Trojan Horse Timber Sales on the Bitterroot

The slopes of Rye Creek had been logged by Darby Lumber before the Valley Complex fires broke out. Photo: George Wuerthner.

The proposed Darby Lumber Timber Sale Phase Two on the Bitterroot National Forest is a Trojan Horse being implemented under the guise of  “forest health” based on numerous false assumptions. The proposal displays the Forest Service’s Industrial Forestry bias and its subterfuge of science.

The timber sale is being litigated by the Friends of the Bitterroot, in part, because the proposed logging will increase logging road densities above the Forest’s own elk security cover limits.

The public no longer gives the agency a “social license” to simply give away public logs to private timber companies like Pyramid Lumber in Seeley Lake at a loss to taxpayers, so both the Forest Service and the owners of lumber mills have to come up with another excuse for logging.  They now disguise the purpose of logging by suggesting the cutting of trees will “improve” forest health.

A complete ecological accounting would demonstrate that logging always impoverishes the forest ecosystem. It’s just the agency ignores most of the real ecological costs and exaggerates the public benefits.

The Forest Service asserts that the forest is “unhealthy” and at risk of death from wildfires and bark beetles. That is like saying that an elk herd is unhealthy because wolves kill some of the animals. Bark beetles are “keystone” species that research demonstrates increases biodiversity in the forest. Similarly, wildfires are among the most important natural processes creating and enhancing wildlife habitat in our forests.

Live trees, particularly in a drought when fires occur, are more incendiary than dead trees because they have the fine fuels of flammable, resin-packed needles and branches, which are what burns in a blaze.  That is why most wildfires occur in green forests and also why you have snags after a fire-the main tree bole typically does not burn well.

This is not hidden science.

For instance, when I Google bark beetles and wildfire, the very first article that comes up says: “ We review the literature on the efficacy of silvicultural practices to control outbreaks and on fire risk following bark beetle outbreaks in several forest types… to date, most available evidence indicates that bark beetle outbreaks do not substantially increase wildfires ..”

The second Google article listed says: “Another new study published by the Ecological Society of America titled “Does wildfire likelihood increase following insect outbreaks in conifer forests?” by Garrett Meigs and co-authors conclude that bark beetle outbreaks do not lead to greater likelihood of fires.”

In addition, even more, research shows that high-severity blazes typically occur under extreme fire weather, where research again suggests, logging and other “vegetation treatments” like prescribed burning are ineffective at halting wind-driven fires.

The Forest Service displays its Industrial Forestry bias when it asserts that some trees are “slow” growing and that logging will increase “vigor.”  Ecologically speaking, slow-growing trees have denser wood, which means they rot slower, and last long after they die. This means they function longer in the forest ecosystem providing wildlife habitat, storing carbon and providing the slow release of nutrients into soils. Thus slow-growing trees are more valuable to “healthy” forest ecosystem.

Many plants and animals live in mortal fear of green forests. Dead trees are essential habitat for many species of wildlife. Some 45% of birds use down wood or snags at some point in their lives. A recent study by Dick Hutto at the U of Montana found that many bird species occur at higher densities and numbers in severity burnt forests.

When snags fall into streams, they create important aquatic habitat for insects and fish. Down wood hides small mammals and amphibians, is home to insects like native bees that are important pollinators and sustain nutrient and carbon storage. Removal of trees also can reduce hiding and thermal cover for elk. Logging disturbance contributes to the spread of weeds and loss of genetic diversity in forest stands.

Logging roads, even “temporary” roads provide increased access for ORVs and dirt bikes, further decreasing wildlife security. And the FS does not “restore” road contours or road lens which results in increased soil erosion, clogging streams with more sediment.

Logging destroys all of these important attributes and much more, hence impoverishes the forest.

Pyramid Lumber’s Gordy Sanders believes the lawsuit is an examples of “how the courts are being used to not manage our forests.” Apparently, Sanders thinks it’s OK for the Forest Service to violate the law and ecological science if it sends more publicly subsidized logs to his mill.

Instead of hiding behind the false assertion that they are improving forest health, the agency would be far more honest if it merely said it was going to cut trees to appease uninformed politician demands, as well as subsidize local timber mill owner bank accounts. Of course, the public might not support logging forests just to enrich timber mill owners and their shareholders, especially at the expense of the forest ecosystem.

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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