Sunday, February 14, 2010
Perspective on the Tester Forest Bill The pros, the cons, and the questions.
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.