The Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Proposal (BCSP) has gotten a lot of positive press, including most recently in an editorial in the Missoulian on December 1st and another on December 9 in the Billings Gazette. To put it bluntly, the BSCP appears to be a trade of public trees to the local timber industry in exchange for their support for wilderness designation.
The major part of the plan appears to be a public subsidy of the Pyramid Lumber Company based upon flawed assumptions about forest health, fire suppression, and the effectiveness of thinning as a fire hazard reduction mechanism. Other alternatives to achieve the same goals that would not involve logging are not given serious consideration. Plus, the real environmental costs of logging are ignored and glossed over to make this proposal sound environmentally benign or even environmentally beneficial.
One of the potentially positive aspects of the BCSP is the removal of culverts, closure of roads, and other activities that would benefit the environment. But how these removals and restoration activities are funded is problematic. Stewardship logging is an Orwellian idea whereby money generated by the presumed profits of timber sales will be used to repair land damaged by logging. With such an incentive, it’s easy to imagine that agencies will advocate more logging to do more repair of logging damaged lands. That’s like advocating more gambling to fund gambling addiction programs.
While I don’t doubt for a minute that the plan’s proponents have the best intentions and goals, I believe they may have deluded themselves into thinking the BCSP is a good thing for Montana and the public by ignoring and/or glossing over some potential problems. Nevertheless, I do want to acknowledge that the folks working on the Seeley Lake District, including the Tim Love, the district ranger, as well as all others involved in this proposal, are a very committed and honorable group of public employees and citizens. The Wilderness Society, for instance, has created a GIS program to evaluate where thinning might be most appropriate based upon such considerations as distance from roads, forest type, and other factors that help target logging to places where it might be most beneficial—if logging were to be done.
However, in their rush to reach consensus, there has been a tendency to forgo critical review of the plan’s underlying assumptions, particularly on the part of environmental groups who should be providing such a critique. Without such a balanced review of the pros and cons of the proposal, I, as well as the American people, cannot determine whether the BSCP is ultimately in the best interest of the country and the forest ecosystems of western Montana.
While I have serious reservations about the logging aspects of the BCSP, the designation of 87,000 acres of wilderness additions to the Bob Marshall and Mission Mountains Wildernesses would be a terrific net benefit. The area includes important grizzly, lynx and wolf habitat, plus spawning streams used by bull trout. Monture Creek, as well as other parts of the proposed wilderness additions, are important trail access points into the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The closure and full restoration of old roads, if implemented, is welcomed as well.
Flawed assumption number one is that the forests in the Seeley Lake area are suffering from fire exclusion, hence more dense than would otherwise be “natural.” Yet recent research suggests that the role of fire exclusion on increased stand density and biomass accumulation may be exaggerated, especially for forest types other than those dominated by ponderosa pine.
There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that a fifty-year period of time between 1940s and late 1990s (ending with Yellowstone in1988) was a time of cooler and moister climatic conditions in the northern Rockies compared to the preceding decades, as well as the last few decades. Cool, moist weather would have limited the spread of fires, and also contributed to higher tree seedling survival—both of which would naturally lead to denser forest stands, more residual biomass, and fewer large fires.
Flawed assumption number two is that the current spate of large blazes in the Northern Rockies is a consequence of “fuels build up” due to fire suppression. One of the reasons for this flawed assumption is the widespread application of the Southwest Ponderosa pine fire regime model which postulates that frequent low intensity fires kept fuels and stand density low. Many apply this conceptual model to all forest types even though most of the forest stands within the BCSP, as well as the rest of the northern Rockies are not ponderosa pine, but species that tend to burn naturally with mixed to high severity fire regimes.
And to make matters more interesting, there are some researchers now suggesting that the Southwest model does not apply to even ponderosa pine outside of the Southwest, suggesting that stand replacement blazes may occasionally occur at longer intervals imposed over the shorter fire frequency in ponderosa pine in the Rockies and elsewhere.
Indeed, the majority of forest types burning in the northern Rockies in recent years are stands of lodgepole pine, western larch, grand fir, sub alpine fir, Douglas fir, aspen, and other species that are naturally characterized by mixed to high severity fire regimes and naturally longer intervals between fires than those found in pure ponderosa pine forests. It is doubtful that most of these forests—with the possible exception of dry Douglas fir stands have been significantly altered—even if one assumes that fire suppression, not climate, is responsible for current conditions.
The large blazes we are witnessing are likely more a consequence of changing global climate than due to fuels. When you have drought, low humidity and winds, you get conditions that make fires unstoppable. We are experiencing longer periods of hot weather, often coupled with drought and frequent high winds. Under these conditions, fires burn through all kinds of forest stands and densities with equal ferocity.
So the impressive blazes we are experiencing are less likely due to “forest health” but largely to climatic conditions favorable to rapid fire spread.
EFFECTIVENESS OF FUEL REDUCTIONS
This brings up another problem with the BCSP. Proponents argue that logging can reduce fuels and thus reduce fire risk. On the surface this seems to make sense. Reduce fuels, lower fire risk. However, there is a lot of research that finds mechanical thinning of the forest is seldom effective at stopping or even reducing fire intensity under severe fire conditions. And severe fire conditions are the only ones that are of real concern since these are the only fires that typically are a threat to communities. In some cases, due to the increase in fine fuel residue left by logging operations, it can actually increase fire risk.
Mechanically thinning by hand, followed by piling of debris and burning has been shown to be more effective at reducing fire intensity and spread, but this is a very costly operation, often running into the thousands of dollars per acre. Furthermore, it requires continued repeat treatments to maintain effectiveness since removal of small trees and shrubs by fuels reduction projects leads to less competition and enhance rapid growth of new trees and shrubs. In other words, you don’t do this once and call it good. As a consequence, this might be an appropriate strategy if used in a surgical manner in and near Seeley Lake, but it is unlikely to be implemented across the landscape as a whole simply due to cost.
We should not forget that the National Park Service does a tremendous job of fuels management without logging, but the Forest Service always seems to see logging as the answer to all that ails the forests. Much like the old time doctors who always advocated bleeding a person to rid the body of “bad” blood that was presumed to be causing illness, the Forest Service tends to default to logging as the “cure” for all ills real or imaginary.
A far more effective and less costly way to protect Seeley Lake home owners is to reduce the flammability of homes themselves by mandatory metal roofs, keeping gutters free of debris, and other means that are remarkably successful at reducing home losses to fires.
One of the biggest problems in the plan is that it fails to consider the full range of negative impacts associated with logging. Logging always degrades the forest ecosystem. Logging roads and skid trails become vectors for the spread of weeds. Yes you can spray herbicides on these weed infestations, but spraying is seldom 100% effective, so every time you log, you help to spread weeds, which in the long run may be one of the worse threats to ecosystem health.
Logging roads cut slopes, severing down slope water flow, and capturing water on roadbeds, which then runs off with greater volume and erosive power. Not surprisingly, logging roads are a major cause of sedimentation in streams, negatively impacting fish, and aquatic life.
Logging roads also act as vectors for human entry through illegal ORV activity. A study by the MDFWP has shown that closed logging roads facilitates easier hiking by hunters, thus increases access, leading to a reduction in security for hunted and trapped species.
Logging equipment compacts soils, decreasing water infiltration and reducing soil productivity by eliminating space for soil microbes from bacteria to nematodes.
Logging removes biomass, much of necessary for future forest growth. Live trees, dead logs on the ground and snags are not a “wasted” or “excess” resource that can be removed without impacting the future resiliency of the forest. These physical structures provide the home and feeding areas for many species. Dead trees, in particular, have great, but mostly unappreciated ecological importance in the maintenance of the forest ecosystem health.
Logging alters stand age structure, species composition, and other variables in ways that we don’t fully appreciate or acknowledge.
The full and complete restoration of roads is more than putting up a gate. It requires the restoration of slope and replacement of top soil, removal of culverts and naturalization of stream channels, and revegetation. To fully restore a road is a costly endeavor, and seldom occurs. So ask a lot of questions about just what the BCSP means when they say they will “restore” or “close” a road and how will they pay for this?
Yes one can mitigate some of the worse aspects of logging impacts—if you even know what these impacts are—but logging has many impacts that appear to be glossed over by all the parties to the BCSP.
But beyond the problem that we are creating more environmental damage by logging so we can fix the damage created by past logging, there is the issue of implementation. Given that the demand for lumber is at near record lows, the demand for public logs will likely result in very low bids. Some proponents expect timber demand to rise in the future, making the plan’s economic assumptions more viable. However, at this time it’s not clear there will be sufficient additional funds over and above the cost of implementing the timber sales to do other restorative work like road closures. With such uncertainty, there should be no logging. On other stewardship contracts in the Montana, the trees were cut, but much of the lauded restoration work that was supposed to happen did not occur.
Furthermore, we don’t need to log the forest to pay for these activities. Keep in mind that the BCSP is advocating a subsidy of $12 million for implementation of the plan, much of it a direct subsidy to Pyramid Lumber to facilitate its purchase of a biomass burner to reduce the energy costs of its operations to the company. If we had $12 million to throw at Pyramid Lumber and the Seeley Lake Ranger District, we could use that money to fund road removal and other activities that would both create jobs and benefit the environment without the negative impacts of logging.
Even if one believed that it was in the public interest to subsidize the economic opportunities of Seeley Lake, one can question whether other ways of spending the money might produce greater long-term benefits. Perhaps using that same amount of money to hire more teachers for the Seeley Lake schools might result in more long-term good than subsidizing a lumber company. Or maybe creating more cross country ski, mountain biking, and hiking trails in the area might ultimately result in greater economic activity than subsidizing a logging company. I have not seen any evidence that the BCSP has considered any other options.
THE ROLE OF ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS
That the timber industry and Forest Service would gloss over logging impacts is not surprising, but it’s unforgivable that environmental organizations like TNC, TU, NWF, MWA, TWS all fail to articulate these costs. If environmentalists fail to articulate the real environmental costs of logging, who will?
Given the uncertainty about many of the basic assumptions of the BCSP such as the need for “restoration” and whether thinning will reduce fire risk, and other issues of economic viability of the stewardship proposals, one would hope that environmental organizations would default towards no manipulation of the land and/or the least intrusive methods that could accomplish the goals (like NPS fuels reduction, and mandatory regulations to reduce flammability of homes) rather than advocating intrusive and often environmentally destructive logging activities as a cure to questionable ailments. How can the public decide whether this BCSP serves the real interests of the American people if all we get is a one-sided view of the proposal that clearly serves the timber industry?
Is the BCSP worthy of public support? It is impossible to tell given the one-sided support for the proposal we have seen so far. One thing is certain; many of the real environmental and economic costs are ignored, while the presumed benefits are exaggerated. The BCSP might be a good starting point for further discussion, but without revisions, as it now stands, one can’t determine whether it’s really a public benefit or just a benefit to the local timber company.
GEORGE WUERTHNER is editor of Wildfire.