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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 »

Questions, opportunities presented by Montana Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act

Posted by Matthew Koehler on October 6, 2009

Note: This article, by Dr. Martin Nie (professor of natural resource policy in the College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana), was recently a Western Perspective on Headwaters News.

There is increasing interest in resolving multiple-use conflicts through place-based (national forest-specific) legislation. Throughout the West, divergent interests are negotiating how they would like particular forests to be managed. Many of these proposals include provisions related to wilderness designation, economic development, forest restoration and funding mechanisms, among others. But unlike more typical collaborative efforts, some groups are seeking codification of their agreements.

Numerous factors have precipitated this interest in going to Washington in search of legislation, including perceptions of agency gridlock, unresolved roadless and wilderness issues, and the disarray that now characterizes forest planning.

Nowhere is the place-based approach more apparent than in Montana. In July 2009, Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester introduced Senate Bill 1470, the “Forest Jobs and Recreation Act (FJRA).” If enacted, it would direct management on three national forests in Montana; the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, and parts of the Lolo and Kootenai. This approach is a significant departure from the status quo and it raises several questions and opportunities that are addressed below.

Before proceeding with the questions, some background is necessary. Prior to the FJRA’s introduction, three separate groups of interests negotiated proposals for how they would like individual national forests to be managed. These groups included the controversial “Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership” dealing with the largest national forest in Montana , the smaller-sized “Three Rivers Challenge” focused on part of the Kootenai, and the relatively modest “Blackfoot-Clearwater Landscape Stewardship Project” centered on part of the Lolo. Tester modified some of these agreements and then lumped them together into one multi-faceted bill.

There are four provisions of the FJRA that I wish to emphasize: the designation of wilderness and special management areas, a timber supply provision, forest restoration goals, and the use of stewardship contracting.

First, it seeks to designate roughly 677,000 acres of wilderness and 336,000 acres of special management areas on three national forests. The latter designation is designed to protect some places from resource use while allowing and enhancing some types of motorized recreation.

In exchange for these designations, the bill mandates that 70,000 acres on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and 30,000 acres on the Kootenai are to be “mechanically treated” by the USFS over the next ten years. Priorities and sideboards are set for where these projects can happen, so they will most likely be funneled into the roaded frontcountry.

Non-timber related restoration goals are also set in the bill, though compared to the treatment mandate, they are not quantified nor prescribed in as much detail. Nor is there any guarantee that the restoration work will be done once the mechanical treatments are accomplished. Also worked into the legislation is possible funding for a biomass project for a timber mill in the Seeley-Swan Valley.

The bill relies heavily upon the use of stewardship contracting to achieve its treatments and restoration work. This authority allows the USFS to trade its goods (timber) for services to be rendered by a private contractor, such as restoration work like replacing culverts or rolling up roads.

While Tester’s bill has garnered national attention, there are place-based initiatives happening on other national forests, including the Lewis and Clark, Colville, Clearwater and Nez Perce, Fremont-Winema, Tongass, and federal forests in Arizona, among others. Each initiative is different in significant ways. But all are searching for more durable, bottom-up, and pro-active solutions to national forest management. Some negotiations, like that on Idaho’s Clearwater and Nez Perce, may result in proposed legislation. But others, including arrangements on the Colville and Fremont-Winema, aren’t based on forest specific laws but instead operate through formalized agreements and protocols with the USFS .


Senator Tester’s bill is a bold and constructive response to a dysfunctional status quo. It advances the debate over national forest management in significant ways-putting all the big issues and conflicts squarely on the table, right where they belong. In doing so, his bill has generated a vigorous debate while shaking up traditional political alliances.

A congressional hearing focused on the Senator’s bill is supposedly in the works. Congressional hearings can be a mixed bag, of course; being either a terrible oxymoron or constructive inquiry. I hope the former will hold true, and that some tough questions will be answered by proponents and opponents of the bill. Laid out below are some of the most important. They go beyond the FJRA, with the assumption that if enacted, similar place-based forest laws are forthcoming.

1. Would a proliferation of place-based forest laws disunify the relatively consistent mission and mandate of the USFS ?

If replicated more broadly, the place-based approach to forest management could further disaggregate the national forest system. Law-by-law, the national forests could be governed by forest-specific mandates, not unlike the unit-specific “enabling” laws governing the national parks and wildlife refuges. A relatively consistent mission and mandate applicable to the national forests would be replaced by more site-specific prescriptive laws detailing how particular forests must be managed. This might be good for some forests, but what effect would it have on the national forest system on-the-whole?

2. Will the FJRA conflict with preexisting agency mandates, environmental laws, and planning requirements?

Forest-specific laws already on the books, like the Tongass Timber Reform Act and the Herger-Feinstein (Quincy Library) Act, have engendered more conflict than consensus partly because of how these laws sometimes fail to fit into the preexisting legal/planning framework. In these and other cases the USFS is forced to walk a statutory minefield with legal grenades thrown from all directions. One way or another, the agency gets sued for either complying with existing environmental laws or for ostensibly subordinating the new place-based one. A quick study of these cases informs us that the answer to forest management might not be another law placed on top of myriad others but rather an untangling or clarification of the existing legal framework.

Complying with the National Environmental Protection Act is one big unanswered question in the FJRA. The bill requires the USFS to satisfy its NEPA duties within one year. But without additional support it’s hard to fathom the agency meeting this deadline, given that it takes the USFS about three years to complete an EIS. When it comes to meeting NEPA obligations, the USFS needs more funding, leadership, and institutional support, not more law.

3. Will it work and how will it be paid for?

One purpose of the FJRA is to generate a more predictable flow of wood products for local mills, thus the bill’s timber harvest mandate. The probability of achieving community stability through forest management has been debated ad nauseum. Alas, most agree that there are simply too many uncontrollable impediments to achieving this objective, like fluctuating housing starts, cheap Canadian imports, vacillating court decisions, swings in agency budgets, and so on. But realism aside, the FJRA is to be admired for its focus on sustainable forests and communities, and for understanding the benefits of having a functional timber industry in Montana.

Before proceeding with a forest-specific law with a harvest mandate, lawmakers should consider some alternative ways to achieve greater predictability. This includes an innovative effort on the Colville National Forest to provide a steadier, sustainable, and less contested stream of timber for local mills, with accompanying restoration objectives. In this case, a collaborative group works with the agency to achieve its objectives via formalized agreement and a mutually agreed upon decision making protocol. Before proceeding with a legislated timber mandate, however modest it might be, it makes sense to learn from this and other initiatives and possibly adapt them elsewhere.

The FJRA would be primarily implemented and paid for by using stewardship contracting. This tool’s popularity stems partially from the highly uncertain congressional appropriations process, a process that chronically underfunds the USFS and its non-fire related responsibilities and needed restoration work.

But on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, there are serious questions as to whether there is enough economic value in this lodgepole pine-dominant forest to pay for the restoration work. As a safety valve, the FJRA authorizes spending additional money to meet its purposes, but there is no guarantee that such funds will be appropriated, or if so, they wouldn’t come from another part of the agency’s budget.

The question, then, is what happens if such envisioned funds don’t materialize? Will money be siphoned from other national forests in order to satisfy the mandates of the FJRA? Consider, for example, the White Mountain stewardship project in Arizona. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that this project incurred greater costs than expected and such costs have “taken a substantial toll on the forest’s other programs.” Furthermore, some other fuel-reduction projects were not completed because their funding sources were being “monopolized” by the White Mountain project. Other national forests in the region also paid a price to service the terms of this contract, and “[a]s the region has redirected funds toward the White Mountain project, these other forests have become resentful of the disproportionate amount of funding the project has received.”

The place-based law approach could move the national forests closer to a Park Service model, where state congressional delegations sometimes treat parks like their own fiefdoms, exercising inordinate control over a unit via committee and purse strings. And at the risk of getting ahead of myself, the approach brings to the fore other budget-related questions. Will senior congressional delegations be more successful in securing funding for place-based laws in their states? Will it create a system of “haves” and “have nots” in the national forest system? And perhaps most important, would these budgetary situations benefit the national forest system as-a-whole?

4. What precedent will be set if the FJRA is enacted?

Congress has a history of deferring to state congressional delegations in wilderness politics. So, for example, if one delegation defers to Montana’s in passing the FJRA, Montana’s delegation will be asked to play by the same rules when a different wilderness bill is being considered. And those proposals may not be as carefully crafted as Senator Tester’s bill.

Take, for example, the “Clearwater Basin Project Bill” considered in 2004. This “charter forest” idea was adamantly opposed by conservationists because it provided an undue amount of influence to local interests to set forest management priorities, schedules, and agendas; while providing deadlines for required environmental analysis. This “pilot project” was defeated, but the dynamics could be different in the future if place-based legislation becomes more widely accepted.

Potential for abuse is even more acute if individual forest bills contain special privileges and exemptions that are not available elsewhere. Recall, for instance, the effort by former Senator Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) to exempt some fuel-reduction projects on the Black Hills National Forest from NEPA analysis, appeals, and lawsuits. His legitimate reasons notwithstanding, this “special treatment” became political fodder as other Congress members asked why the Black Hills should get exemptions not offered elsewhere. This was followed by several copycat legislative proposals seeking the same sorts of exemptions for other national forests. The lesson, from this case and others, is that subsequent efforts in codifying place-based agreements could have a dangerous snowball effect.

Also legitimate is the fear that if passed, the RJVA creates a precedent and possible expectation that future wilderness bills must be packaged with economic development provisions (among other nonconforming uses within wilderness areas) if they are to be politically feasible. And special provisions are often replicated in wilderness law. Once used, provisions related to such matters as water rights and buffer areas are regularly stamped onto future wilderness bills as a matter of course. To be sure, compromise is inherent in the Wilderness Act, and all sorts of special exemptions and political deals are written into wilderness laws with some regularity. But trading wilderness for a timber harvest mandate is a different beast altogether. The real question here is not whether it is reasonable to require two national forests to mechanically treat 100,000 acres over the next ten years; but rather what those numbers will look like in other states if all of a sudden harvest mandates are politically palatable.

5. Why not experiment in more serious fashion?

The FJRA includes a vague reference to “adaptive management,” and thus an implicit acknowledgement that there are uncertainties inherent in the bill. In this vein, the bill sets up a monitoring program whereby the USFS will report to Congress on the progress made in (1) meeting the bill’s timber supply mandate, (2) the cost-effectiveness of the restoration projects, and (3) whether or not the legislation has reduced conflict as measured by administrative appeals and litigation. Not included on the list are specific ecological (non-timber related) monitoring requirements.

This is a good start. But given the importance of this legislation, and the impact it could have on other place-based proposals, why not approach matters in a more deliberately experimental fashion? This could be accomplished in different ways but the principles would be the same: let’s proceed cautiously, try different approaches in different places, carefully monitor the results, and go from there.

These experiments could be housed within a more structured experimental framework, with appropriate legal sideboards and oversight. Such a legislatively-created framework is one way of ensuring that future place-based proposals don’t become used as a backdoor way of undermining environmental law and devolving federal lands to self-selected stakeholders.

If such a framework is not used, another option is to make the purpose of experimentation more central to the FJRA itself. This could be done by beefing-up the bill’s monitoring and evaluation requirements, to include other ecological and policy/process considerations. Changes could be made to the legislation to ensure that its ecological restoration goals are achieved in tandem with its forest treatment mandate.

Let’s experiment, for example, with a reciprocal or staged stewardship contracting approach whereby future timber projects cannot proceed until certain restoration objectives are met; and once met, future timber is released in a sort of tit-for-tat sequence. This might be a way to alleviate widespread concerns that restoration will take a back seat to the bill’s more clearly articulated timber supply mandate. Another idea is to carve out some space in the bill to experiment with different ways of improving the forest planning/NEPA process. Why not try different approaches to its implementation and learn lessons from that experience? In doing so, the FJRA could teach valuable lessons that might be tried elsewhere, and the USFS could be brought into the process as partners, rather than subjects.

With a more deliberately experimental design, the Senator’s bill could inform a larger system-wide look at national forest law and management. All sorts of ways in which to reform national forest management have been proposed in the past, and most of those proposals focus on systemic measures imposed on all national forests from the top-down. Rarer are proposals seeking to learn lessons from the bottom-up, and the FJRA offers such an opportunity. So do the other place-based initiatives referenced above. All of these efforts are admirable in their goals to secure broader-based solutions and conservation strategies. If lawmakers ever revisit national forest law they should first study how place-based groups have approached things.

The above questions are not driven by politics. Nor are they asked with the purpose of trying to defeat the Senator’s bill or to criticize his courageous entry into Montana wilderness politics. They are meant instead to get the public thinking about the big picture and how the parts are going to fit or not fit together. The stakes are high. If the FJRA becomes law, place-based proposals throughout the West will take a big step forward. The FJRA would be the first one out of the gate, setting precedent for others, and this is reason enough why it must be scrutinized so carefully.

Martin Nie is professor of natural resource policy in the College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana. His most recent book is The Governance of Western Public Lands: Mapping its Present and Future (paperback 2009).

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NY Times Sings NREPA’s Praises

Posted by Matthew Koehler on July 7, 2009

Efforts to protect remaining roadless wildlands and restore logged over public lands in the northern Rockies got a boost today when the New York Times penned an editorial strongly in favor of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act.

Posted in Climate Change, Forests, Green jobs, logging, Restoration Economy, Sustainable Solutions, timber industry, Uncategorized, Wilderness | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Morels, Fire and Non-Timber Forest Product Management

Posted by Matthew Koehler on April 23, 2009

The other day, I found my first morel mushroom of the year. I wish I could say the morels were found after scouring the banks of a nearby creek or following an epic journey deep into the mountains. But, nope, not these morels. I found them growing in the woodchips of a native landscaping job I did for a neighbor last fall. Go figure!

It’s been unseasonably warm the past five days in Missoula and apparently that warm weather, combined with some water I recently dumped on native flowers and plants, (to give them an extra boast this spring) was too good a situation for the morels to pass up. So they fruited and I picked them and gave them to the neighbor to try. I told her to put them in a pan with some butter and salt and see what happens. I haven’t gotten a report, but I guarantee the morels didn’t taste bad…they never do.

Later that morning, I called my good friend Larry Evans, who’s been called the “Indiana Jones of Mushroom Hunting.” Larry stars in a new Ronn Mann film titled, Know Your Mushrooms and he was also recently featured in the Missoula Independent.

Larry was excited about the news of my morel find and over the phone he even boldly proclaimed, “Matty Dread, you’ve found the first morels of the year! The Frenchman has been searching his place for weeks and he hasn’t found anything. Histrocially, April 21 isn’t the earliest first morel I’ve seen in Western Montana, but it’s on the early side.” Well, I doubt it really was the first morel of the year, but it was a nice find nonetheless, and it’s always great to see just how excited Larry gets over fungi!

All of this is really just a round about way to bring us to the real reason for this post. The Spring issue of Fungi Magazine, a great resource for amateur and profession mushroom enthusiasts, mycophiles and mycologists, includes an article from Larry about morels, fire and non-timber forest products. In the article Larry makes a solid case that forests are not destroyed or lifeless following a wildfire, as we often hear portrayed in the media. In fact, Larry points out that “Fungi are no strangers to fire. Of about 430 species of Ascomycetes in the Pacific Northwest, over 100 species require a forest fire to produce fruiting bodies.”

It’s an interesting article and worth a read. Hopefully it will inspire you to take a closer look into what’s happening on the forest floor near you!

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Well worth a listen this weekend

Posted by Matthew Koehler on March 13, 2009

If you didn’t catch the excellent feature on Gary Delp and his crew at Heritage Timber, LLC do yourself a favor and listen in.

Montana Public Radio’s Edward O’Brien caught up with Heritage Timber as they were deconstructing a timber-framed building at the former Stimson Lumber mill site in Bonner, MT. It’s a great interview featuring a creative Montana company and a hard-working businessman.

Delp’s company, Heritage Timber, LLC has been deconstructing timber-framed buildings and providing reclaimed materials to Montanan’s since 1994. In the process, over 1.85 million board feet of wood, or the yearly output of 3,080 acres of planted pine, has been spared. By providing reclaimed wood, including old-growth timbers, clients are able to save natural resources and energy too.

A few years ago I got some old, reclaimed cedar telephone poles from Gary that I used to frame in a brick patio.  And this past summer we got framing lumber and plywood Gary reclaimed to convert part of our garage into a simple office. Gary’s been a big supporter of protecting public lands and old-growth forests and I would highly recommend Heritage Timber and their products to anyone.

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Stimulating Bittersweet Bitterroot Restoration

Posted by Matthew Koehler on March 13, 2009

Last week the US Forest Service announced the first batch of projects moving forward courtesy of the $1.15 billion Congress allocated to the agency in the American Recovery and Reinvestment act, more commonly called the Stimulus Bill.  Like other government agencies, the Forest Service was asked to put together a list of “shovel ready” projects, which could be implemented quickly, thereby providing a needed jobs boost in rural communities by knocking out some needed restoration, maintenance and improvement work.

While it’s common in these parts to hear people complain that “the Forest Service can’t do nuttin’ because their hands are tied by the damn environmentalists,” it should be pointed out that this $1.15 billion in “shovel ready” projects funded by the Stimulus Bill will create 25,000 jobs. Oh, you mean the Forest Service had a bunch of important working literally just sitting on the shelves collecting dust, waiting for funding? Yep. So much for that tired, old argument of “analysis paralysis,” eh?

In Montana, one of the first projects to move forward with the stimulus money will be reconstruction and drainage improvements for a road that runs along Rye Creek in the Bitterroot National Forest. Historically, Rye Creek was a stronghold for bull trout (now a threatened species), but decades of heavy roadbuilding and clearcut logging in the Rye Creek watershed have taken their toll on native fish and the entire watershed.

Much of the problem with the Rye Creek Road is that it was built way too close to the actual creek, a common problem found throughout Forest Service lands. You see, when many of these roads were built there was little environmental knowledge or oversight, so the “path of least resistance” seemed to rule the day. Short of removing the road completely (not an option in the Rye Creek case) or rerouting the road (a very expensive option) the best option is to mitigate the amount of sediment bleeding from the road bed into the creek, which in a nutshell is what they intend to do up Rye Creek.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad that this important road and watershed restoration work up Rye Creek will finally take place and I think it’s great that this restoration work will help create a few more jobs in the Bitterroot Valley. However, it’s somewhat of a bittersweet situation. Let me explain why.

The origins of this Rye Creek watershed and road restoration work can be traced to the Bitterroot Burned Area Recovery Plan, which followed the fires of 2000. Originally, the Forest Service pushed forward with a “recovery” plan that was actually one of the largest proposed timber sales in the history of the agency. The plan called for nearly 70 square miles of logging, half of which was to take place in key watersheds for those threatened bull trout and sensitive westslope cutthroat trout. The industrial logging also targeted roadless wildlands and previously unlogged, old-growth forests.

Local conservation organizations took the Forest Service to court and following two days of back and forth negotiations (while literally being locked in the federal courthouse in Missoula with the likes of Mark Rey) a settlement agreement was reached on February 6, 2002. Basically, conservation groups agreed to the settlement because while it allowed the Forest Service to move forward with logging on approximately 14,000 acres, the court-sanctioned settlement also contained the promise of $25 million worth of very important watershed and forest restoration work, including that work up Rye Creek.

At the time, Dale Bosworth, Chief of the Forest Service, told the public, “The most important thing to me is getting on with the restoration work. There’s lots of other work we wanted to do – roads we wanted to obliterate, watershed work, reforestation. The idea of the whole project was fire restoration.”

What transpired was a far different story. You see, the logging component of the Burned Area Recovery project was completed years ago, but the majority of the promised restoration work has either lagged far behind – as in the case with Rye Creek – or may never be completed, despite promises and rhetoric to the contrary. Unfortunately, this is a very common practice. Something we’ve seen happen time and again with the Forest Service’s use of “stewardship contracting.”

What makes the Bitterroot situation all the more frustrating is that back in 2002, when the settlement agreement was signed, the Bitterroot National Forest had in-hand the $25 million to complete all of the promised restoration work. It just wasn’t their priority.

Unfortunately, yet predictably, the Forest Service put all their time and energy into the logging part of the project. During that summer of 2002, when I took a USA Today reporter on a tour of the “recovery” plan his cover story pointed out what we had been warning about all along, “The work in the Bitterroot is also emblematic of the controversy dogging the fire plan. The logging here is 10 miles from the nearest community at risk from wildfire. And the burned trees being salvaged are the largest, most commercially valuable ones, not the smaller ones that would likely ignite most easily in another fire.”

A few weeks later, Forest Service brass in Washington DC, despite being party to the settlement agreement, decided to use the $25 million set aside for the promised Bitterroot restoration work to pay for the costs associated with fighting fires in Oregon, Colorado and Arizona. Conservation groups howled, but not a peep of protest was heard from the logging industry.

For those interested in a more detailed blow-by-blow of how this all went down, we put out press releases on the two year and three year anniversary of the settlement agreement.

Like I said, it’s great that the important restoration work up Rye Creek is moving forward. We’ve supported and fought for this work all along. It’s good for fish, workers and the entire watershed. However, I can’t help but see the irony that it’s taken over 7 years, and the near-complete collapse of the US economy, to finally get this work started. Talk about not taking “the path of least resistance!”

Posted in Forests, Green jobs, Restoration Economy | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Talking Sustainable Forestry at the Mill

Posted by Matthew Koehler on March 12, 2009

Last night I went over to Mark’s mill below the Scott St. Bridge in Missoula to drink some beers and talk sustainable forestry with Mark and another forester named Greg. No, not the type of “sustainable forestry” you hear our favorite logging lobbyist waxing not-so-poetically about during her monthly commentaries; but true, honest to God, ecologically-based, small-scale, locally-produced, locally-consumed Sustainable Forestry.

I’ve known Mark for years and consider him to easily be one of the best woods-workers I’ve ever met. We’ve worked together to successfully improve the Forest Service’s management of our public lands. We’ve worked together to reduce fuels around the homes of elderly and disadvantaged members of the DeBoriga community. And a few years prior to that Mark and I joined forces for an ecologically-based fuel reduction pilot project on the Lolo National Forest near Ovando (which, ironically, a few months later the Forest Service allowed Plum Creek to log right over!).

And when it was time for the wife and I to turn our small attic into a useable space, we turned to Mark for some beautiful blue-stained pine that was logged and milled a few miles from our house. Suffice to say, if every forester in Montana did things Mark’s way (and had his background as a soils scientist) our forests, wildlife and watersheds would be in much better shape.

The other forester, Greg, I’ve just recently met. A few weeks ago, Greg wrote a letter to the editor in the Missoula Indy. It was in response to a column I wrote about wildfires, elk and our successful efforts to save an old-growth forest from misguided “healthy forest” logging.

So, like I normally do, I called Greg up and we got together for some coffee. We’ve been exchanging ideas and info ever since. Greg’s current passion seems to be small-wood utilization and he’s got his eyes on a nifty portable sawmill with a laser guided jig that could turn very small trees (the type removed from legitimate fuel reduction work around homes) into impressive, strong and locally-produced truss logs. What Greg lacks is the $21,000 to purchase the portable sawmill. A modest amount to be certain, but currently out of his reach nonetheless.

Which brings us to another topic we discussed at the mill last night. Looks like the politically-connected big boys in the Montana timber industry will be getting a $10 million loan courtesy of US taxpayers via the stimulus bill. Apparently the loan will be for the big timber mills in the state to cover payroll and buy more logs. Buy more logs? Fact is, lumber demand is at an all time low and the number of US housing starts will fall dramatically again this year and any honest projections for 2010 and 2011 don’t look much better. At what point do we start to look at these facts squarely and make informed public policy?

Truth be told, the Montana timber industry actually requested a minimum taxpayer financed loan of $65 million. Think about it folks, if the Montana timber industry needs, at a minimum, a $65 million loan from taxpayers maybe the industry wasn’t very sustainable to begin with. Or maybe their business plans were flawed. And keep in mind that the Montana timber industry only produces 3% of the softwood lumber produced in the US. Therefore, how many billions of taxpayer dollars would be needed to bail out the entire US timber industry?

As I’ve been saying for quite some time now (cue the broken record) this economic crisis is rooted in over-consumption and over-development. Therefore, more of the same is not an option. We cannot, and should not, return to a situation where all the big timber mills are running full bore producing lumber and paper products that have no demand or, just as bad, go to building more 5000 square foot homes sprawled across the landscape or more throw-away products.

The economic crisis has proven that such a situation was woefully unsustainable. So much so that our entire economy is on the brink of collapse! Haven’t we all heard that the definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?

I predict this $10 million Revolving Loan Fund so the timber mills can cover payroll for a few months and buy more logs (even though there’s no demand for lumber) will have very little impact on anything, other than to just unwisely spend more taxpayer dollars. Too bad we couldn’t use the money to truly develop a more sustainable timber industry. Too bad a guy like Greg with a good idea and a passion for bona-fide Sustainable Forestry couldn’t get $21,000 for his portable sawmill and get a small crew together. I’d rather see 475 outfits like Greg out there than see $10 million dumped into a black hole.

The future must be clean, green and sustainable. There is no other option. The sooner the public and elected officials come to terms with this fact the better off we will all be in the future.

Posted in Forests, Green jobs, Restoration Economy, Sustainable Solutions | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »