Big and Bad National Forest Clearcuts Continue

Clearcut, Helena National Forest. Photo: Steve Platt.

Many politicians think they can get away with misleading the public. For example, Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) and Montana Republican Governor Greg Gianforte claim the Forest Service no longer clearcuts our national forests. Obviously, as the picture shows, the timber industry is still clearcutting national forests with the Forest Service’s blessing. Case in point, Montana’s Custer Gallatin National Forest just signed a draft decision for the South Plateau logging project – literally on the border of Yellowstone National Park – that calls for clearcutting 5,551 acres or 8.6 square miles of forests in grizzly bear and lynx habitat. To haul out all of this timber, the Forest Service plans to bulldoze in 56.8 miles of new logging roads.

Clearcutting is occurring throughout the Northern Rockies. The Kootenai National Forest’s Black Ram logging project calls for clearcutting 1,783 acres in grizzly bear habitat and in federally- designated lynx Critical Habitat. The Flathead National Forest wants to clearcut 468 acres of grizzly and lynx habitat between Swan Lake and Flathead Lake.

Clearcuts and their logging roads are very bad for grizzly bears. Most grizzlies killed by poachers are within 500 yards of a logging road because clearcuts don’t provide any hiding over from poachers. It is much easier to see a grizzly from a road in the middle of a clearcut than from a road through a thick forest.

Clearcuts are also bad for old growth forest dependent species like lynx and birds such as goshawks. Lynx avoid clearcuts for up to 50 years for many reasons, mainly because their main prey, snowshoe hare aren’t there. Snowshoe hare feed the world of forest carnivores, but after a clearcut, the hare are all either eaten by predators or they leave for better habitat. When there are no hare for lynx to eat they starve to death.

Clearcuts not yet recovered are likely to be avoided by lynx in the winter. (Squires et al. 2010; Squires et al. 2006a.) Lynx winter habitat, provided only in older, multi-storied forests, is critical for lynx preservation. (Squires et al. 2010.) Winter is the most constraining season for lynx in terms of resource use; starvation mortality has been found to be the most common during winter and early spring. (Squires et al. 2010.)

Fear of fire is often given as a reason to clearcut. The thinking is, if the forest is cut down then there can’t be a forest fire. Of course this is not true. Wildfires burn through clearcuts full of weeds much faster than through a thick forests because there are no trees to slow the wind – and high winds are the primary drivers of large wildfires.

According to Philip Higuera, professor of fire ecology at the University of Montana: “It’s true that if cut, there is less fuel in the forests. But in a lot of cases, there is what’s called slash—woody debris—left on the ground that will carry fire across the forest floor, which is what you need for it to spread. The simple answer—if you want to eliminate fire, then pave it. There will be no fire.” One reason President Teddy Roosevelt created national forests was to protect watersheds, but pavement does not make for great watersheds.

While clearcuts are not against the law, most people don’t like them for many of the above reasons. Instead of outlawing clearcuts, Congress wrote other environmental laws intended to limit the destruction of forest wildlife habitat such as the Endangered Species Act, the  National Environmental Policy Act, and the National Forest Management Act. As long as the clearcutting was not destroying habitat for imperiled native species, they could go forward. While Congress did not create a police agency to enforce these environmental laws, it wrote provisions empowering citizens to act as “private attorneys general” to protect natural resources. If the citizens win, the federal government must pay the citizens’ attorneys their legal fees. Since tiny environmental groups like Alliance for the Wild Rockies do not have any staff attorneys, we do not get any of this money, it all goes to the attorneys.

If the Forest Service ignores our filed objections and concerns, we are left with no choice but to do what Congress envisioned, hire an attorney, and sue to stop the clearcutting. Please consider helping us protect grizzly bear and lynx habitat in Yellowstone and throughout the Northern Rockies by stopping out-of-control clearcutting.

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

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