Greed and Politics Should Not Drive Forest Policy

Clearcut. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

The Custer Gallatin National Forest should withdraw its North Bridger Forest Health Project (2,296 acres of commercial logging, including 667 acres of clear-cutting). Despite the government’s claims, there is nothing particularly unhealthy about the public forest in and around Fairy Lake, Battle Ridge Campground and Brackett Creek.

Yes, the snow is deep, growing season short and the soil is thin, but trees somehow make a living in challenging conditions. Clear-cutting in these amazing high-elevation, alpine environments demonstrates how far removed the Forest Service-USDA has become from the public values of a typical local resident. Most individuals and families who travel the short distance to the North Bridgers are expecting a quiet weekend of camping close to town, or a peaceful day of hiking, fishing, hunting or sight-seeing. These are the values important to locals. Out-of-town visitors come to enjoy similar experiences on their national forest. These are sacred places.

It is self-evident that the Forest Service doesn’t value the forest in the same way. Why is this so hard for the Forest Service to understand? National (top-down) timber goals dominate the current system. Same as it ever was. Clear-cutting unroaded alpine forests defies common sense, is contrary to scientific knowledge, and lacks any sense of moral integrity to the public and the forestry profession. What a ridiculous place to manage a tree farm.

Major environmental laws passed in the 1970s to reign in the agency’s obsession with logging have not achieved the “multiple-use; sustained-yield” goals what Congress hoped for. The consistent agency behavior is industrial timber production. The good news is: Congress is currently considering a comprehensive remedy for this outrageous perversion of values (H.R. 1321/S. 827) based on ecosystems and linkage corridors, not corporate greed.

The reason the agency finds itself in federal court is its failure to conduct routine environmental analysis of the forest prior to designating it for inclusion in the government’s latest “insect and disease treatment program.” The logging project also shares a boundary with the Bridger Inventoried Roadless Area (IRA). Unroaded forest adjacent to the IRA should have been evaluated for its unique wilderness characteristics and potential for congressional wilderness designation. In their haste to lay waste to these unroaded areas the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). Plaintiffs have requested that the court set aside (declarative judgment and injunctive relief) the ill-advised project. The Forest Service could simply drop the project to avoid yet another knock-down, drag-out court battle and self-inflicted public exposure to its habitual abuse of special places the American public holds dear.

The assumption that bulldozing new logging roads, clear-cutting and “thinning” primeval forests will mitigate insect activity, cure disease, preclude large, high-severity wildfires or “restore” forest ecosystems is not supported by science or common sense. The assumption is simply wrong. Climate dictates forest health, not the USFS-USDA. Drought, high temperatures, low humidity and high winds drive the big fires everyone fears most.

The change we seek in the agency’s behavior is blockaded by the simple truth that Congress funds the Forest Service each year expecting unrealistic timber-production goals. And that sabotages any reasonable hope for sound management of our national forests. It’s extortion. No change will come until management is based on the land’s capability, respect for natures limits and economic reality.

Greed and politics prevent protection of the most important of all public-forest values: water, wildlife habitat, wilderness, responsible recreation and carbon storage. When we change the politics, we can change forest policy. Until then, the fight will continue. Don’t be a spectator, and remember always, in a totalitarian top-down government silence is consent.

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