Clean | Green | Sustainable

New study challenges forest restoration and fire management in western dry forests

Posted by Matthew Koehler on February 23, 2012

(Below is a press release from the researchers. A copy of the study is available here. – mk)

New research shows that western dry forests were not uniform, open forests, as commonly thought, before widespread logging and grazing, but included both dense and open forests, as well as large high-intensity fires previously considered rare in these forests. The study used detailed analysis of records from land surveys, conducted in the late-1800s, to reconstruct forest structure over very large dry-forest landscapes, often dominated by ponderosa pine forests. The area analyzed included about 4.1 million acres on the Mogollon Plateau and Black Mesa in northern Arizona, in the Blue Mountains in northeastern Oregon, and in the Colorado Front Range.

The reconstructions, which are based on about 13,000 first-hand descriptions of forests from early land surveyors along section-lines, supplemented by data for about 28,000 trees, do not support the common idea that dry forests historically consisted of uniform park-like stands of large, old trees. Previous studies that found this were hampered by the limitations inherent in tree-ring reconstructions from small, isolated field plots that may be unrepresentative of larger landscapes.

“The land surveys provide us with an unprecedented spatially extensive and detailed view of these dry-forest landscapes before widespread alteration” said Dr. William Baker, a co-author of the study and a professor in the Program in Ecology at the University of Wyoming. “And, what we see from this is that these forests were highly variable, with dense areas, open areas, recently burned areas, young forests, and areas of old-growth forests, often in a complex mosaic.”

The study also does not support the idea that frequent low-intensity fires historically prevented high-intensity fires in dry forests.

“Moderate- and high-severity fires were much more common in ponderosa pine and other dry forests than previously believed ” said Mark Williams, senior author of the study and recent PhD graduate of the University of Wyoming’s Program in Ecology.

“While higher-severity fires have been documented in at least parts of the Front Range of Colorado, they were not believed to play a major role in the historical dynamics of southwestern dry forests .”

Some large modern wildfires, such as Arizona’s Rodeo-Chediski fire of 2002 and the Wallow fire of 2011 that have been commonly perceived as unnatural or catastrophic fires actually were similar to fires that occurred historically in these dry forests.

The findings suggest that national programs that seek to uniformly reduce the density of these forests and lower the intensity of fires will not restore these forests, but instead alter them further, with negative consequences for wildlife. Special-concern species whose habitat includes dense forest patches, such as spotted owls, or whose habitat includes recently burned forests, such as black-backed woodpeckers, are likely to be adversely affected by current fuel-reduction programs.

The findings of the study suggest that if the goal is to perpetuate native fish and wildlife in western dry forests, it is appropriate to restore and manage for variability in forest density and fire intensity, including areas of dense forests and high-intensity fire.

Key findings:

• Only 23-40% of the study areas fit the common idea that dry forests were open, park-like and composed of large trees.

• Frequent low-intensity fires did not prevent high-intensity fires, as 38-97% of the study landscapes had evidence of intense fires that killed trees over large areas of dry forests.

• The rate of higher-severity fires in dry forests over the past few decades is lower than that which occurred historically, regardless of fire suppression impacts.

The authors are Dr. Mark A. Williams and Dr. William L. Baker, who are scientists in the Program in Ecology and Department of Geography at the University of Wyoming. Dr. Mark A. Williams is a 2010 PhD graduate, and Dr. William L. Baker is a professor, both in the Program in Ecology and Department of Geography. In Dr. Williams’s PhD, he developed and applied new scientific methods for reconstructing historical structure and fire across large land areas in dry western forests. Dr. Baker teaches and researches fire ecology and landscape ecology at the University of Wyoming and is author of a 2009 book on “Fire Ecology in Rocky Mountain Landscapes.”

Posted in Climate Change, Forests, logging, Restoration Economy | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

The True Cost of Oil: Garth Lenz’s Ted Talk

Posted by Matthew Koehler on February 21, 2012

What does environmental devastation actually look like? At TEDxVictoria, photographer Garth Lenz shares shocking photos of the Alberta Tar Sands mining project – and the beautiful (and vital) ecosystems under threat.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

How many wolves in Montana will truly be killed?

Posted by Matthew Koehler on January 23, 2012

The following letter, which raises some excellent points, recently appeared in a local Montana paper. I too have wondered how many wolves will actually be killed during these hunting seasons. I know that even ethical hunters will wound, and not find, big game animals, despite the best of intentions. So do we really expect some of these self-proclaimed wolf-haters – many of whom openly brag about breaking wolf hunting laws – to play by the rules? – mk

Who and what is “managing” Montana’s wolves?

Prior to their delisting, Gov. Brian Schweitzer advocated shooting wolves, regardless of federal law. In 2011, the Ravalli County Republican Party publically conducted an “SSS” raffle, advertised as “shhhh, don’t tell anyone, it’s really Shoot, Shovel, and Shut up.” The $1,200 prize included a firearm, shovel and a wolf cookbook. Comments online say, “The best thing would be if every hunter and rancher in Montana could immediately shoot every one of them that wasn’t in a wilderness area or a national park.”

Wolf haters on Facebook recommend “shoot 5, tag 1!” People publically advocate gut shooting and poisoning wolves. The Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association has a wolf-killing photo contest to eliminate what is reported to be 15 of the 18 quota remaining up the West Fork. Really, 15 remaining?

Recently, a photo of a magnificent dead wolf slung over a jeep collected the $100 prize.

If Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks reinforces these groups by permitting killing wolves indefinitely up the West Fork until another 15 are reported killed, how many will truly be killed? Per FWP, other wolves will certainly move into an area devoid of wolves.

People don’t talk publically about the FWP scientific findings that wolves aren’t responsible for the elk calf mortalities up the West Fork. No talk of the Montana State University findings that elk were more bothered by human activities, including hunting and residential activities, than by wolves.

Instead, store merchant owners who say they live up the West Fork publically state they have a backhoe so any wolves seen should be shot. If people are publically recommending illegal acts, what’s happening privately? How many wolves have been victims of SSS, trapped, poisoned? Who is minding the store, and can it be managed ethically, responsibly and as the public trust dictates, for all?

Shawn Sperling
Hamilton, Montana

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Reports: Obama to reject Keystone XL Pipeline permit

Posted by Matthew Koehler on January 18, 2012

Multiple media outlets are reporting that, later today, the Obama Administration will formally reject the permit of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would carry Canadian tar sands oil through Montana and the Great Plains, and then down to refineries in Texas.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Solar panels belong on rooftops, not on public lands

Posted by Matthew Koehler on December 20, 2011

Learn more and sign the petition today!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

U of Montana suspends biomass plant proposal, apologizes for “eco-terrorist” comment

Posted by Matthew Koehler on December 3, 2011

Last fall, when news broke that the University of Montana was planning to construct a $16 million wood-burning biomass plant on campus, the WildWest Institute got together with some retired UM professors and University neighborhood homeowners and began researching the proposal.

It quickly became apparent that many important questions and concerns were going unanswered by UM officials, some of whom seemed to favor running a PR campaign over a transparent, open public process. So, to get to the bottom of what was really happening, we conducted an open records search of UM’s biomass project file, which included poring over hundreds of electronic communications between UM officials and biomass company executives.

What became so clear and so very troubling is that much of what we discovered in these internal documents turned out to be the exact opposite of what UM officials were telling the public.

For example, we turned up documents showing that the wood-burning biomass plant would actual increase emissions, pollution and particulate matter over the existing natural gas system. In fact, as was later reported in the Missoulian, UM’s wood-burning biomass plant would release the emissions equivalent of roughly 130 woodstoves burning on campus.

Anyone living in Missoula knows all too well about our poor air quality and fragile airshed. The American Lung Association has regularly given Missoula County an F-grade in their annual “State of the Air” report, although this spring we were upgraded to a grade of D. An improvement yes, but still nothing to gloat about.

Especially vulnerable to increased air pollution and particulates are children, the elderly and those living with asthma and reduced respiratory function. This is especially true during the winter months, when nasty inversions and air quality alerts are common in our valley. So think for a moment what a UM biomass plant pumping out the emissions equivalent of 130 woodstoves on campus would look like.

Equally as troubling was what we uncovered regarding the economics of this project. To put it mildly, it’s been difficult to get an accurate assessment from UM of the biomass plant’s up-front and long-term costs, something all Montana taxpayers deserve. For starters, we noticed in the project file that the cost of the project went from $10 million in April 2010 to $16 million by the end of the year.

When we carefully combed through UM’s financial pro forma, we also noticed that the biomass plant would need nearly $27 million for additional operation and maintenance expenses over the existing natural gas system during just the first 40 years of operation.

The pro forma was also troubling in other aspects. It over-estimated the cost of natural gas, while under-estimating the cost of wood fuel trucked to campus. As natural gas prices continued to drop sharply over the past year, UM refused to change their economic analysis to reflect this reality, despite numerous and repeated requests from the public.

So too, when UM’s attempted to secure bids for wood fuel from timber suppliers this summer, the deadline came and went without a single timber company responding to UM’s request because they could not match UM’s significantly rosy wood fuel cost projections. Again, UM refused to change their economic analysis to reflect this reality.

Well, yesterday, Christmas came earlier for those who value clean air and not wasting taxpayer dollars in tight economic times. UM President Royce Engstrom took to the podium in Turner Hall to announce that the University of Montana has suspended their wood-burning biomass plant indefinitely.

President Engstrom cited a number of reasons for suspending the biomass project, which I must point out, are the same issues and concerns that have continually been raised over the past year by WildWest Institute, Alliance for Wild Rockies and a handful of concerned citizens.

President Engstrom also offered a public apology for the recent statement made by UM Vice President Bob Duringer, in which Mr. Duringer claimed that those of us concerned with aspects of the biomass project were engaged in a “lower level of eco-terrorism.”

Finally, during the press conference it was also revealed that the University paid over half a million dollars – $541,000 to be exact – to an out-of-state consulting firm for the planning costs associated with this now suspended biomass project. Too bad the University couldn’t turn by the clock and put that half a million dollars towards some tried and true methods of reducing carbon footprints focused on conservation and energy efficiency.

As a University of Montana alum I’m pleased that UM finally pulled the plug on this wood-burning biomass plant, even if the planning process over the past year involved some unnecessary frustrations, headaches and $541,000.

At the end of the day, Missoula’s air quality – and Montana taxpayer wallets – were protected. And those are things that are worth standing up for all day, every day.

Posted in Climate Change, Energy, Forests, logging | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Where do MT politicians stand on Keystone XL Pipeline?

Posted by Matthew Koehler on September 8, 2011

Last week, U.S. Senator Mike Johanns (R-Nebraska) released the following statement in support of Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman’s request to President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to deny the proposed route for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry Canadian tar sands oil through Montana and the Great Plains, and then down to refineries in Texas. (click here for an interactive map of the pipepline.)

“I support Governor Heineman’s request that President Obama and Secretary Clinton deny the current application from TransCanada to build the Keystone XL pipeline along a route crossing Nebraska’s Sand Hills and the center of the Ogallala Aquifer,” said Johanns. “The proposed route is the wrong route. It’s clear to me, after traveling throughout the state, that most Nebraskans agree a better route is needed.

“Amid much discussion about authorities, one thing is irrefutable and that is the State Department’s authority to approve or reject TransCanada’s current permit application. The Governor has now unequivocally stated that the application should be denied; I agree. TransCanada should be forced to select a more appropriate pipeline route.”

Apparently the entire Nebraska congressional delegation has followed suit, opposing the current pipeline route and calling for the US State Department to deny the permit application from TransCanada. That got me thinking, “Where do Montana’s governor and congressional delegation stand on the Keystone XL Pipeline.”

Well, despite a recent Exxon-Mobile pipeline spill in the Yellowstone River, our Democratic Governor Brain Schweitzer has refused to rescind his support for the Keystone XL pipeline.

Montana’s congressional delegation has attempted to be a little more nuanced in their approach, but the bottom line sure seems to be that they support the Keystone XL Pipeline.

For example, in April, Rep Rehberg wrote Secretary of State Clinton and urged her to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline, while he also expressed some concerns with property rights of eastern Montana farmers and ranchers. Then, on August 26, 2011, Representative Denny Rehberg released the following statement, again in support of the Keystone XL Pipeline, while paying some lip-service to those who might be most negatively impacted by the pipeline:

“The Keystone Pipeline project will create real jobs, help bolster economic growth and provide national energy security. It’s unfortunate this pipeline has been delayed, but I’m glad the federal bureaucracy is finally beginning to move. I’m going to hold their feet to the fire and make sure this deadline is met. It’s time to stop delaying economic recovery….In expressing my support for this project, it should be noted that I’ve encouraged TransCanada to work with landowners in a manner that does not impose condemnations of private property. Agriculture will continue to be the backbone of eastern Montana’s economy, and TransCanada must make every effort to respect property rights and ensure that stringent emergency plans are in place should an accident occur.”

To be perfectly honest, it appears as if Senator Baucus and Senator Tester are taking a somewhat similar approach to the Keystone XL Pipeline. Basically they always appear to be supportive of the pipeline, while going on record expressing some concerns about property rights, environmental impact and emergency plans. For example, in this statement from August 2011 Baucus supports the pipeline:

“I’m pleased to see the Keystone project clear this important hurdle because the pipeline will support Montana jobs and help ease our dependence on Middle-East oil. I am currently reviewing the State Department’s Environmental Impact Statement and will continue to keep a close eye on the process to make sure safety and stewardship of our natural resources remain top priorities. The bottom line is we must get serious about an energy policy that puts America in the driver’s seat while bringing much-needed jobs to Montana.”

In fact, last September, Sen Baucus urged “the U.S. Department of State to expedite a permit by TransCanada to create its Keystone XL pipeline.”

Yet, a few months earlier he wrote Ray LaHood, the US Sec of Transportation stating, “I support the Keystone XL Pipeline. However, I am very concerned that the conditions proposed in the special permit application do not take critical steps to protect Montana’s citizens and resources…I urge you to take steps to ensure that the Keystone XL Pipeline take appropriate steps to protect Montanans and our natural resources.”

Seems to me that calling for an “expedited permit” for the Keystone XL pipeline just forty days after being “very concerned” that the permit “does not take critical steps to protect Montana’s citizens and resources” might be considered a perfect example of a politician talking out of both sides of their mouth.

While it appears as if Senator Tester didn’t release a press statement following the August 26, 2011 US State Department approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline permit, he did send this letter on August 17, 2011 to Secretary of State Clinton. In the August letter, Senator Tester mentions that in March 2011 he “expressed my conditional support for the Keystone XL Pipeline” while he also “outlined a number of safety and private property concerns that I believe must be in place before a pipeline is issued a Presidential Permit.”

These safety concerns are relate to: requiring a publicly available Oil Spill Response Plan, incorporating additional requirements from independent pipeline safety organizations, ensuring a consistent thickness and quality of steel for the pipeline, and requesting a schedule of on-the-ground, aerial and in-line inspections. Regarding the property rights of Montana farmers and ranchers who would have their lands impacted, Senator Tester mentions that “landowners should be fairly compensated through an honest and transparent process.”

To be certain, these are all decent concerns for Senator Tester to bring up and he deserves some credit for doing so in a way that appears to go beyond what Schweitzer, Rehberg or Baucus are willing to do.

It looks as if last week the Northern Plains Pipeline Landowners Group (NPPLG), a committee of the Northern Plains Resource Council, and 34 landowners crossed by the proposed Keystone XL pipeline wrote Montana Department of Environmental Quality Director Richard Opper, asking him to accommodate safety requirements sought by Senator Tester for the Keystone XL pipeline. However, it also should be pointed out that Senator Tester ended his August 17, 2011 letter to Sec Clinton with this statement:

“I believe that the Keystone XL pipeline holds substantial potential to promote Montana’s energy economy with the construction of the Marketlink Project, the oil on-ramp in Baker, Montana. This project can be an important part of promoting America’s energy security. However, the pipeline must be constructed and monitored carefully in order to protect all of Montana’s crucial industries, including agriculture, tourism, and the energy industry itself. For these reasons, I urge you to incorporate our best technical requirements so we can confidently secure America’s energy future without jeopardizing our economic or environmental quality.”

Finally, while each member of the Montana congressional delegation has found out a way to essentially support the Keystone XL Pipeline, while also bringing up some concerns, they have also managed to talk about the pipeline with words and phrases such as “jobs,” “secure America’s energy future” or “provide national energy security.” Clearly these types of phrases make for good political rhetoric in 2011; however, is there much truth to the notion that the Keystone XL Pipeline will increase US energy security?

Just last week a new report (download pdf) from Oil Change International called Exporting Energy Security: Keystone XL Exposed was released. Here’s a snip from the intro:

“In pushing for the Obama Administration’s approval of TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, the North American oil industry and its political patrons argue that the pipeline is necessary for American energy security and its construction will help wean America of dependence on Mideast oil. But a closer look at the new realities of the global oil market and at the companies who will profit from the pipeline reveals a completely different story: Keystone XL will not lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil, but rather transport Canadian oil to American refineries for export to overseas markets.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Hunting Wolves In Montana: Where’s the Data?

Posted by Matthew Koehler on September 6, 2011

A new paper (pdf) has been released by Jay S. Mallonee, an independent wolf biologist from Montana who runs Wolf & Wildlife Studies. Mallonee’s review paper was published on September 3, 2011, in Nature and Science, a peer reviewed scientific journal. Below is a snip from the abstract. With wolf-hunting season currently underway in Montana and Idaho, Mallonee’s research and findings are more important than ever.

Abstract: Management agencies have claimed that the recovery and public hunting of wolves is based in science. A review of their statistics demonstrated that data collection methods did not follow a scientific protocol which resulted in flawed and often blatantly incorrect data. Consequently, agencies do not know the total number of wolves in Montana, a major reference point used by wolf managers. Therefore, the quotas proposed for public wolf hunts are completely arbitrary, and management decisions in general have not been based on facts. This has produced a wolf management system that lacks scientific perspective and does not utilize what is known about the wolves’ role in sustaining healthy ecosystems. Instead, the data demonstrates that management decisions are often based on opinion and politics.

Posted in Wildlife | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Hundreds arrested in sustained White House tar sands pipeline protests

Posted by Matthew Koehler on September 1, 2011

David Dougherty with The Real News takes a very good in-depth look at the continuing White House protests and the environmental and social issues surrounding the Alberta Tar Sands and the Keystone XL pipeline. Protesters are demanding that President Obama use his veto power to halt proposed expansion of Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from Canada, through Montana and the Great Plains, and then down to refineries in Texas along the Gulf of Mexico.

Also, I just ran across this new report (download pdf) from Oil Change International called Exporting Energy Security: Keystone XL Exposed.

Posted in Climate Change, Economy, Energy, Green jobs, Obama Administration, Unsustainable | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Hillary Clinton’s State Department Oil Services and Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline

Posted by Matthew Koehler on September 1, 2011

Produced by Mark Fiore, this short animation is a not-so-far-fetched parody of Hillary Clinton’s State Department Oil Services and the influence of oil industry lobbyists on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline permit decision. For more information, visit

Posted in Climate Change, Energy, Forests, Obama Administration, Unsustainable | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »