We Can Fireproof Homes But Not Forests

Using wildfires as their cover, Montana’s Republican Senator Steve Daines announced that he and California’s Democrat Senator Diane Feinstein are introducing legislation to weaken federal environmental laws and allow more logging and thinning of our national forests.  Private, for-profit timber companies have already over-cut the private forest lands in the West and now Feinstein and Daines want to allow them to “cut and run” on our publicly-owned national forests.

Fire-prone homes are going to burn

Daines and Feinstein think that thinning will magically make homes in forests fireproof — but they won’t.  First, homes are on private property, not on public land, which means installing fire-proof roofing and siding is the homeowner’s responsibility, not the federal government’s.  Second, the Forest Service’s own fire scientists have found that logging won’t stop wildfires, but having a non-flammable roof and clearing most trees next to your home will definitely help keep your home from burning down in a wildfire.

One need only look to the destruction of Paradise, CA, to see that most of the structural damage was caused by wind-driven embers leaping from home to home, while nearby trees remained standing and unburnt.  The lesson of Paradise: If one homeowner does not fireproof their house, it will likely burn in a forest fire and then start their neighbors’ houses on fire.

Forests aren’t commercial tree farms – they’re functioning ecosystems

In 1960, Congress passed the Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act.  It was meant to ensure that our national forests produce a sustained yield of timber while preserving clean water, clean air, and native fish and wildlife habitat.  Simply put, forests are not tree farms.  They are watersheds, fish and wildlife habitat, carbon sinks, places to hike and enjoy the vast diversity of natural ecosystems.

Logging and thinning also removes essential habitat.  For instance, snowshoe hare and red squirrels are primary food sources for numerous forest predators.  Mountain lions, lynx, pine martins, fisher, wolverine, coyotes, goshawks, great gray owls, and boreal owls are all in decline and destroying the habitat of their prey only ensures their eventual demise.  Thinning thick forests also removes the security cover for elk and deer, which then flee hunters on public national forests for the “no trespassing” security of private lands.  And few can afford to pay thousands of dollars to hunt on gated private lands.

Bulldozing new logging roads destroys watersheds

The new and rebuilt roads required for the Daines-Feinstein logging bill will send even more sediment into vital headwater streams. Teddy Roosevelt created our national forests to protect habitat for fish and wildlife and provide stable, non-eroding watersheds to produce abundant clean drinking water.  When timber companies bulldoze new logging roads into forests, sediment runs into streams, fills the rocky bottoms and smothers fish eggs and aquatic insects.

The most valuable commodity our national forests produce is clean drinking water, not logs.  When logging runoff pollutes municipal watersheds the costs to bring the once-clean water back up to drinking water standards is enormous and wind up being loaded on local taxpayers, not the logging companies that caused the problem.

Logging cost taxpayers billions of dollars while forests work for free

The Forest Service and the BLM lose a stunning two billion dollars a year subsidizing logging on our public lands.  If Daines and Feinstein really want to help, they should fund programs to educate people on how to fireproof their homes, not cut down national forests.  Our national forests already do what they do best, produce clean drinking water, habitat for native fish and wildlife and absorb carbon. Best of all, forests do all of this for free.

Thick forests are natural and absorb the most carbon

Over 200 years ago when Lewis and Clark crossed Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains on their way to the Pacific they were forced to ride their horses up Lolo Creek because the forests were too thick to get through.  Daines now claims that forests are unnaturally thick because of prior fire suppression.  He not only ignores historical documentation and recent science, but also the fact that native wildlife depends on thick, not thinned and open, forests for its survival.

Conclusion:  Leave our national forest ecosystems alone

Daines and Feinstein are great examples of politicians’ knee-jerk, uninformed reaction to wildfires which, as science proves, are primarily weather-driven.  Even clearcuts will burn when high temperatures, high winds, and drought combine – all of which are exacerbated by global warming, which takes a lot more political courage to address than simply logging more forests.

While politicians’ promises to plant a trillion trees worldwide is a good start, an even better idea is to simply leave our nation’s existing environmental laws and forests intact. National forests absorb a whopping 10 percent of the carbon America produces – an amount equal to the emissions from 50 million cars every year — and native forests suck up the most carbon.

It takes centuries to create a forest but only a few seconds to cut down a tree.  We need to leave forests intact with both small and big trees to do their job as carbon sinks and provide the ecosystem continuity required by native species for survival.

Please join the Alliance for the Wild Rockies in fighting to protect, maintain, and restore our national forest ecosystems and protect the laws that require environmental analysis and public review and comment.

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