Putting Cows First in the Gravelly Range

The Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest is proposing a massive 17,000 acre logging and burning proposal for the Greenhorn sub-range of the spectacular Gravelly Range. The project is euphemistically called the Greenhorn Vegetation Management Project.

And as is expected, they use the same justifications you see almost everywhere today. The forests are “too dense” due to “fire suppression.” And if nothing is done to thin them, by golly, they will die a horrific death from bark beetles, drought, wildfire, or disease as they have done for millions of years.

So, of course, the solution is to kill the overly dense forest with chainsaw medicine and fire.

This is analogous to declaring most people over 60 years of age will die from a heart attack or cancer, so the solution is to line them up and shoot them so they won’t die from a natural process.

Just like humans with disease, one can’t predict who will die from, say cancer or heart attack, and when. In addition, some people live to a hundred years of age, and it is difficult to predict this in advance.

In “restoring” forest and vegetation community health, the Forest Service is degrading ecosystem resistance by removing individuals that may have genetic resistance to things like drought or beetles.

Another problem with the illogic of the proposal has to do with aspen. Aspen sprouts vigorously after high severity blazes. However, the goal of the Forest Service is to reduce high severity blazes by logging the forest. The Forest Service asserts that aspen vigor is declining in the area. Rather than encourage high mortality wildfires, the Forest Service attempts to prevent such events.

And it acknowledges that all forest communities in the Gravelly Range have a fire rotation of up to 200 years, yet it claims “fire suppression” has led to dense stands and encroachment of meadows. When you have a two-hundred-year fire rotation and, at best, maybe 50 years of real suppression (which is questionable for a host of reasons), historic fire behavior and conditions have not been modified. Yet the agency ignores its documentation and suggests “unnaturally” dense forest stands.

Of course, the agency intends to ensure that these “dense” stands are not thinned by natural agents like disease, drought, beetles, or wildfire. That would be outrageous.

The agency further demonstrates its lack of scientific honesty by proposing to burn more than 3000 acres of sagebrush. Sagebrush has no particular adaptations to wildfire. It takes decades to hundreds of years to fully recover when you burn it. Given that sagebrush ecosystems are declining nearly everywhere due to wildfire, it is questionable whether burning sagebrush will enhance sagebrush ecosystems.

Sagebrush is important for sage grouse, pronghorn and mule deer, but cows don’t eat it, so the FS wants to eliminate it.

Back in the 1980s, there was a significant conflict over livestock grazing in the Upper Ruby drainage. The controversy even made the New York Times. The district ranger and his range con did an excellent EIS on livestock grazing that found that livestock negatively impacted every single resource value, including water quality, plant communities, elk, fisheries, soils, and even the local economy because elk and fish were more important to the local economy than cows. But the District Ranger was vilified in the local community and eventually had to leave and nothing much changed on the Upper Ruby.

All this manipulation is primarily to expand livestock grazing opportunities at the expense of native species from elk to fish. Once again, the Forest Service is capitulating to local economic interests instead of managing lands for the greater public interest.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy