Sunday, February 14, 2010
I’ve been holding off writing anything about Senator John Tester’s Forest Jobs bill for a while. I’ve talked to many people, both supporters of Tester’s bill and those who have many questions about its implications. As most people in Montana know, Senator Tester combined three different logging/wilderness proposals formulated by collaborative efforts affecting all or portions of the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest, Seeley Lake District of the Lolo National Forest, and Three Rivers Ranger District Kootenai National Forest into one bill that will designate wilderness areas. But the bill also mandates a minimum acreage for logging, new ORV and mountain bike trails, plus some other tax payer supported goodies like the specific subsidy of a biomass plant for Pyramid Lumber in Seeley Lake. He then added some twists of his own.
Unlike some of my friends and associates, I do believe there are some good things in Tester’s legislation and other things that I could live with if there were some modification of the bill’s language.
I get the sense that while the major themes of the bill are not going to be revised, the legislation is not set in stone, and some aspects could be modified.
In general, there are some who feel this bill should not pass because the bad provisions override the good. Others feel this is a train that has left the station, and the best that can be accomplished is to change or modify some of the worst language and terms. Still, those who want to keep this bill from passing might be prudent to at least point out the most troubling language and attempt to modify it in case their worse fears are realized. I wear a seat belt even though I try to drive so as to avoid accidents; likewise, critics might be wise to put together a solid critique of how the bill could be improved. And least we forget, the potential designation of 670,000 acres of new wilderness is nothing to sneer about.
Though some may disagree, I think Senator John Tester should be commended for trying to address some long-standing issues like wilderness designation. He could easily avoid controversy and take the path of least resistance by doing nothing about wilderness issues—as Senator Baucus has done for a long time now. So I commend the Senator for at least trying to get things moving and attempting to resolve long-standing issues like wilderness designation.
But like many others, I have a problem with how the contents of the bill were developed (with limited public input), as well as with the larger philosophical idea behind the bill that “locals” in Montana should have a greater say over management of national assets (like trees) than someone living in Florida or Wisconsin. I hope this collaborative quid pro quo approach does not become a model for future wilderness bills in Montana or anywhere else, though I have no problem with people trying to find common ground on things like wilderness designation if that can be achieved.
THE GOOD STUFF
Despite how it was created, there is some good aspects to this bill, not the least of which is the creation of more than 670,000 acres of new wilderness. Many of these areas—including the Italian Peaks, Lima Peaks, Snowcrest, East Pioneers, Centennial Mountains, Sapphires, and Roderick Mountain (Yaak)—contain some of the finest unprotected landscapes in Montana.
Based on the experience in other states, Congressional designation of wilderness areas today will likely lead to additional wilderness legislation down the road. I personally support the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Preservation Act (NREPA), which is far and away the best alternative for protecting Montana’s wildlands and wildlife. NREPA has been introduced into the House and each year inches closer to enactment. It’s possible that discussion of the Tester bill—whether it is enacted or not—can provide an opportunity for comparison between what NREPA could do compared to Tester’s proposal.
Another positive effect of this legislation—if enacted—is designation of wilderness areas including the Centennials, Lima Peaks, Italian Peaks and two small wilderness areas in the West Big Hole along the Continental Divide that will increase the likelihood that the adjacent Idaho roadless lands will also garner protection. (They definitely would if NREPA is passed).
One positive new twist of the Tester bill is that it also deals with BLM areas. Tester proposes wilderness protection for a number of BLM WSAs including the Centennial Mountains along the Continental Divide, a major corridor linkage between the Greater Yellowstone and other ecosystems to the west and north. Other BLM WSAs proposed for wilderness include the Blacktail Range, Ruby Range, Humbug Spires, and Farlin Creek.
Another positive aspect of the bill is that when any agency computes road density limits, it must include ORV trails as part of its total mileage. In some areas, there are actually more miles of ORV trails than logging roads, and this requirement could significantly reduce overall motorized mileage.
The bill also designates several hundred thousand acres of National Recreation Areas in the West Big Hole, West Pioneers, Northwest Peaks (Yaak), Thunderbolt near Helena and elsewhere. In some cases, there is a core “wilderness” component. For instance, in the West Big Hole, the Tester bill creates two small wilderness areas surrounded by the larger NRA and the same for the West Pioneers. The major reason for establishing NRA instead of wilderness in these areas is to permit snowmobiling, mountain biking, and ORV access.
While most of these areas are proposed for wilderness protection in NREPA, with the exception of the proposed 94,000 acres West Big Hole NRA, the other NRAs in Tester’s bill all specifically have language that bans logging. So if you add up both the proposed wilderness and NRAs with NRA logging bans together, you have nearly 900,000 acres off limits to logging. It must be noted that much of this acreage is high elevation forest and alpine terrain that would never be logged, but wilderness and NRA protection does preclude many other activities that can compromise wildland quality.
There are other parts of the bill that call for restoration of natural fire regimes, removal of roads and culverts, and so forth that will improve the ecological integrity of the areas affected. The bill’s language also directs the Forest Service to prioritize logging projects in areas where road densities exceed 1.5 mile of road per square mile of habitat, where habitat fragmentation is greatest, and so on. This directive, if followed, should focus logging in areas already degraded by past logging practices.
There is certainly more in the bill that one could highlight that are good provisions, but there are plenty of supporters doing exactly that now, including the Montana Wilderness Association, National Wildlife Federation and Trout Unlimited, as well as timber industry supporters. So I will mostly address the bill’s shortcomings and/or worrisome provisions.
Beyond the issue of how this bill was created, there are aspects of the bill that deserve additional scrutiny. I make no claims that I am expert on the bill, though I have read through in an attempt to understand it. I may be misinterpreting things or overlooking provisions that would mollify some of my concerns.
In the end the parts I have highlighted may not be the problem I envision, or they may be easily rectified by some modest changes in the bill’s language. Still I want to draw attention to some issues to make sure they are not overlooked. These are in no particular priority order.
One of the problems with the bill is that while it establishes new wilderness areas, it releases a lot of currently protected acreage to potential new development. For instance, the bill specifically releases 76,000 acres of BLM WSAs. WSAs are supposed to be managed to protect wildlands values, so their release means they could be logged or leased for oil and gas development. I’ve hiked some of these released areas like Hidden Pasture and Bell/Lime Kiln Canyon WSAs south of Dillon, and they are wonderful open, rolling grasslands with pockets of timber that are not common in our wilderness system. At the very least, I would prefer to see that all the BLM WSA not designated as wilderness remain as WSA instead of released for development.
In addition, the Tester bill releases a significant acreage of the S.393 areas legislated by Senator Lee Metcalf efforts. For instance, the West Pioneers Wilderness Study Area set aside by the 1977 legislation is one of the largest unprotected roadless areas in Montana. Yet the Tester bill only designates slightly less than 26,000 acres as wilderness. Much of the remainder of this area is a proposed 129,000 acre National Recreation Area that would exclude logging, but losing more than 129,000 of WSA is very significant. The reason given to me for NRA status, as opposed to wilderness designation, has been the gradual incursion of these lands by motorized usage. Nevertheless, there is no reason why ORV trails and routes can’t be closed and wilderness established in this area. Wilderness designation for the entire West Pioneers WSA would be a huge improvement.
It is also disappointing to see 94,000 acres of the West Big Hole designated as an NRA as well instead of wilderness. The area clearly qualifies for wilderness designation. My understanding is that the NRA status is a bone thrown to local ranchers who want to be able to cut trees for fence posts, as well as ORV interests.
I have the same disappointment over NRA status for wildlands in the Yaak. The Northwest Peaks NRA was created again as a concession primarily to snowmobilers. There is so little wilderness in the Yaak and what little unlogged country that remains should be given maximum protection afforded by wilderness.
How much logging and where it can occur will be greatly influenced by the interpretation of one clause in the bill. There is specific language that says that all landscape-scale restoration projects (i.e. logging) must be done “consistent with laws (including regulations) and forest plans and appropriate to the forest type.” Proponents tell me this means that laws like the Endangered Species Act remain in force.
However, others who have reviewed the same language aren’t so sure that language is sufficient to guarantee that all existing environmental laws like the ESA applies to the landscape restoration projects mandated by the Tester bill. This is a key element because if the specific mandate for logging a minimum of a hundred thousand acres can override things like the ESA or other regulations, there is potential for greater long-term harm to our wildlands and wildlife.
If there is room for different interpretations, it is critical to get specific language in the bill that leaves no doubt about the application of the ESA, roadless rule, and so on to the forest lands covered in the Tester bill.
Another part of Tester’s bill bans the construction of any permanent roads in project areas, and requires that all “access roads” (logging roads) be reclaimed in five years and specifically requires restoration of road prism and removal of road crossings like culverts. This is a very good provision—if you are going to have logging at all and I applaud the proponents of the bill for putting in such specific language about road removal standards.
However, the language does allow for roads to be converted into ORV trails. So there is the potential for creation of miles of new ORV trails that would greatly reduce any positive effect from road closure (though road density limits will temper the total mileage allowed to a degree).
One serious and worrisome language is about consultation. The bill says that any dispute and/or appeal be resolved in the project area. This, if I read it correctly, could means that someone protesting a timber sale from eastern Montana might have to travel to the Yaak to settle a dispute, a cumbersome burden on appellants, not to mention someone living across the country. This could thwart public participation in forest management.
Moreover the language says that the parities who were involved in crafting the original proposals—meaning the timber companies and other--can provide input to the Forest Service, but does not guarantee similar input access from other members of the public. Again giving greater control and influence to local interests over the general public.
Another problem is the language for restoration on the BDNF. While any receipts from timber projects in the Blackfoot and Three Rivers areas must be used in that local area, receipts from the BDNF could be used anyplace in the country. This is a serious potential problem because the Forest Service might be tempted to expand logging on the BDNF to pay for improvements on other forests.
Furthermore, the money from these stewardship contracts can be used for things like putting in new toilets in campgrounds and picnic tables, as well as commercial timber harvesting, instead of removing logging roads and culverts as commonly portrayed by proponents. This is not to say that all funds will be used in this way, but the language does permit funds to be used in this manner. Given that closing roads is far more controversial, than say building some toilets or picnic tables in a campground, some district rangers might be tempted to use funds for such non-ecological “restoration” work.
The bill also authorizes a MINIMUM of 7,000 a year must be “mechanically treated” (euphemism for logging) and a MINIMUM of 3,000 acres a year on the Three Rivers Ranger District in the Yaak. Thankfully there is no acreage requirement for the Seeley Lake District on the Lolo NF. That suggests to me there is no upper limit on logging that could occur as now written. Though proponents assure me that it’s unlikely the Forest Service will offer more acres for logging, one can’t predict the future. A huge new housing boom or a decrease in Canadian lumber might prove sufficient motivation for additional logging.
An additional troubling clause says the authorization for the legislation terminates in either 15 years from enactment OR when 70,000 acres of land on the BDNF has been mechanically treated. The same clause applies to the 30,000 acres in the Yaak. This suggests that there is no real time limit on logging. If timber prices remain low for a decade, logging companies may wish to delay logging for years until prices improve.
And while the legislation mandates a specific amount of logging, there is no similar mandate for restoration. If the past is any indication, logging will occur, but much of the restoration will be not take place. This is particularly true for the BDNF. The BDNF is one of the least productive forests in Montana, and has consistently lost money on its timber program. How timber sales on the BDNF will generate enough money to pay for both the administrative costs as well as restoration efforts is not clear.
A minor issue is a provision specific to the proposed Snowcrest Wilderness that says that ranchers can use motorized access to preserve “historic access” ranching activities. I presume cowboys no longer ride horses, so must now be able to ride ATVs or pickups.
While the bill authorizes wilderness protection for a Quigg Peak and Sapphires, it only addresses lands on the BDNF portion of these roadless areas. It would seem to make sense to designate wilderness for the entire roadless portion of these areas now, irrespective of national forest administrative boundaries.
With regards to motorized use, the bill specifically directs the Forest Service to create new trails, particularly loop trails. How much this will expand motorized use in these areas is difficult to predict, but almost for sure, we will see more officially sanctioned ORV use. There is, however, specific language that limits ORV use in National Recreation Areas to designated trails and routes. And unlike language in the Boulder White Cloud proposed wilderness legislation for Idaho which forbids closure of routes without providing a similar mileage elsewhere, the bill specifically allows the Sec of Agriculture (i.e. the Forest Service) to close any motorized trail or route for resource protection or other reasons.
UNCHARACTERISTIC FIRE AND INSECT INFECTATIONS?
Another big problem I have with the bill’s language is that it suggests that most of the forests in the northern Rockies are ecologically degraded. Tester’s bill says that logging should be done to reduce “uncharacteristic wildland fire and insect infestations.” For the most part, except for areas that have been previously logged, I do not believe that the bulk of the forests in any of the forests addressed in this bill are seriously out of whack.
Some 99% of the BDNF, for instance, consists of higher elevation forests of lodgepole pine and other forest types that have not been significantly compromised by fire suppression. Lodgepole pine forests naturally burn at long intervals and often in intense large fires and/or are periodically attacked by bark beetles. Similarly much of the Yaak drainage on the Kootenai NF and the Seeley Lake District of the Lolo National Forest consists of lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, western larch and even western red cedar forests—all of which are not seriously affected by fire suppression.
Plus large fires and beetle outbreaks are critical to the long-term health of these forest ecosystems. They are adapted and depended upon periodic large infusions of dead wood. So I have serious reservations about the ecological assumptions and justifications guiding these projects. In other words, how can you “restore” something that is not seriously degraded? Thus the entire ecological justification for active management in these forests is suspect.
Another part of the Tester bill that I have a philosophical problem with is the direct subsidy of private companies. For instance, the public subsidy of a biomass burner for the Pyramid Lumber Company in Seeley Lake is one example. The justification for this biomass burner is partially due to the previous assumptions—that somehow the Pyramid Lumber Company will be doing us a favor by cutting all those trees that they suggest have grown due to fire suppression. But as I have previously suggested, most of the forests in the Seeley Lake area are likely not out of whack. But even if they were, setting a demand for biomass is risky and can lead to additional demands for logging well above the levels envisioned by proponents.We would be better off spending that money—if taxpayer money be spent-on closing roads and other actions that improves the forest ecosystem.
WHY DO TIMBER COMPANIES SUPPORT THIS BILL?
I have often wondered why the timber companies involved in these collaborative efforts are supporting the Tester bill. After all these timber companies are not necessarily wilderness advocates. There are several reasons why they support the Tester bill. One is the fact that most of the areas proposed for wilderness designation are not available for logging anyway--they are on lands too steep, there is not enough timber to warrant construction of logging roads, or they are off limits to protect wildlife, and so forth. So support of wilderness is no skin off their backs.
But there are other less obvious reasons why they support the Tester bill. The old saying, follow the money applies here. Not only are there direct subsidies to private business like the biomass burner for Pyramid Lumber, but passage of the Tester bill will create a strategic economic benefit to the participating companies.
One is that stewardship contracts as provided in the bill are typically not sought out by larger timber companies like Plum Creek. This means there is less competition for access to public timber and potentially even a reduction in price for trees cut under stewardship provisions.
Since the bill specifically calls for more logging of public trees within the sphere of only a few specific mills, it is not unlike a grazing allotment for ranchers who have a guaranteed supply of public grass for their livestock. It gives these mills a competitive advantage in the market place.
Guaranteed access to federal trees not only increases the value of these mills if the owners were interested in selling them (just as a ranch is worth more with a federal grazing permit), but it also means these companies can more easily borrow money from banks.
ADDITIONAL WILDERNESS THAT COULD BE ADDED
Senator John Tester is going to take some heat from all corners no matter how much wilderness he includes in his bill. As long as he is modifying some of the proposals, he might as well add in some additional areas with strong local support such as wilderness designation for the proposed Great Burn west of Missoula, the Rocky Mountain Front by Choteau, and the Scotchman’s Peak proposed wilderness near Trout Creek. Depending on the exact specifics of a wilderness proposal, none of these areas are likely to generate any more political heat than what is out there now.
There are good things in Senator Tester’s bill worthy of support. But there is much that needs to be altered or at least modified to improve this legislation by the bill’s supporters as well as critics alike if indeed this bill moves forward.
In my younger days I worked for the BLM in Boise, Idaho. A new range con, named Daryl, came to the district. On Friday after work, we invited Daryl to a party so he could meet some of the local folks. I was talking to a couple of women when Daryl ambled up to us with a beer in his hand and big smile on his face. I introduced him and he started talking to the ladies.
I think on the whole he was making a good impression. Dressed in his cowboy boots and jeans, Daryl made a striking figure. After making some small talk for a while, Daryl made his move. He asked them if they wanted to go gopher shooting on Saturday. “Gopher shooting” they asked incredulously? “Yeah, he said, “gopher hunting—you know blowing away gophers.” They looked stunned and remained silent. So Daryl tried to recover and said, “The fun part is seeing the red mist rise in the air when you hit one. It’s an incredible rush,” he said with obvious enthusiasm.
Those women just looked at each other like they couldn’t believe what they were hearing. He might as well ask them if they wanted to go the park and molest children. The women fled. Daryl was left baffled and standing alone. He just couldn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to go blow away gophers, especially when he offered to bring a spare rifle so they could join in the fun.
Poor Daryl had grown up on a farm in North Dakota, and more recently had worked in Burns Oregon. In his world, shooting gophers was considered a legitimate recreational pastime. But what passes for fun in rural America seems like senseless killing to most urban dwellers.
Sometimes I think most hunters in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are as clueless as Daryl. They can’t seem to comprehend how killing wolves baffles, if not outright infuriates, a lot of people. Wolf killing gives fodder to those who want to stop all hunting. Sometimes when I see these rural rubes, strutting around celebrating the initiation of a wolf hunting season and talking about how it’s an “adrenaline rush” to shoot one, I have to wonder if they are brain dead or just incredibly naïve and ignorant about the rest of mainstream society’s values? They apparently cannot imagine how much some forms of hunting, including the shooting of an icon like the wolf, turns off the rest of society to hunting.
Most people don’t hunt, so the perception of hunting and hunters is key to how society will tolerate and support hunting as a legitimate activity. Yet most hunters seem to take the knee jerk attitude that anyone who objects to any form of hunting or kind of hunting, no matter how barbaric, is either a member of PETA, or just doesn’t “understand” Nature. The truth is that many of those objecting to wolf hunting are neither ignorant of ecology nor members of PETA or any other animal rights organization.
Americans are willing to accept some forms of hunting, typically if the animal is used for food and/or if there is a legitimate safety issue—say animals carry rabies. But they don’t support outright slaughter of animals for no reason other than someone thinks killing is fun or a challenge. I and many of my friends hunt—but we all eat the animals we kill, and we don’t kill animals unnecessarily or with malice against them.
Furthermore, many Americans, including myself, consider spotting a wolf in the wild as a cherished event. Despite the claims by some hunters that there are “too many” wolves in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, the chance of seeing one of these animals in the wild is extremely rare. There are less than 2000 wolves spread over three of the largest western states. Imagine if there were only 2000 deer spread over all three states—would hunters think there were “too many?”
Plus, for many Americans, wolves are symbolic of a largely lost heritage of the wild, unfettered nature. And for some, such as myself, wolf restoration represents the best of American values—acknowledging the great ecological wrong we imposed upon the land when we extirpated wolves, and an attempt to heal the ecological wounds we created. So the idea that any state would implement a policy to restrict or reduce wolves is something to strongly oppose.
As the ecologist Aldo Leopold noted years ago, wolves also play an important biological role as a top down predator that has many ecological ramifications across the landscape. Unfortunately most hunters have not yet developed the ability to “think like a mountain” as Leopold admonished.
We do know that wolves select different animals in the herd from hunters. Wolves, while opportunistic, still tend to kill the young, old, and injured. They can keep herd animals free from disease and can sometimes have significant influence upon other animals and plants. For example, it’s theorized that hey alter habitat use by ungulates, for instance, moving elk out of riparian areas. Even when wolves severely reduce prey numbers, they are performing an important ecological function by providing plant communities respite from heavy browsing pressure.
Hunters by contrast, tend to kill the productive age healthy animals, and have less ecological influence upon prey species and habitat use than native predators.
Of course, some hunters rationalize killing wolves because they suggest the animals “need” to be managed. I hear that all the time, as if somehow the natural world had gone to hell in a hand-basket before Euro Americans arrived just in the nick of time to rescue Nature from imminent collapse. Of course, the “need” to manage wolves is both a self-created and self-justifying excuse to kill animals that most hunters wish would just go away or at least believe should be kept at much lower numbers.
All this talk about the so called “need” to manage wolves is disingenuous at best. Any good ecologist will tell you that wolves and other predators do not need to be “managed” since they are more or less self-regulating by prey availability and social interactions. The only reason one has to “manage” wolves is because state wildlife agencies want to sell more hunting licenses. (There may be rare instances where lethal action is necessary where an animal may have become habituated to people and poses a safety concern, but that is entirely different than “sport hunting”.)
I doubt most agencies care about predator social interactions. They treat wolves and other predators like cogs in a wheel—interchangeable parts. Shoot some wolves. Not to worry, more will be born. But the interactions between wolves, prey, and humans are not so simple. Animals have real social lives that influence many aspects of their behavior.
Indiscriminate hunting, by disrupting these social relationships, can exacerbate the conflicts between wolves and humans. Killing a large percentage of wolves in any area creates many of the so called “problems” that hunting is supposed to reduce. Indiscriminate hunting and reduction of wolves (as opposed to the surgical elimination of a particular animal or group) skews the local population towards younger animals which are less skilled hunters, thus more likely to attack easy prey like livestock.
Also with more young animals breeding, that produce more pups, you actually increase the total biomass requirements of packs so that even if they don’t prey on livestock, wolves are likely to need more prey—i.e. those elk, deer, and moose that hunters covet. Nothing will do more to create animosity and conflict towards predators than hunting. But you won’t hear this from any state wildlife agency since it’s not in their interest to worry about social interactions of animals.
Yet if you read hunting magazines and/or listen to hunters discussing the future of their favorite activity, you find a common theme is that predators are destroying game herds, and the “antis” are out to take away their guns. The “antis” are, of course, anyone else who doesn’t hunt. Most hunters spend more time complaining about the “antis” than doing anything meaningful to protect the habitat that is central to all hunting.
The real threat to hunting doesn’t come from PETA or any other animal rights group, but from the habitat loss resulting from oil drilling, logging, livestock grazing, ATVs, sprawl, and all the rest of the development and degradation of natural landscapes that continues unabated daily. Some hunters and some pro hunting organizations like the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, among others recognize this, and certainly most agency biologists are well aware of this threat, but the average hunter seems less interested in protesting against oil wells, expanding ATV use, and/or sprawl than complaining about the antis.
If hunters want to help realize their worst fears—that is fuel opposition to hunting by society--they could find no better way to do this than continue blowing away wolves. But if Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho want to signal to the world that they have entered the 21st Century and no longer hold archaic and outdated ideas about predators, they can begin to value wolves as essential for ecological diversity, as well as their role in the American imagination as symbols of what we are doing right to heal the ecological wounds we created. The way to do this is to stop the hunting of all predators starting with wolves.
Commentary on William Cronon’s “The Trouble With Wilderness” essay
A few years ago I heard Bill Cronon speak in Bozeman, Montana. His talk focused on the old controversy between Muir and Pinchot and the construction of Hetch Hetchy dam in Yosemite National Park. I must confess I was bit disappointed in his talk. For a historian, he actually seemed to be ignorant of history. He didn’t seem to appreciate or mention the historical “context” in which the debate had been played out.
However, I chalked it up to the fact that he only had an hour to lay out the arguments. As someone who often gives abbreviated discussions of complex issues myself, I figured he just left much unsaid for the sake of brevity. But after reading his essay, The Trouble With Wilderness in the book he edited Uncommon Ground, I can see that Cronon is historically ignorant--a pretty tough accusation to make about a historian.
It is difficult for me to believe Cronon read the original source materials. I suspect he had graduate students do much of the original research and relied too heavily on their interpretations (a rather common method of producing published literature by many in academia). Rather than reviewing the entire body of literature, Cronon “skimmed” the source material. As a result, his historical analysis lacks contextual relevance. I will deal more on this later.
I also get the feeling that Cronon as well as the other post modern critics have only recently gotten interested in environmental issues, so there’s a profound ignorance of the internal debates, political considerations, and historical context to their interpretation of the events and issues.
For example, Cronon cites the Endangered Species Act and suggests that trying to protect landscapes on the backs of one or two endangered species is a “poor strategy” and is not a “holistic” approach to species preservation. But if he had a historical understanding of the ESA debate and how the legislation came about he would realize that environmentalists have always argued that one must protect habitat and ecosystems, and even ecological processes, not just individual species. Enlightened conservationists have always argued in one form or another for protection of ecosystems and ecological processes, not just individual species. We need to preserve the elk herd and the wolf together, for one without the other is no longer meaningful ecologically. Cronon appears to ignore this contextual perspective in his essay. The focus on single species as exemplified in the current Endangered Species legislation was all that environmentalists were able to successfully legislate, it is not what environmentalists wanted.
Furthermore he uses the tire critique about how places like Yellowstone, Mount Rainier, etc. are parks that though awe-inspiring, were set aside for “shallow” scenic purposes. Cronon complains that conservationists ignored less scenic, but biologically important areas. His evidence for his assertion? Well he observes there are no grassland parks. No deserts--at least not at first--etc. and concludes this is because environmentalists didn’t have a clue about biology or anything other than wanting to preserve nice places to vacation and recreate.
But if Cronon had done his homework, he would have discovered that many areas besides highly scenic landscapes were repeatedly identified as worthy of protection. The problem has been, and still is, that those in power have not permitted these kinds of places to gain protection. The preponderance of glaciated peaks in our early Park system was a consequence of political realities. Our parks and wildernesses were mountaintops, because that was the only places left undeveloped, and without powerful economic foes interested in keeping the land open for exploitation. It was the only thing that had “no use”. And “no use” was often the major reason for designation--and indeed the only argument that had any weight with Congress.
Even though early conservationists like John Muir wrote about sublime scenery to attract political support, he didn’t believe scenery was the only, or even the major justification for protecting landscapes. But from a historical context, it was the only argument he could use that had any merit--not because Muir and other conservationists were shallow thinkers--but because the people they had to deal with were.
Just as today many biologists use the argument that we must preserve such things as rainforests because there may be “drugs” found there we could use. While most biologists would not argue against the validity of such a rationale, it isn’t the only reason they would preserve rainforests. A deeper reading of the biological literature would demonstrate this, but if you look at only the superficial literature or perhaps even the reasons given by politicians when such areas are protected or preserved, you might get the impression that only forests with potentially valuable drugs were worth protecting.
There have always been more visionary proposals. When Muir first lobbied for protecting Yosemite, he wanted to see the entire Sierra Nevada from the foothills to the alpine from Yosemite south to Walker Pass all protected as a national park, not just the Yosemite Valley or even a part of Yosemite. He was thinking about landscape-wide protection, not just one scenic valley.
And Bob Marshall suggested in the 1930s that everything north of the Yukon River in Alaska be set aside as one grand park. Much of that landscape is flat, wet, mosquito ridden tundra--not exactly your dream “majestic landscape”, but again Marshall was thinking beyond just preservation of scenic splendor. Again Marshall had a visionary perspective.
And there have always been advocates for protection of the “ordinary” landscapes. Even the Great Plains had its supporters from very early on. In the 1830s Artist George Catlin argued that the entire northern Great Plains be preserved as a national park. And later, in the 1890s John Wesley Powell made a similar call to protect the northern Plains as a park.
And within ten years of Yellowstone’s establishment people were calling for a much larger park to protect ecological values. In 1883 General Phil Sheridan suggested expansion of Yellowstone to the east to protect the entire migration corridor and winter range of elk herds in the park. Sheridan was already advocating a “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem” approach even though he didn’t call it by such a politically correct title.
Even eastern deciduous forests were not ignored. In 1900 there was a proposal to make a 2 million acre park in the Maine Woods that didn’t go anywhere. There was a call to protect the entire northeast corner of California as a Mt Shasta--Volcanic Tablelands park back in the 1930s, but it, like so many other proposals, was opposed by local interests and exploitive interests.
I could go on and on, but the point is that there is a long history of people advocating parks and protection for large landscapes, and even areas we traditionally do not consider majestic. But these proposals have continuously been opposed by development interests and rural residents. It’s not that conservationists haven’t argued for these proposals, it’s that society, and particularly the politicians that control Congress were unwilling to provide protection for any lands that had some other perceived productive use.
Cronon also argues that the idea of wilderness is a creation of civilization as if that makes it unnecessary. Indeed, I would agree that without civilization as a contrast, few would perceive a need for wildlands protection. Just as speed limits are a creation of the automobile--when we rode horses we didn’t need speed limits. Does that make speed limits somehow unnecessary?
The wilderness movement was created to counter the very real spread of industrialization and agriculture across the face of the earth. Cronon thinks he is making a profound observation when he notes that 250 years ago you didn’t find people wandering looking for wilderness on all parts of the globe. That’s in part, because wilderness was in fact in almost everyone’s backyard. The idea of wilderness is very much a product of its opposition--as wilderness advocates have noted for decades--see Aldo Leopold for instance.
But it is also a movement of humility. It is based upon a profound respect for all life--not just human life--and empowerment of other life forms. The problem with Cronon’s notions is that he displays a profound arrogance of humanism.
He brings up the issue of Hetch Hetchy--again without understanding or acknowledging the finer points of the debate. While Muir opposed construction of a dam in Hetch Hetchy Canyon, he was not against providing a reservoir to meet San Francisco’s water supply needs. He simply argued there were other sites to build a reservoir. He was saying Hetch Hetchy was a superb place that should not be destroyed to create a ordinary reservoir. There is no other valley in the entire Sierra that rivals Hetch Hetchy and the Yosemite Valley for dramatic effect. Yes, in this case Muir was basing his concern in part upon aesthetics--but what is wrong with aesthetics? What Muir was arguing is that it is a crime to destroy something unique for something that could provided elsewhere with less impacts. Is there really anything wrong with that?
He was also fighting the idea that parks could be developed. This may have been even more important. If parks were not off limits to commercial development than no place would be. And Muir understood that if Hetch Hetchy could be justified in a national park, than no national park was safe from exploitation and development. You have to frame the debate in that broader context to understand why Muir put forth so much effort opposing the reservoir.
Muir’s wanted to protect a humility before the land that at their best parks, wilderness, and other land preservation efforts represent. It’s a recognition that if we must develop the landscape, let’s do so with the least impacts. If we have made a “compact” with the land, let’s honor it. What is wrong with that?
That is, in effect, what sustainable development is about that Cronon at the end of his essay says we need. Just as Muir argued that it was a crime to dynamite 3,000 year old sequoia to make fence lathes--a practice that was common in his day--when there were other sources of fencing material that didn’t require destroying 3,000 year old trees, he was arguing that there were other ways to supply San Francisco with water than damming a river in one of the most spectacular valleys in the Sierra and in a national park to boot.
Beyond that, Cronon doesn’t put Pinchot’s view within an honest historical perspective either. The reason Pinchot supported the damming of Hetchy is because he was very supportive of public works as a means of undermining the privatization of resources. Pinchot would be viewed as a radical today. He advocated the public acquisition of all forest lands in the nation, including all the private lands, because he felt private markets couldn’t protect public needs. The reason he supported the dam at Hetch Hetchy was that a private water company controlled San Francisco’s water supply at the time. He wanted San Francisco to publicly control its water as a matter of public policy. The Hetch Hetchy dam site would do that. The other dam proposals that had been considered would all be under private control--something he wanted to avoid. When you view the Hetch Hetchy debate from this perspective, you see that neither Pinchot or Muir were bad people with malicious intent.
Cronon displays his historical ignorance in another part of essay. It shows that he sits indoors too much, and doesn’t spend enough time out in the landscape he purports to be an expert on. He discusses Thoreau’s account of climbing Katahdin. The climb was difficult and Thoreau left little doubt of that fact in his essays. Cronon suggests this demonstrates that Thoreau didn’t really “like” truly wild landscapes.
But again Cronon fails to put things in perspective. Few people are at home on alpine mountains in a fog and mist. It’s not easy to claw your way up a steep mountainside through thickets of balsam fir without the benefit of a trail. That’s what Thoreau had to do. It wasn’t a fun task. Thoreau was one of the first European to attempt a climb of Katahdin. There were no trails to the top. Not even Indian trails. No one climbed up Katahdin. There were not even many game trails. In other words it wasn’t easy to get to the place he was describing. He had to canoe three weeks to get to the base of the mountain. Then he had to haul himself up through downfall and debris along an old avalanche shoot. Plus the weather was miserable--with clouds, fog, and rain part of the time. When Cronon suggests that the way Thoreau described Katahdin is surely not the way a modern backpacker or nature lover would describe because of our romantic notions of wilderness, he is deluding himself. The modern backpacker isn’t experiencing the same mountain as Thoreau. They are not pulling themselves up through an avalanche slide through the balsam fir thickets without a trail. And having had to haul myself up many of Alaska’ trail-less mountains through alder and devil’s club in pouring rain, I can attest that even a “modern” backpacker can complain about such obstacles—all the while loving the idea and very real existence of wilderness.
Even if Cronon is correct in his assertion that people’s view of wilderness is skewed by our ability to experience it in relative comfort doesn’t mean people don’t support the concept of wildlands preservation. Again most dedicated conservationists aren’t working to protect land so they can have a place to backpack and hike. They are trying to protect the land as a place for other non-human creatures to live, and perhaps on within a larger philosophical context of self imposed limitations.
Later Cronon talks about the frontier. He suggests that conservationists view wilderness as a place to maintain the “frontier” ethic. I would suggest wilderness preservation is actually in opposition to the values that is engendered by the “frontier”. Although no one would deny that a value of wilderness is self reliance, and self responsibility, that is about the only place where the frontier values of “taming” nature overlaps slightly with what most wilderness supporters see as valuable in wild country. What wilderness is about is exploring one’s own mind and body and seeking to control it--much as in Buddhist traditions--not in controlling the land or nature as is best exemplified by the frontier ethic.
I would suggest that protection of wilderness isn’t about preserving America’s sacred myth, but is in opposition to it. America’s myth and the one exemplified by the Virginian is control of nature. Not so much the control of the person--although there is some overlap. It is about humans shaping nature to human desires. The frontier ethic is about colonialism. Cronon mixes the two ideas inappropriately.
Cronon suggests that our national parks were part of the colonial expansion--a way to move Indians off the land so it could be appropriated for vacation sites for wealthy people in the East. It was the frontier ethic--the control of nature that moved the Indian out of the way. Most parks in the U.S. were not created on the backs of the Indians. The Indians were already gone--due to the very process that supporters of parks and wilderness were attempting to hold at bay--the rapid exploitation and domination of every last acre of land.
Cronon then chastises the Park Service for being insensitive to this colonialism and suggests it is still on-going by referring to Park Service attempts to halt hunting by the Blackfeet Indians within Glacier Park. What Cronon ignores is the park service’s commitment to the non-human element. Glacier National Park is supposed to be a sanctuary for wildlife. Whether the Blackfeet hunted there in the past or not is not reverent today anymore than it would be relevant to allow market hunters or beaver trappers to enter the park because they also operated in that area prior to park establishment.
Unrestricted hunting, aided by modern weapons and transportation has been so successful that there is almost no game left on the Blackfeet Reservation, and even on the eastern side of Glacier National Park (although recently the tribe adopted the western view of game laws there is now a growing but small herds of elk and deer). A modern hunter--whether he is Indian, white, Mexican or whatever, is different than people living under primitive conditions, with primitive weapons, with disease, starvation, and other mortality maintaining low populations. The reality of today is that people--any people--cannot expect to practice 18th century lifestyles with 20th century weapons and technology, without also accepting 20th century controls on behavior such as game laws, and other restrictions. The issue over “traditional” use is stretched thin by individuals who ignore “traditional” technologies such as hand making bows, arrows, and other weapons, but demand “traditional” unrestricted access and hunting privileges.
Cronon goes on to suggest that wilderness leaves no place for human beings. Give me a break. Human beings already control most of the earth and have modified nearly every acre to some degree. Is wilderness protection and designation really a problem? Come on. Only 4% of the U.S. is designated as wilderness, parks, etc. Is he threatened by this amount? Even if we could protect 50% of the land in the country as some conservationists’ dream of doing, humans would still no doubt occupy the 50% most productive and desirable acres. Humans aren’t ever going to be displaced by conservation efforts, and he is disingenuous to even suggest this is the case.
I agree that we must see our homes as important as well, and not divorces ourselves from our immediate surroundings. Our cities need to be made more livable. But he should be honest. It isn’t environmentalists that are causing the problem, nor working against solving this issue. I don’t know any environmentalists who believe polluted water or air is acceptable as long as it is kept out of wildlands preserves. And it is not them who are advocating toxic dumps in poor neighborhoods. Cronon miscasts the blame for these conditions on environmentalists and ignores those most directly responsible for these decisions.
Wilderness advocates aren’t “fleeing” into the wilderness as Cronon suggests in his last lines. Most of them don’t get to the wilderness near enough because they have to spend far too much time debating with people like Cronon—who should know better than to focus on environmentalists while the developers, corporations and others continue to strip the Earth both of wilderness and human rights.
And I don’t think there are many who don’t recognize that some destruction of natural systems is necessary if we are to live. A farm field is a simplified ecosystem. It is not a self perpetuating landscape. It requires energy inputs and human care. But that doesn’t mean every last acre of the Earth should and must come under human control and manipulation. Wilderness is a place where human input isn’t needed, and indeed operates best without most human interference. We are talking about scale. How anyone can argue that with 5 billion people on the planet can exist without setting aside some areas from human exploitation is absurd. It suggests that humans “know” how to care for the Earth; that they have some knowledge about what is sustainable. I see no evidence to suggest that we do, and any humble and responsible person would suggest that it is entirely reasonable to place some areas of the earth off limits to human exploitation.
I recently spent some time roaming around Beaverhead County south of Butte. Everywhere I went on public lands I saw cattle wandering loose without any human supervision. These cows are nothing more than four-legged picnic baskets to predators like wolves.
While I appreciate the generosity of local ranchers in their efforts to maintain fat and healthy wolf packs, I cannot condone such practices. It leads, after all, to lazy wolves. Why would a wolf spend its energy trying to pull down a sleek, fast elk, when it can far more easily secure a nice slow, fat, cow?
I am against all welfare. Look what it has done to people. We all know that welfare just promotes a lifestyle that leads to moral decay of people. People on welfare just sit around watching TV and eating lousy food, and making babies. We don’t need couch-potato wolf packs.
Plus just like all the junk food snacks eaten by welfare moms and their kids, eating fatty- artery clogging, hormone- doped up cattle is not really a healthy diet for wolves either. I am concerned that our wolves are not getting a balanced and healthy diet when they spend their time munching on cows.
It’s just irresponsible and reprehensible for ranchers to be leaving their cattle all over the land so they are easily caught by wild predators. Keep in mind that what made America great is its work ethic. Welfare for Wolves is not the answer. It’s time to remove all these four -legged picnic baskets from the public lands and make wolves earn a real living. Just as in national parks if you leave a picnic basket out for a bear to grab, you will get a fine. We should be doing the same to ranchers who are promoting unnatural food addictions through their husbandry practices.
Economic and Economic Realities
Today in Washington DC, the Senate is holding hearings on John Tester’s Forest Jobs and Wilderness bill. One of the goals of the bill is to prop up a flagging timber industry by mandating timber targets on several national forests, including the Beaverhead Deerlodge National as well as the Kootenai National Forest in northwest Montana. But will timber targets help a dying industry?
The recent closure of the Smurfit-Stone Mill in Missoula signals yet another nail in the coffin for Montana’s timber industry. Yet far too many people in Montana want to live in denial, including Senator Tester, who asserts this closure is just a momentary result of the current economic recession—and that once the economy recovers (which is another questionable assumption)--housing demand will kick start the timber industry.
What people in Montana do not accept is that the Montana timber industry is terminally ill, as are other marginal timber-producing regions from the Rockies to Maine, and it’s not coming back. The industry only existed because it could exploit the virgin forests with its large trees, as well as government tax breaks and subsidies that gave them just enough financial edge that could justify continued operations in the state. Now that the easily accessible and most valuable trees are gone, even the biggest subsidies and tax breaks do not justify continued operations.
What Tester and other proponents of the present bill appear unwilling to accept is that the timber industry in Montana has been in a significant decline for a long time for geographic/economic reasons that go well beyond the current recession. Even during the heydays of the housing boom, mills were closing in the state.
The enduring reality is that all things considered, Montana is not a good place to grow trees for wood production. Compared to other timber producing regions, Montana’s forests are not very productive.
The industry has largely “mined” the big older trees that once were found near mills. What are left are the smaller, slower-growing trees at higher elevations at longer distances from mills or the small regrowth on previously cut lands found at lower elevations. You can grow a 10 inch tree in Georgia in ten years, while on Montana’s dry, cold Beaverhead Deerlodge NF even on the most productive sites, it might take 50-60 years to grow a similar-size tree. You might have slightly better growing sites on the moister Kootenai National Forest, but most sites, particularly the ones that are being logged today can’t compare in productivity to the coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest or the Southern/Eastern states.
Timber companies are realists. They have to produce a profit for their stock holders. If you are a timber company waiting decades to cut your chief resource—namely trees—this long time between cuttings leaves the trees exposed to beetles, disease, fire, and any number of other natural factors that can reduce or eliminate your chief source material. With global warming likely to stress forests further, these factors are even more likely to impinge upon your profits. It’s a gamble that industry increasingly does not want to take.
But the long term decline of Montana’s timber industry goes beyond just the slow growth rates of the state’s trees. Montana forest products industry is at a competitive disadvantage in other ways as well. Because much of the lower elevation forests close to mills were logged off long ago, timber companies are increasingly obtaining their trees from higher elevations at greater distance from mills. Long transport of logs, particularly with rising fuels costs, adds to the overall costs of production. Furthermore, other wood-producing regions of the country are closer to the ultimate market where tree products will be sold, adding yet another layer to the cost, namely the transport of the final product—whether paper and/or wood to the consumer.
On top of that Montana’s rugged terrain and climate is yet another additive disincentive to the industry. It costs a lot more to build and maintain roads in the mountains than on flat terrain such as the coastal plain of the Southeast or even in the coastal hills of Washington and Oregon where logging is possible year round. And there are other resources that are jeopardized by timber harvest in Montana, including endangered fish and wildlife that don’t exist and/or are less vulnerable to logging effects in other timber producing regions like the eastern United States.
In addition to these factors, technology has stolen a lot of jobs. Where once it required a dozen workers to cut and pile logs in the woods, a few workers can now do the same work. If you are a stock holder and/or a company executive and are thinking of reinvesting or purchasing new equipment for your mill are you going to reinvest in a marginal timber producing area or would you build that new mill someplace where trees grow rapidly and can be cut with fewer costs?
Unlike most Montanans and many politicians, timber company executives and their stock holders are more rational. They tend to move where operating costs are lower—and that isn’t Montana. Even with tax breaks, government subsidies, and a host of other goodies, Montana forests simply can’t produce wood at the same rate as trees growing in moister, warmer climates.
Counting on the sale of trees to fund restoration projects as Senator Tester and his bills supporters hope is optimistic at best. The trees will be cut, but the funds likely will not materialize to repair the damage wrought by present and past logging.
All of these reasons suggest that Montana’s timber industry is unlikely to see a resurrection once, and if, the economy recovers. Sure there will always be some local need for wood, but even meeting local demand might be accomplished at less economic and environmental costs if trees are cut in a place where the terrain is flatter, the growing season longer and other factors more favorable to wood production. Shipping the limited amount of wood used by Montanans on a rail car might be less damaging to the environment and less costly to a timber company than building logging roads on steep hillsides and cutting slow-growing trees in grizzly or bull trout habitat.
What Montana National Forests do best is grow bull trout, westslope cutthroat trout, grizzly bears, elk, bighorn sheep, and other wildlife that are increasingly jeopardized and degraded by logging operations. Furthermore, these forests possess some of the best scenery and remaining wildlands left in the United States. Why are we compromising those nationally significant resources to produce something—namely trees—that can be grown elsewhere at less environmental and economic cost? You grow a ten inch tree and cut it on flat terrain operating year round in Georgia or Texas, but you can’t grow bull trout there. You can’t grow grizzlies there. You won’t find outstanding mountain scenery and internationally significant wildlands there.
It’s time for Senator Tester and the Montanans supporting more timber cutting to acknowledge what the stockholders and the timber industry itself recognizes—that Montana is not the Nation’s woodbox and the single best thing the Senator can do to ensure Montana’s economic and environmental future is to protect more wildlands as wilderness.
BIOMASS WOOD ENERGY—NOT THE ANSWER
After the Smurfit-Stone Container Corp.’s linerboard plant in Missoula announced that it was closing permanently, there have been many people including Montana Governor Schweitzer, Missoula mayor John Engen and Senator Jon Tester, among others who advocate turning the mill into a biomass energy plant. Northwestern Energy, a company which has expressed interest in using the plant for energy production has already indicated that it would expect more wood from national forests to make the plant economically viable.
The Smurfit Stone conversion to biomass is not alone. There has been a spate of new proposals for new wood burning biomass energy plants sprouting across the country like mushrooms after a rain. Currently there are plans and/or proposals for new biomass power plants in Maine, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Florida, California, Idaho, Oregon and elsewhere. In every instance, these plants are being promoted as “green” technology.
Part of the reason for this “boom” is that taxpayers are providing substantial financial incentives, including tax breaks, government grants, and loan guarantees. The rationale for these taxpayer subsidies is the presumption that biomass is “green” energy. But like other “quick fixes” there has been very little serious scrutiny of biomass real costs and environmental impacts. Whether commercial biomass is a viable alternative to traditional fossil fuels can be questioned.
Before I get into this discussion, I want to state right up front, that coal and other fossil fuels that now provide much of our electrical energy need to be reduced and effectively replaced. But biomass energy is not the way to accomplish this end goal.
BIOMASS BURNING IS POLLUTION
First and foremost, biomass burning isn’t green. Burning wood produces huge amounts of pollution. Especially in valleys like Missoula where temperature inversions are common, pollution from a biomass burner will be the source of numerous health ailments. Because of the air pollution and human health concerns, the Oregon Chapter of the American Lung Association, the Massachusetts Medical Society and the Florida Medical Association, have all established policies opposing large-scale biomass plants.
The reason for this medical concern is that even with the best pollution control devises, biomass energy is extremely dirty. For instance, one of the biggest biomass burners now in operation, the McNeil biomass plant in Burlington, Vermont is the number one pollution source in the state, emitting 79 classified pollutants. Biomass releases dioxins, and as much particulates as coal burning, plus carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and contribute to ozone formation.
BIOMASS GENERATES MORE CARBON THAN COAL
Besides ignoring the human health aspects of large scale biomass burning, assertions that biomass energy is “green” is a misnomer. Wood burning generates 50% more carbon dioxide than coal. This is largely a factor of the lower heat content in wood which means to generate the same amount of megawatts requires burning far more wood than coal to achieve the same amount of electricity. Biomass burning releases about 3,300 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt, while coal releases 2,100 pounds.
BIOMASS IS NOT CARBON NEUTRAL
Proponents of biomass often claim that biomass is “carbon neutral.” The reasoning behind this claim is the fact that growing trees will sequester carbon. On the surface this may make sense, however, it ignores that the it takes decades for new forest growth to capture the carbon that is released by trees consumed in a biomass burner. And that assumes there will be new trees growing—something that one can’t assume because climate change could make many places less suitable for forest growth. In an era of climate change, the assumption that a forest cut will grow back on the same site is optimistic at best.
The problem for humanity is that we need to reduce large scale carbon emissions now, not in 50 or 100 years as forests sequester carbon over decades.
BIOMASS ENERGY IS INEFFICIENT
Wood is not nearly as concentrated a heat source as coal, gas, oil, or any other fossil fuel. Most biomass energy operations are only able to capture 20-25% of the latent energy by burning wood. That means one needs to gather and burn more wood to get the same energy value as a more concentrated fuel like coal. That is not to suggest that coal is a good alternative, rather wood is a worse alternative. Especially when you consider the energy used to gather the rather dispersed source of wood and the energy costs of trucking it to a central energy plant. If the entire carbon footprint of wood is considered, biomass creates far more CO2 with far less energy output than other energy sources.
The McNeil Biomass Plant in Burlington Vermont seldom runs full time because wood, even with all the subsidies (and Vermonters made huge and repeated subsidies to the plant—not counting the “hidden subsidies” like air pollution) wood energy can’t compete with other energy sources, even in the Northeast where energy costs are among the highest in the nation. Even though the plant was also retrofitted so it could burn natural gas to increase its competitiveness with other energy sources, the plant still does not operate competitively. It is generally is only used to off- set peak energy loads.
One could argue, of course, that other energy sources like coal are greatly subsidized as well, especially if all environmental costs were considered. But at the very least, all energy sources must be “standardized” so that consumers can make informed decisions about energy—and biomass energy appears to be no more green than other energy sources.
BIOMASS SANITIZES AND MINES OUR FORESTS
The dispersed nature of wood as a fuel source combined with its low energy value means any sizeable energy plant must burn a lot of wood. For instance, the McNeil 50 megawatt biomass plant in Burlington, Vermont would require roughly 32,500 acres of forest each year if running at near full capacity and entirely on wood. Wood for the McNeil Plant is trucked and even shipped on trains from as far away as Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Quebec and Maine.
Biomass proponents often suggest that wood as a consequence of forest thinning to improve “forest health” (logging a forest to improve health of a forest ecosystem is an oxymoron.) will provide the fuel for plant operations. For instance, one of the assumptions of Senator Tester’s Montana Forest Jobs bill is that thinned forests will provide a ready source of biomass for energy production. But in many cases, there are limits on the economic viability of trucking wood any distance to a central energy plant. Again without huge subsidies, this simply does not make economic sense.
Biomass forest is even worse for forest ecosystems than clearcutting. Biomass energy tends to utilize the entire tree, including the bole, crown, and branches. This robs a forest of nutrients, and disrupts energy cycles.
Worse yet, such biomass removal ignores the important role of dead trees to sustain the forest ecosystems. Dead trees are not a “wasted” resource. They provide home and food for thousands of species, including 45% of all bird species in the Nation. Dead trees that fall to the ground are used by insects, small mammals, amphibians and reptiles for shelter and even potentially food. Dead trees that fall into streams are important physical components of aquatic ecosystems and provide critical habitat for many fish and other aquatic species. Removal of dead wood is mining the forest.
Keep in mind that logging activities are not benign. Logging typically requires some kind of access, often roads which are a major source of sedimentation in streams, and disrupt natural subsurface water flow. Logging can disturb sensitive wildlife like grizzly bear and even elk are known to abandon locations with active logging. Logging can spread weeds. And finally since large amounts of forest carbon are actually tied up in the soils, soil disturbance from logging is especially damaging, often releasing substantial additional amounts of carbon over and above what is released up a smoke stack.
BIOMASS ENERGY USES LARGE AMOUNTS OF WATER
A large-scale biomass plant (50 MW) uses close to a million gallons of water a day for cooling. Most of that water is lost from the watershed since approximately 85% is lost as steam. Water channeled back into a river or stream typically has a pollution cost as well, including higher water temperatures that negatively impact fisheries, especially trout. Since cooling need is greatest in warm weather, removal of water from rivers occurs just when flows are lowest, and fish are most susceptible to temperature stress.
BIOMASS ENERGY SAPS FUNDS FROM OTHER TRULY GREEN ENERGY SOURCES LIKE SOLAR
Since biomass energy is eligible for state renewable portfolio standards (RPS), it has captured the bulk of funding intended to move the country away from fossil fuels. For example, in Vermont, 90% of the RPS is from “smokestack” sources—mostly biomass incineration. This pattern holds throughout many other parts of the country. Biomass energy is thus burning up funds that could and should be going into other energy programs like energy conservation, solar and insulation of buildings.
PUBLIC FORESTS WILL BE SACRIFICED FOR BIOMASS ENERGY
Many of the climate bills now circulating in Congress, as well as Montana Senator Jon Tester’s Montana Jobs and Wilderness bill target public forests as a source for wood biomass. One federal study suggests that 368 million tons of wood could be removed from our national forests every year—of course this study did not include the ecological costs that physical removal of this much would have on forest ecosystems.
The Biomass Crop Assistance Program, or BCAP, which was quietly put into the 2008 farm bill has so far given away more than a half billion dollars in a matching payment program for businesses that cut and collect biomass from national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands. And according to a recent Washington Post story, the Obama administration has already sent $23 million to biomass energy companies, and is poised to send another half billion.
And it is not only federal forests that are in jeopardy. Many states are eyeing their own state forests for biomass energy. For instance, Maine recently unveiled a new plan known as the Great Maine Forest Initiative which will pay timber companies to grow trees for biomass energy.
Ironically one of the main justifications for biomass energy is the creation of jobs, yet the wood biomass rush is having unintended consequences for other forest products industries. Companies that rely upon surplus wood chips to produce fiberboard, cabinet makers, and furniture are scrambling to find wood fiber for their products. Considering that these industries are secondary producers of products, the biomass rush could threaten more jobs than it may create.
Large scale wood biomass energy is neither green, nor truly economical. It is also not ecologically sustainable and jeopardizes our forest ecosystems. It is a distraction that funnels funds and attention away from other more truly worthwhile energy options, in particular, the need for a massive energy conservation program, and changes in our lifestyles that will in the end provide truly green alternatives to coal and other fossil fuels.
Another livestock industry propaganda piece recently appeared in Time Magazine by Lisa Abend titled “How Grass fed Beef Can Save The Planet.” The basic premise of the article is that factory farming is bad, so grass-fed or free-range beef is good for the planet and even human health. Grass-fed beef is the latest fad with people who have little scientific training, and thus are easily duped by pseudo-scientific sounding pronouncements.
While there are some livestock operators who are promoting grass-fed beef, many of the advocates are well meaning people who are vulnerable to anything that have the word “natural” in it. Just because raising cows in factory farms on grains is bad for the Earth, does not mean that cows grazing on pasture or hay are better for the Earth.
The assumption of many people is that less industrialized makes it better to consume. Some of the “natural” folks eschew city water treated with chemicals, for instance, and prefer “natural” water sources. Yet many natural water sources have many unhealthy things in them. Arsenic, for instance, is often found at naturally high levels in water at levels that are a health risk to drink. One needs to be careful about assuming that anything more “natural” is automatically safer, healthier, and better for humans and the planet.
I do not want to contend that industrialized livestock production is good. There are huge problems with factory-raised meat. Cattle raised on grain tend to be given more hormones, and grain production generally requires heavy pesticide and fertilizer use, as well as fossil fuels to operate machinery. But just because a cow grazes in a pasture, does not mean it is “green” or that eating grass-fed beef is environmentally beneficial.
Indeed, as a generalization, almost all the negatives associated with Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) exist with grass-fed beef. And grass-fed livestock has many unique impacts not shared by their factory-raised counterparts that may be more environmentally destructive. The assumption that grass-fed beef is “healthier” is based more upon wishful thinking than reality.
One of the presumed benefits of grass-fed meat is the idea that somehow livestock fed grass reduces global warming gases. Research suggests that livestock, particularly cows, are a major source of greenhouse gases (GHG) that are warming the planet. One recent UN report finds that as much as 18% of the GHG are from livestock—more than all transportation and/or industry sources of GHG. Others put the figure even higher. No matter which studies are used, there is little dispute that cattle are a major contributor to global warming.
Fermentation in the animal’s rumen generates huge quantities of gas—between 30-50 liters per hour in adult cattle. So those proponents of grass-fed beef start with the simplistic assumption that since cattle evolved to eat grass, such a diet must be superior to grain-fed factory raised animals. Yet grass is a poor substitute for grains in terms of caloric energy per pound of feed. As a consequence, a grass-fed cow’s rumen bacteria must work longer breaking down and digesting grass in order to extract the same energy content found in grain—all the while the bacteria in its rumen are emitting great quantities of methane.
Researcher, Nathan Pelletier of Nova Scotia has found that GHG are 50 percent higher in grass-fed beef. If somehow magically we could convert all factory grown cattle to free range grass-fed animals, our global warming situation would be greatly accelerated.
Beyond the GHG issue, free ranging cattle present other problems that CAFO raised animals do not. For instance, one of the major consequences of having cattle roaming the range is soil compaction. There’s not a single study that demonstrates that having a thousand pound cow trample soil is good for the land.
Soil compaction reduces water penetration, creating more run-off and erosion. Because water cannot percolate into the soil easily, soil compaction from cattle creates more arid conditions—a significant problem in the already arid West, but also an issue in the East since the soils are often moister for a longer period of time. Moist soils are more easily compacted.
Sometimes the influence of pasture grazing is long lasting. One study in North Carolina found that stream insect biota were still significantly different in streams heavily impacted by agriculture 50 years after agricultural use had ceased compared to control streams. Soil compaction also reduces the space in the top active layer of soil where most soil microbes live, reducing soil fertility.
Free ranging cattle trample riparian areas, the thin green lines where 70-80% of all western wildlife utilize for homes and food. According to the EPA livestock is the major source of pollution and riparian damage in the West. But that doesn’t let eastern cows off the hook since trampling of riparian areas also occurs in the East, though with less biological impact since fewer species are solely dependent on this habitat.
Cattle, of course, release a lot of manure on the soil. A typical 1,100 pound cow releases 92 pounds of manure a day as compared to a typical person a pound of feces Most of that excrement is left on the land where it washes into streams and adds to nutrient loading as well as the spread of disease like E coli bacteria. In fact, livestock manure is a major source of water-borne disease and pollution throughout the country.
To put this into perspective, consider that state of Vermont has approximately 150,000 cows, most of whom excrete their waste either directly on pastures or if collected from barns it is later spread on fields. In either case, most of this waste winds up on the land without further treatment. This is the same as permitting a city of nearly 14 million people to spread their human waste on the land!
It has been asserted without good evidence that grass-fed beef cattle produce less E-coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella, and other dangerous pathogens. Yet all of these diseases have been repeatedly isolated from both grass and grain-fed livestock.
Outbreaks of diseases like E coli have been traced back to pastured animals. Notably, the E. coli spinach outbreak in California in 2006 was isolated from pastured cattle. And there are other examples.
By contrast CAFO operations, because of their scale and ability to collect and process manure in a treatment plant, can potentially be less polluting overall compared to grass-fed beef—though admittedly this is not common practice as yet.
There are disease issues for wildlife as well. For example, grass-fed animals carry disease that can harm native species. Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) or Mad Cow disease is thought to have originated with domestic livestock and later transferred to elk and deer. And foot and mouth disease transmitted from cattle has been shown to infect bison. Brucellosis, another disease originating with domestic cattle, has created a huge controversy in Montana, where bison infected with the disease are killed when they wander from Yellowstone National Park.
Free range cattle are also problematic for other reasons as well. Take predators. Most grass-fed cattle are vulnerable to predators, and it is the presence of “free range livestock” that leads to conflicts and the eventual slaughter of everything from wolves to coyotes both as preventative or in retaliation for predation.
On western rangelands where livestock are often let loose on public lands, even the mere presence of cows socially displaces native herbivores like elk that simply won’t graze in the same place as cows. Since there are no empty niches, these native herbivores are displaced into lower quality habitat. Thus even “predator friendly” beef is more hype than reality.
One of the big problems with grain-fed livestock operations is the huge amount of land that is used to produce grain. Approximately 80-90 million acres of land in the US are used to grow corn alone. That is 80-90 million acres of once native prairie that is now growing a mono crop at a tremendous loss of biodiversity.
As bad as that plant community conversion may be for natural process, and native species, grass-fed beef generally dine on either pasture or hay—both of which consist of exotic grasses that are planted at the expense of native plants. In most states, the biggest single factor in the destruction of native plant communities has been their conversion to hay or pasture. Indeed, across the country more than 130 million acres have been converted to hay and pasture. To put this into perspective, the entire footprint of all urbanization and developed land in the entire US is about 60 million acres. In a sense one could argue that grass-fed cows have destroyed far more of the native plant cover than all the cities, highways, factories, Wal-Mart parking lots, etc. combined. No small impact. Whatever the exact figure may be, there is no denying that a lot of native plant communities have been converted to hay or pasture.
Keep in mind also that in the West, much of the pasture and hay is created by irrigation thus water withdrawals from streams and rivers. In most of the western United States, the majority of water consumed is not for domestic or industrial uses, but for agriculture, and the prime agricultural product produced is hay and/or irrigated pasture. As a consequence, aquatic ecosystems are fragmented, destroying fisheries, degrading riparian areas (water withdrawals affects water available for streamside vegetation), and increasing the effects of pollution (because toxins become more concentrated).
Even cattle grazing on native grasslands are not immune from judgment. One can’t be putting the majority of native grasses into the belly of exotic animals like cattle which are then exported from the system without impacting the ecosystem. Every blade of grass going into a cow’s belly is that much less forage for native animals, from grasshoppers to elk.
There are far more ecological problems I could list for grass-fed beef, but suffice to say cattle production of any kind is not environmentally friendly.
The further irony of grass-fed beef is that consumption of beef products is not healthy despite claims to the contrary. There may be less fat in grass-fed beef, but the differences are not significant enough to warrant the claim that beef consumption is “healthy.” There is a huge body of literature about the contribution of red meat to major health problems including breast, colon, stomach, bladder, and prostate cancer. The other dietary related malady is the strong link between red meat consumption and heart disease.
Another health claim is that grass-fed beef has more omega-3 fats which are considered important for lowering health attack risks. However, the different between grain-fed and grass-fed is so small as to be insignificant, not to mention there are many other non-beef sources for this. Fish, walnuts, beans, flaxseeds, winter squash and olive oil are only some of the foods that l provide concentrated sources of omega-3 fats. Arguing that eating grass-fed beef is necessary or healthier grain-fed beef is like claiming it is better to smoke a filtered cigarette instead of a non-filtered one. The health benefits are minor if they make a difference at all.
There may be ethical reasons to prefer grass-fed animals over the often inhumane treatment given to factory-farmed animals. But even that rationale seems hollow to me. If one is that concerned with ethical issues, one should consider whether keeping any animals captive for slaughter is really ethical.
Beef consumption, whether grass-fed or grain-fed animals is neither healthy for the planet nor for humans. Reducing or eliminating red meat—whether grass or grain fed—from one’s diet is one of the easiest way to “save” the planet.
George Wuerthner is the editor of Welfare Ranching—The Subsidized Destruction of the American West as well as a contributor to Fatal Harvest about Industrialized Agriculture, and a soon to be published book on Factory Farming.
The rush to formulate new forest legislation that advocates thinning forests, use of biomass for energy production, and the presumption that our forests are “unhealthy” and/or that large fires and beetle outbreaks are undesirable may soon create a new threat to our forests. There are a host of different bills before Congress including legislation introduced by Mark Udall of Colorado, Jon Tester of Montana, Ron Wyden of Oregon, among others that are all predicated upon a number of flawed or exaggerated assumptions.
Some of this legislation is better than others, and some of it even has some very good things in the language and policies that are an improvement over present policies. Nevertheless, there are many underlying assumptions that are troubling.
THE FIRE SUPPRESSION CONUNDRUM
There is a circular logic going on around the issue of fuel buildup and fire suppression. Currently the major federal agencies including the Forest Service and BLM generally attempt to suppress fires, except in a few special locations like designated wilderness. Despite the fact that most agencies now recognize that wildfires have a very important ecological role to play, we are told by managing agencies that they must continue to suppress fires or face “catastrophic” blazes—which they consider to be “uncharacteristic”.
The problem is that thinning won’t solve the “problem” of large blazes because the problem isn’t fuels. By allowing the timber industry to define the problem and propose a solution we have a circular situation whereby the land management agencies continue to suppress fires, thereby presumably permitting fuels to build up, which they assert thus drives large blazes, creating a need for more logging and fire suppression. This cycle of fire suppression, logging, grazing, and more fire suppression has no end.
In addition, since thinning reduces completion, opens up the forest floor to more light, thus new plant growth, thinning can often lead to creation of even more of the flashy fine fuels that sustain forest fires. Unless these thinned stands are repeatedly treated, they can actually acerbate fire hazard by increasing the overall abundance of the very fuels which are most problematic—the smaller shrubs, grasses, and small trees that sustain fire spread.
In addition, thinning can increase solar penetration leading to more rapid drying and greater penetration of wind—both factors that aid fire spread.
This is not unlike the approach taken with predator control, whereby agencies for years have shot, poisoned, and trapped coyotes in the belief that they were reducing coyote numbers. But since coyotes respond to such persecution with greater fecundity, predator control becomes a self fulfilling activity whereby predator control begets more predator control.
While fire suppression (and logging, grazing, and so forth) may be a contributing factor in fire spread in some forest types (primarily ponderosa pine), they are not ultimately what is driving most large fires. Large blazes are almost universally associated with climatic features like severe drought, wind, and ultimately by shift in oceanic currents such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. Therefore fuel reductions will not substantively change the occurrence of large blazes.
Even if one wanted to buy into the fuels-is-driving- large blazes story, it would behoove us to rethink the range of solutions. The National Park Service, the only agency that does not have a commercial logging mandate, has effectively dealt with fuel reductions through wildlands fire and prescribed burning. At the very least, any fuel reduction that may be needed should be done by prescribed burning.
QUESTIONING FIRE SUPPRESSION
One of the underlying assumptions of all these pieces of legislation is the idea that our forests are unhealthy and possess unnatural fuel loads due to fire suppression or fire exclusion. There is, of course, a bit of truth to the generalization that some forest types may have had some fuel build ups as a consequence of fire exclusion, but whether these fuel build ups are outside of the historic range of variability is increasingly under scrutiny.
It’s also very important to note that the majority of all forests/plant types in the West like lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, aspen, juniper, red fir, silver fir, Engelmann spruce, western red cedar, Douglas fir in west coast ecosystems, and many others have such naturally long fire intervals, that suppression, even if it were as effective as some might suggest, has not affected the historic fire frequency.
Indeed, the majority of acreage of forest types burned annually tend to be characterized by moderate to severe fire, and are not the forest types where fuel build up is presumed to be a major problem—namely ponderosa pine forest type. Yet most people apply the ponderosa pine model of less intense frequent fires to all other forest types and thus assume that fire suppression has created unnatural fuel levels.
In particular the timber industry has adopted the convenient theme that fire suppression has created a presumed “fuel build-up” responsible for large wildfires. (Never mind that there were always large wildfires long before there was any effective fire suppression—for instance, the 1910 Burn which charred more than 3 million acres of northern Idaho and western Montana)
Thus logging proponents have created a “problem” namely fuel build up, and then by happy coincidence, have a solution that just happens to benefit them-- logging the forest.
Fire suppression may have influenced some low elevation dry forests like those dominated by pure ponderosa pine, but perhaps not nearly to the degree or over the large geographical area that timber interest and logging proponents try to suggest. Those who want to justify logging try to conflate low elevation forests with all forest types—many of which such as lodgepole pine—are very likely not affected by fire suppression due to the naturally long intervals between fires in these forests.
CLIMATIC DRIVERS OF LARGE BLAZES
The emphasis on fuel reductions has obscured the fact that nearly all large blazes are climate/weather driven events. Evidence is building that wet, cool climatic conditions may be more responsible for dense forest stands and/or lack of fires than anything to do with fire suppression. In other words, fire suppression may not be as effective as some suggest and any fuel build up may be within natural or expected range.
In addition, there is also a growing body of scientific analysis that calls into question the very methods and conclusions used to construct fire histories. These analyses suggest that historic fire intervals, even in lower elevation dry forests like ponderosa pine, are biased. Fire intervals may be far longer than previously assumed. Because of this longer fire interval, dense forest stands may be natural, and/or no different than what existed in the past. There is also new evidence for mixed “severity” (i.e. moderate change) fires as well as crown fires in these dry forests. The implications of these findings is that many forests, even low elevation forests, may well be within the historic range of variability.
LARGE BLAZES NECESSARY
One of the issues missed by thinning proponents is that the vast majority of all ecological work occurs in a very small number of fires—the big so-called “catastrophic” fires. Even though most agencies and environmental groups now profess to believe that wildfire is important to healthy forest ecosystems, they are not willing to let fires do the work.
For example, in the years between 1980 and 2003, there were more than 56,350 fires in the Rockies. These fires burned 3.6 million hectares (8.64 million acres) Most of these fires were small—despite all the fuels that has supposedly made conditions in forests ready to “explode”. Out of these 56,350 fires, the vast majority of blazes totaling 55,228 fires or 98% of all blazes only charred 4% of the acreage.
On the other hand, a handful of fires—1,222 or less than 2% of the fires accounted for 96% of the acreage burned. Even more astounding is that 0.1% of the fires or about 50 fires charred more than 50% of the acreage burned.
This suggests four things to me. First, fuels are not driving large blazes. There is plenty of fuel throughout the Rockies, but most fires never burn more than a few acres—despite all the fuels that is sitting around. Fire suppression if it was responsible for a fuels build up doesn’t appear to be creating a lot of big fires.
The few very large fires that everyone is concerned about occur during very special conditions of drought, combined with low humidity, high temperatures and wind. And these conditions simply do not occur very often. When they do line up in the same place at the same time than you get a large fire—no matter what the fuel loading may be. My conclusion is that large blazes are climate driven events, not fuels driven.
Finally, the take home message for me is that even if we were successful at stopping big blazes through thinning and/or fire suppression, we would be in effect eliminating fire from the landscape. Since almost everyone today at least professes to the goal of restoring fire, than we have to tolerate the few large blazes—not try to stop them. Of course, it appears that despite our best efforts with logging, thinning, and all the rest, we have not had that much influence on eliminating the large blazes.
FRAMING THE ISSUE
One of the other major problems I have with the way many organizations have chosen to work on these issues is the way they “frame” the issues. When words like “working landscapes”, “restoration” , “unhealthy forests” “catastrophic blazes” “beetle outbreaks” are used in any discussion related to forests, they solidify in the public’s mind that there is a major problem with our forests, and more importantly that the “cure” is some kind of major invasive manipulation of forest ecosystems.
One must be careful about how you frame this issue. Even though most environmentalists do not support large scale commercial logging of our national forests, and have a lot of sidebars on how any logging should be done to address ecological concerns, when environmental groups say things like “we need to maintain our timber industry to restore the forests” the public just hears that our forests are a mess and the ONLY solution is more logging. I maintain that is not a message environmentalists want to be conveying. The public does not hear the sidebars, nor the cautionary words, rather they hear that we need to log our forests, and do so in a big way or ecological Armageddon is about to befall the West.
WHAT IS PRUDENT BEHAVIOR?
There is an important lesson in science called the precautionary principle. In the absence of full understanding of a problem, it is usually best to prescribe the least invasive and least manipulative actions. Conservation groups would be wise to apply this principle to forest policy.
That doesn’t mean I don’t support some “restoration” activities. To make an analogy, let’s look at the issue of wolf restoration. Putting wolves back on the land restores predation influences, but this is a very different thing than allowing hunters to kill elk. Especially because it allows the wolves, and natural conditions like drought, etc. t o determine what is the “right” number of elk and deer, not some agency with an agenda to sell licenses. Hunters influence elk differently than wolves and logging is different than say fires. Just as an elk killed by a wolf leaves behind carrion that other animals can use, a forest with fire leaves behind a lot of biomass that helps to sustain many other functions in the forest.
Logging short circuits those ecosystems functions. As with hunting whenever you have a commercial enterprise involved in natural resource policy, it distorts the conclusions and it’s convenient to ignore anything that suggests the activity—whether hunting or logging is creating problems.
There is a growing challenge to many of the assumptions about fires and its influence on forests. These challenges to assumptions about constitutes forest “health” and the historic role of large blazes and beetle influences is not unlike the challenges to common assumptions about predators that began with people like Adolph Murie, George Wright, and other scientists back in the 1930s and 1940s who started to question predator policy. These early ecologists were not only challenging politicians and citizens, but many other scientists who were advocates of killing predators to create “healthy” populations of deer and elk.
I need not remind many conservationists that there are still plenty of scientists around that will support killing predators like wolves, despite decades of research about the ecological need for top down predators. So assurances that any logging on public lands will use the “best” science are not reassuring to me. When there is a commercial/economic aspect to any management, that tends to distort and often compromise the science and scientists that are consulted. It would naïve for anyone to believe that this is any difference when dealing with fire and forest policy issues, especially when there’s an economic benefit to some industry and/or individuals for the policy.
There is a growing scientific body of work that is challenging the notion that fire suppression is responsible for dense forests and/or that crown fires, even in low elevation forests consisting of ponderosa pine and/or Douglas fir. The implications of this for forest policy are significant for if this is correct, our current conditions are not outside of the historical normal range of variability, especially when you consider past climatic conditions that are similar to the current dry, warm conditions.
One can find plenty of scientists who think our forests are out of whack, and prescribe logging to reduce fuels and so forth, however, if one is monitoring the scientific literature one would find enough evidence here and there to question the current assumptions about “forest health” and the presumed need for logging.
At the very least, it would seem a prudent approach to avoid endorsing logging when there is at least some evidence to suggest that our forests are not as out of whack as previously assumed, and/or that logging cannot do what advocates suggest—like restore the ecosystem or prevent large blazes.
PROBABILITY OF FIRES
Another unchallenged assumption of those prescribing thinning to protect say old growth ponderosa pine is the idea that somehow without thinning, we would lose all the old growth to fires. However, that ignores the low probability that any particular acre of land will burn in a fire. For one thing, most fires are small as mentioned earlier. They do not burn more than a few acres and go out. The few fires that do grow into large blazes occur under very special climatic/weather conditions of extreme drought, high wind, low humidity and high temperatures. These conditions do not occur that frequently, and to this you must provide an ignition. So even if you have drought, wind, low humidity, etc. you may not get a blaze.
In addition, even big blazes do not consume all the forest. Most large fires burn in a mosaic pattern for a host of reasons, the likelihood that any particular acre of old growth will burn is extremely small.
Finally, since thinning effectiveness even under the best circumstances rapidly declines over time, in order to protect old growth stands, thinning of that particular location in a forest must be very recent otherwise new growth generated by the opening of the forest, reduced competition, etc. often negates any advantage created by forest manipulation (logging).
LOGGING IS NOT BENIGN
Even if one disagreed with these new insights and interpretation of forest an ecosystem, and the presumed effectiveness of thinning projects, that doesn’t necessarily lead to logging as the “cure”. It wasn’t that long ago we heard many groups outlining the many ways that logging created ecological outcomes that were undesirable—the spread of weeds, changes in the abundance of snags, and down wood, that human activity in the woods disturbs and displaces sensitive wildlife, that disturbance of the land and use of logging roads (even temporarily logging roads) adds sediments to our streams, and so forth. Most of those critiques are still valid today, but we don’t hear that kind of criticism coming from many environmental groups anymore. This silence and unwillingness to continuously remind the public that logging has many, many negative impacts on forest ecosystems has compromised the environmental effectiveness as defenders of our public forests. After all who is going to assume that role if environmental groups do not continuously remind the public that logging has many unexamined and ignored externalities.
LESS MANIPULATE ALTERNATIVES EXIST
Even if one did not want to challenge the common perception that we have an “emergency” as Senators Wyden, Udall, Tester and others proclaims, logging isn’t necessarily the only or the best way to address this presumed emergency.
The National Park Service does fuels reductions and ecosystem restoration without logging. They have a long track record demonstrating that one can modify fuels and restore the ecological value of wildfire to the landscape without logging, and without jeopardizing communities. Yosemite NP, for instance, does prescribed burning in the crowded Yosemite Valley as does Muir Woods adjacent to Muir Woods, as well as many other national parks. That is not to suggest that prescribed burning will alleviate all concerns, but at the very least, it should be the approach that environmentalists advocate. Prescribed burning combined with natural wildfire can “restore” forest resilience as well as reduce fuels. Such an approach avoids many of the negatives associated with commercial logging, including the need for roads, the disturbance of water drainage by roading, soil compaction, removal of biomass, and so forth.
REDUCE HOME FLAMMABILITY AS FIRST DEFENSE AGAINST FIRE
There is an abundance of evidence to suggest that if community security is a concern, the best way to achieve that is through reduction of flammability of homes and the area immediately around the community, not wholesale logging for the forest ecosystem. Jack Cohen’s research at the Missoula Fire had demonstrated that thinning the forest is not the best way to protect homes.
Advocating for logging as the “cure” is like suggesting that the best way to reduce elk herds is by hunting, instead of being an advocate of wolf restoration. Any time you get an economic activity involved in natural processes you compromise the integrity of the goals and measures.
ADVOCATE FOR NATURAL PROCESSES
Even if the majority of you believe our forests are out of whack and are unwilling to accept the critiques from those who suggest that our understanding of forest ecosystems may be incorrect, that doesn’t mean one has to be a hand maiden for the timber industry. Nature does the best management—that is why we all are advocates for wilderness—we believe that allowing wild places to determine what is right for the landscape is the best way to preserve “healthy ecosystems”. If the forests are overstocked as some may want to conclude, than let natural processes select which trees should survive and do any thinning that is necessary using insects, disease, drought, fire, wind storms, and all the other mechanisms that regulate plant communities—and Nature will do a far better job of determining which trees should survive than any forester.
Our role as humans is to get out of the way as much as possible, not to intrude and advocate for invasive solutions like logging. The only role for logging on public lands that I see is to strategic as listed below.
WHEN TO SUPPORT LOGGING/THINNING
If you must support logging, make sure it is very limited, and framed not in terms of forest health, but as a useful way to reduce human anxiety. Logging around houses and communities to reduce public anxiety over fires may be a political necessity. A fire break of significant size around the perimeter of a community may reduce public fears about large fires; however, as has been shown in numerous cases around the West fuel breaks alone will not ensure that homes are safe. Flammability of individual homes must be addressed.