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Ecological Degradation in the Name of Restoration

The Forest Service (FS), the timber industry and some environmental groups formed a collaborative groups several years ago known as the Southwest Crown of the Continent (SWCC). The goal ostensibly is to promote healthy ecosystems, but the real goal is to increase logging in the Seeley-Swan and Lincoln areas The SWCC “restoration” objectives appear to be in direct conflict with sound science and well established principles.

The collaborative first misinterprets ecological parameters to create a problem that they can solve with logging. Then the logging creates extra problems like spread of weeds on logging roads, which in turn requires more management. It is a self-fulfilling management that damages our forest ecosystems, and wastes tax payer money to subsidize private timber interests.

The Forest Landscape Restoration (CFLR) program supported by the SWCC collaborative has the following goals.

* Reduce the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire

* Improve fish and wildlife habitat

* Maintain or improve water quality and watershed function

* Maintain, decommission, and rehabilitate roads and trails

* Prevent or control invasions of exotic species, and

* Use woody biomass and small-diameter trees produced from restoration projects.

Unfortunately this is not “restoration” rather it is degradation.

The first goal to cut risk of “uncharacteristic wildfire demonstrates a failure to understand wildfire ecology. . There is no uncharacteristic wildfires occurring in the SWCC. The bulk of this area consists of forests like lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, western larch and so forth that naturally burn as mixed to high severity fires. They burn in large fires whenever there is drought coupled with warm temperatures, low keepingwildhumidity and high winds—assuming an ignition. That is the way these forests replace themselves. There is nothing unusual about any of the fires that have burned and will burn in this area.

Then the second objective is “improve fish and wildlife habitat”. Ironically large severe wildfire fire is one of the major factors that creates dead wood. Dead wood is critical to many wildlife species. Fires also create the patchy age forest stands that is important for many wildlife
species. Fires are even important for aquatic ecosystems.  Dead wood in streams is important for bull trout and other fish. Fire promotes the young forests that snowshoe hares like–hence also lynx. Etc. So if the FS reduces the “risk” of wildfire–especially large fires, it is harming wildlife and fish habitat.

Next we come to maintain or improve water quality and watershed function. Again this is a good goal, but when you put in a bunch of roads and disturb the forest floor with logging equipment you are not improving water quality. Even temporary roads can cause significant run-off of sediment. Cutting of the sub-surface water flow by road construction can also cause more surface flow leading to greater erosion and sedimentation in streams. So “treating” the forests here automatically degrades the water.

Of course, one of the justifications I hear all the time for logging is that after cutting the trees the FS will close roads. Yet one doesn’t have to create logging roads, so you can close them, nor do you need to cut trees to close roads. If existing roads are causing problems for water quality or wildlife than the FS legally should close them, and they don’t need to log to do this.

Another goal is to prevent and control invasions of exotic species. A very laudable goal. But the biggest factor in the spread of weeds is disturbance from logging roads and equipment. So in treating the forest, you create the problem you need to solve. This is great for creating an endless job for the FS but it’s not in the public interest.

Finally the last objective is to use woody biomass from “restoration” projects. This last aim acts as if biomass is somehow unnecessary for forest ecosystem function. Nothing could be further from the truth. The removal of biomass harms forest ecosystems, nutrient cycling, wildlife habitat, etc. There is a deficiency of dead wood in many of our forested landscapes, particularly the heavily logged Seeley Swan Valley.

In short, the SWCC is clearly not using good science, and ignoring the multiple ways that logging harms the environment. Furthermore, since nearly all timber sales are money losers, this policy just foster greater dependency by communities and industry on government largess or welfare. It’s time to wean the Montana timber industry off of the government teat.

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

 

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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