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Wildfires Don’t Destroy Forests, Logging Does

I am a fifth generation Montanan and an advocate for protection of the Northern Rockies ecosystem.

Congressman Bruce Westerman (R-AK) and Greg Gianforte (R-MT) claim that the way to fix the problem of wildfires in the West is to log more trees, ignoring the reality of global warming and the effects it is having on fire seasons in the West.

As they have for millennia, Montana’s fire-dependent forests burn when we have hot, dry and windy summers   In fact, certain species of pines require fire to release their seeds and reproduce.  Like much of the West, Montana experienced worse drought this summer than during the Dust Bowl of the 30s.  Some parts of the state suffered extreme drought levels not seen since 1929 and according to the National Weather Service, the “Garden City” of Missoula in forested Western Montana experienced the driest July since record-keeping began in 1893.  The result?  Severe drought, very high temperatures, and strong winds were responsible for the large wildfires this summer and no amount of logging would have changed that.

Bucking all of the latest science, Westerman and Gianforte suggest we could stop wildfires by clear-cutting more ancient forests, bulldozing more logging roads, and weakening environmental laws and has introduced legislation to accomplish his scientifically unsupported theories.  Westerman and Gianforte promote their  extreme logging bill, HR 2936, as their answer to forest and fire management.  Not only would it allow massive clearcuts of up to 10,000 acres with no environmental analysis, their bill would limit the First Amendment rights of Americans to challenge federal government actions, including logging proposals that do not follow the law.

When logging proposals fail to protect our land, water quality and native wildlife as required by law, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies turns to the courts to force the federal agencies to follow the law – and we win those court challenges 82% of the time.

Given that record of success, it’s no wonder Westerman and Gianforte want to stop citizens from challenging timber sales.  Citizen involvement is all that stands in the way of the timber industry further slashing the carbon-sequestering Western forests that currently absorb an astounding 10% of the nation’s entire carbon dioxide emissions, thus limiting the global warming that is increasingly the driver of the wildfires.

The flaw in Westerman’s and Gianforte’s call for more logging is that the latest scientific research shows that protecting old growth and mature forests from logging is an efficient way to slow down wildfires.   Old forests contain large trees that are difficult to burn.  These large trees provide shade, keep the forest floor cool and damp, and stop the high winds that fan the flames into crowning fires.

Given current science, if Congressmen Westerman and Gianforte really wants to limit Western wildfires they should work with his congressional colleagues to pass the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA) sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney in the House and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse in the Senate.

America still has 23 million acres of roadless lands in the Northern Rockies.  These areas are mostly unlogged since bulldozing in new roads was prohibited by President Clinton’s “roadless rule.”  NREPA would designate these lands as wilderness, which will make them off limits to logging and road-building.  Protecting these public lands would also ensure the vital habitat needed by a growing list of threatened and endangered wildlife and plant species.

We are now experiencing “the world’s sixth great extinction event” due to habitat destruction and climate change.  Amazingly, the Northern Rockies still sustain all the native species that were here when Europeans first arrived.  NREPA will ensure that those species, such as lynx and grizzly bears, will still be around for future generations.

Members of Congress routinely promoting industries that are “politically friendly” is not unusual — and that’s just what Congressmen Westerman and Gianforte are doing.  But spending millions in subsidies for timber corporations to clearcut our national forests will actually increase large wildfires in the West. We cannot let Westerman and Gianforte destroy the national forests owned by all Americans, the abundant clean water they produce, and the native ecosystems they sustain.

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Mike Garrity is the executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

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