks by bark beetle species. Success breeds success. As beetle activity spreads, larger and low-vigor trees are targeted, which could severely restrict the size and age distributions of host species.

Severe droughts reduce the productivity and cover of herbaceous plants like grasses. Erosion rates increase once bare soil cover exceeds critical threshold values. Once topsoil is gone, reproduction success drops precipitously. Deforestation leads to desertification.

Fire/Logging Theories Lack Credible Evidence

There is a gathering body of evidence that large wildfires are not determined by “unnatural” fuel loading. Lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, and aspen depend on infrequent, stand-replacing, high intensity fires. Most of the B-D NF is well within the natural range of variability. In fact, dense forest stands may not be caused by fire exclusion, but by a series of consecutive wet years that boosted seedling survival and expanded the local range.

Drought, wind, and low humidity, not fuels loads, drive large wildifires. Weather and climatic conditions are also the driving force behind expanding insect populations.

Thinning and logging will make forests drier and more vulnerable to rapid fire spread and intensity. Thinning can increase wind speed and strength. A thinner forest is a drier forest.

Designed primarily as a “wedge” to deceive and divide concerned citizens, “stewardship logging” is no less destructive than regular logging. National Forest Foundation grants play a significant role in the expansion of ”stewardship” projects nationwide. These new subsidies target environmental groups already predisposed to logging. Logging will not save us or our forests from the forces of nature.

Wilderness Ecosystems Are Valuable

From a conservation biology perspective, there is no rational reason to sacrifice nationally significant wildlife habitat, world-class trout fisheries, and spectacular undeveloped backcountry for little or no net public gain.

The truly valuable assets on the B-DNF should be protected, not sold-off for pennies on the dollar.

This is a very special place where fragments of America’s once-great wilderness ecosystems come together.

Apparently, it is where the next great battle for the future of the Wild Rockies bioregion will be fought. It is not a fight we wanted, but one we surely must win for future generations of indigenous fish, wildlife, and people who value wilderness and freedom.

Science-based legislation like NREPA (H.R. 1975) protects our most precious public assets from the thoughtless and uninformed among us who would rob us blind.
Once robbed of our freedom and natural wealth, nothing can replace our loss.

Free-flowing rivers, forests, and fish and wildlife habitat nourish Montana’s soul and spirit. And what could be sadder than a soul that can no longer remember how to sing the songs of wilderness?

STEVE KELLY is an artist, small business owner, environmental activist and co-chair of the Montana Green Party living in Bozeman, Montana. He can be reached at:




Steve Kelly is a an artist and environmental activist. He lives in Bozeman, Montana.