We Can’t Log Our Way Out of Global Baking

Forest “health” clearcut, Siskiyou Mountains. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Late last week President Biden met with Western governors to discuss the wildfires that continue to scorch their states.  Montana’s Republican governor, Greg Gianforte, said he plans to tell Biden we need to log more of our forests — only of course he’ll use the latest timber industry gobbledygook of “active forest management” instead of speaking plainly and saying, “I want more logging and road building.”

But the reality is that these fires are resulting from the record-setting heat and drought brought on by an atmospheric overload of human-caused global warming gases. As proved by Oregon’s wildfires, which are burning through heavily logged and thinned areas, no matter how much resource-extraction politicians blather about “forest management,” we cannot and will not log our way out of climate change. In truth, it’s far past time to address the causes, not the symptoms, of our planet-destroying atmospheric pollution.

The Earth has a number of natural processes for removing heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  Plants, and particularly trees, provide the most efficient, least costly, and longest lasting benefits when it comes to changing carbon dioxide from a pollutant to a useful and necessary component of forest growth. The side benefit of this process, known as photosynthesis, is that it also produces oxygen — a useful and necessary component of human existence.

Simply put, deforestation is just about the worst thing we could do right now. That Gianforte and his fellow Republican, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, are backing even more destruction of our dwindling national forests is about what we’ve come to expect from these ideologically blinded politicians.  When faced with the serious problems confronting the state, nation and globe, they fall back every time to “business as usual” — log it, mine it, burn it and don’t worry about the consequences.

What’s particularly pitiful about this latest episode in incompetent leadership is when Gianforte announced he was pulling Montana out of a multi-state climate pact, he lauded “innovation” as the solution to our burning state and baking planet. Someone might want to ask the governor what’s so innovative about logging — other than that the chainsaw “timber jobs” have been replaced by  and one person driving a feller-buncher machine that cuts, limbs and stacks more trees in an hour than a crew of traditional sawyers could do in a day.

Gianforte’s desire for more deforestation exacerbates another significant problem now facing Montana. Namely, the savage dewatering of our rivers and streams. It is well documented that when forests are clearcut or thinned they allow more sunlight and wind into what was previously shaded and sheltered ground. The result? They hold less snow, it melts and runs off earlier, and the sun and heat quickly dry out the soil — as well as any vegetation that may have survived the logging. In a low-snow winter, which may well be the new “normal,” the loss of the shade and snow means even less water makes it to our over-appropriated rivers by the time mid-summer rolls around.

At some point it would seem the massively increasing evidence would negate status-quo “management” and shake some sense into these extractive industry cheerleaders — especially when the Poverty Flats fire near Hardin, Montana’s largest wildfire, is burning through scrub, sagebrush and grass, not heavily forested areas.

This is not about “timber wars” or turning Montanans against each other — a favorite ploy of politicians who can’t think their way out of our mounting problems. It’s science — and no matter how much you deny it, we will never log our way out of our baking climate.


George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.