Nonsensical Clearcuts Rage on in Our National Forests

Slash pile, Siuslaw National Forest. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Clearcuts are not illegal, but they should be. Yet politicians like Montana Sen. Steve Daines and Gov. Greg Gianforte mislead the public by claiming the Forest Service no longer clearcuts. But obviously the Forest Service and timber industry are still clearcutting national forests.

Case in point, the Custer Gallatin National Forest just approved — then pulled — the South Plateau logging project on the border of Yellowstone National Park that called for clearcutting 5,551 acres. As if 8.6 square miles of clearcuts in grizzly bear and lynx habitat aren’t bad enough, the project will also require bulldozing in 56.8 miles of new logging roads.

The Forest Service says they pulled the decision because the Fish and Wildlife Service was too busy to sign off on the project’s effects on grizzly bears and lynx. And get this, since the project violates the Custer Gallatin Forest Plan, which requires 30% of the forests around Yellowstone to be old growth for grizzly security, the agency intends to issue a new Forest Plan that will allow the massive clear-cuts and impacts because the old growth standard will be eliminated. Adding fiscal insult to ecological injury, the Forest Service estimates taxpayers will lose $3.2 million subsidizing this deforestation.

There are plenty of examples of clearcutting in 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 Critical Habitat for lynx. The Flathead National Forest wants to clearcut 468 acres of grizzly and lynx habitat between Swan Lake and Flathead Lake. The Ten Mile South Helena project in the Helena National Forest called for 2,239 acres of clearcuts.

Clearcuts and logging roads are very bad for grizzly bears, since most grizzlies killed by poachers are within 500 yards of a logging road. Why? Because clearcuts don’t provide any hiding cover from poachers and it’s much easier to hunt a grizzly from a truck on a road than hiking through a thick forest.

Clearcuts are also bad for species like lynx and goshawks that depend on old growth forest habitat. Lynx avoid clearcuts for up to 50 years for many reasons, but mainly because the snowshoe hares — their primary food source — aren’t there. Snowshoe hare feed the world of forest carnivores, but after a clearcut the hare are all either eaten by predators since there’s no undergrowth to hide in, or they leave for better habitat. When there are no hare, lynx starve to death.

Wildfire is often given as a reason to clearcut. The twisted thinking is that if the trees are gone there can’t be a forest fire. Of course this is not true. Wildfires burn through clearcuts full of weeds much faster than through 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 and there will be no fire.” But one reason President Teddy Roosevelt created national forests was to protect watersheds — and neither clearcuts nor pavement makes for great watersheds.

Protecting grizzly bear and lynx habitat by stopping out-of-control clearcutting throughout the Northern Rockies is vitally necessary. You can help at Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

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