Colt Summit Timber Sale Exemplifies False Assumptions Behind Many Timber Sales
”At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour.”
~ Edward Abbey
The Colt Summit timber sale on the Seeley Lake Ranger District is the first logging proposal on the Lolo National Forest to be challenged in five years. It has become symbolic of a bigger fight over logging in the Northern Rockies. It is the proverbial line in the sand. It is actually typical of the many timber sales now being promoted by the Forest Service based on flawed assumptions about fire ecology and exaggerated public benefits, so in a sense is worthy of scrutiny since it is representative of what environmentalists around the West are encountering these days.
The Colt Summit Timber sale is being challenged by the Friends of the Wild Swan, Native Ecosystems Council, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, and Mountain Ecosystems Defense Council. They have filed a law suit to stop the timber sale arguing that the logging may jeopardize endangered grizzly bear, lynx and bull trout. Also, Wildwest Institute filed a brief in support of the plaintiffs (they are members of the Lolo Restoration committee).
THE COLT SUMMIT TIMBER SALE
The Colt Summit sale calls for thinning in mature and old growth forest, along with shelterwood cuts (essentially a clear cut with most of the larger trees removed) along with extensive prescribed burning in what is clearly one of the last contiguous forest corridors left in the Seeley Swan Valley. The FS admits that it’s one of the few intact unfragmented tracts of federal forest in the Swan Valley, but then ignores its significance.
The proposed timber sale is in Situation One occupied grizzly habitat, and critical lynx habitat. Streams in the sale area support endangered bull trout. The logging operations, and the human presence is likely to have negative impacts on these species.
To its credit, the Forest Service has designed the timber sale to mitigate some of the worse impacts of logging. For instance, most of the logging will occur in winter with over-snow removal of trees to reduce the need for road construction and disturbance that can lead to weed spread. But reduction in logging impacts is not the same as no impacts. And in a region that is already significantly over cut, any new logging has disproportionate cumulative negative effects. Here’s a photo showing clearcuts surrounding Lake Inez. Seeley Lake is further out. All of these clearcuts lie between the Colt Summit area and Seeley Lake.
Like all timber sales today, the Forest Service is ostensibly not cutting trees just to provide lumber or profits to timber companies. The agency no longer has a public license to log simply to enrich timber industry corporation coffers, so they use other rationales that play upon the public’s fears and misunderstandings. The agency now logs for dubious rationales including forest health, to reduce fire risk, to “improve” wildlife habitat, increase recreational opportunities and other presumed public benefits.
The main justification for Colt Summit is to log the area to reduce the threat of wildfire and increase the safety of Seeley Lake by logging in what it is calling the Wildlands Urban Interface. Never mind that Seeley Lake is more than ten miles from the closest segment of the proposed timber sale and there are already miles of clearcuts and thinned forest between Colt Summit and Seeley Lake. (See photo)
Beyond the somewhat fallacious assertion that logging can be justified on the basis of reducing fire hazard in the Wildland Urban Interface, the agency asserts that road closures, by reducing sedimentation into streams, will be a net benefit. There is no doubt that closing any road is a net benefit.
However, the agency stacks the deck in its analysis by comparing the on-going excessive road density and problems associated with it such as chronic sedimentation into streams, with an alternative that closes some roads, but calls for significant logging as the “price” for road decommissioning. As a result it can suggest that logging “improves” the landscape over the current situation.
There is, unfortunately, no alternative that compares the no action or current condition with an alternative that closes roads, and only proposes thinning in the immediate vicinity of Seeley Lake, along with modification of homes to reduce flammability such as requirement for metal roofs. Such an alternative would clearly be more cost effective, better for the land, and more effective in reducing fire risk than the Forest Service’s current proposal.
Advocating for logging so you can close the very roads created by the logging sale and even if you close a few other miles of roads is a bit like building a couple of new dams and then putting in fish ladders to improve fish migration. Sure fish ladders is an improvement, but one doesn’t have to build dams as a justification to marginally improve fish movements. Neither does one need to log the forest to justify removal of the very roads used to log the forest.
If road closure is good for wildlife, they should be closed regardless of whether there is a timber sale in the area, not use the road closures as an excuse to justify logging.
LOGGING HERE, THERE, EVERYWHERE
Part of the objections made by the groups suing the Forest Service is the fact that the Colt Summit timber sale occupies the last remaining strip of unlogged forest connecting the Swan Range to the Mission Range in the entire Seeley Swan corridor. As a result it is important for the movement of wildlife like the grizzly and lynx from one mountain range to the other.
If you go to Google Earth and put in Seeley Lake Montana then move northward following the Highway 83 corridor you will see from space what is not visible to causal observation—a highly fragmented and ravaged valley. Here’s a link to a short video showing the sale area and the surrounding butchered landscape.
Look west of Seeley Lake and Lake Inez on Google Earth and you will see miles of clearcuts and logging. Same pattern for the land east of these lakes all the way to the foothills of the Swan Range. Continue north past Lake Inez and Rainy Lake and you will come to the circular pond known as Summit Lake among unlogged forests that lie on the watershed divide between the Clearwater River flowing south and the Swan drainage flowing north. Immediately north of the watershed divide you will see many more clearcuts on the Flathead National Forest—all the way to Swan Lake. I’ve seen a lot of butchered landscapes in Oregon and Washington, but the Seeley Swan Valley gives either of those states a run for the prize as most abused and degraded landscapes.
It will become abundantly clear why groups like the Alliance for Wild Rockies, Friends of the Wild Swan and others are arguing this sale will degrade the connectivity between the Mission Range and Swan Range. Yet the Forest Service has the audacity to propose more logging in what is already one of the most fragmented forested valleys in Montana and amidst one of the last forested corridors that stretches across the Seeley-Swan Valley.
MORE LOGGING PLANNED—CUMULATIVE IMPACTS ANYONE?
Worse for the Colt Summit corridor, is that the Forest Service has four or five other timber sales planned for the area both north and south of Summit Lake. For instance, the proposed Glacier-Loon timber sale lies just north and west of Summit Lake. The proposed Summit Salvage timber sale lies north and east of Summit Lake between Holland Lake and Clearwater Lake. Several other proposed timber sales, including Beaver Creek timber sale, lie to the west and south. If all of these are permitted to be logged, along with Colt Summit, it will destroy the remaining connectivity in the southern Swan Valley.
Past over logging combined with new proposed timber sales clearly poses a cumulative impact on affected wildlife species. It’s disingenuous for the FS to declare that logging Colt Summit will improve habitat for lynx by creating additional acres of younger age tree stands. Any review of the surrounding land of clearcuts would demonstrate that young age class trees are not in short supply. Rather it is old growth with down wood that is scarce on the Seeley Lake Ranger District due to the excessive past logging of the area by Plum Creek timber company, state of Montana and the Forest Service.
DISTORTED FIRE SCIENCE
The worst part about the Colt Summit proposal is that it’s based on faulty and perhaps purposefully deceptive ideas about wildfire ecology and fire risk. Nevertheless, distortion of science is not something that can halt a timber sale. So the conservation groups suing the FS are using one of the limited legal handles available—the ESA to draw attention to what is a poorly planned and unnecessary logging operation.
This timber sale is predicated on the assumption that fire regimes in the Colt Summit area are outside of their historical variability. It appears the Forest Service is confusing fire regimes. It appears to be applying the Southwest Model for ponderosa pine forests of short fire intervals and low intensity blazes to the Colt Summit’s lodgepole pine and subalpine fir forests. These forests tend to burn infrequently and usually as stand replacement intense blazes.
This gets to problem number two. There is quite a bit of new debate about how effective fire suppression has been, particularly in the higher elevation/moister forest types such as we find dominating in the Colt Summit. In other words, even if this area didn’t have naturally long intervals between fires, it’s questionable that fire suppression has had a significant influence on fuels. There has been a period of significantly wetter and cooler conditions that has prevailed for nearly 50 years between the 1940s until the 1990s that reduced fire spread throughout the Rockies. These forests are frequently too wet naturally to burn except when there are severe fire conditions and then they tend to burn in stand replacement blazes.
The idea behind thinning is that fuels are the driving force in fires. However, a growing body of evidence suggests major climatic conditions are what drive fires, not fuels. If climate/weather is dry, with low humidity and high winds, fires tend to burn through all kinds of fuel loadings. Many studies question whether fuel loadings have significant influence on fire spread under these severe climatic conditions. There are also scientific studies that show thinning can often increase fire severity so it’s by no means a guarantee that thinning operations will have even a neutral influence on fire hazard.
The frequent failure of thinning to halt or even slow major fires under severe conditions is obvious by reviewing large fires throughout the West. The closest is the Jocko Lakes Fire that burned the area just to the west of Colt Summit. The Jocko Lakes Fire burned through a landscape that was heavily logged, and thinned. There were a lot of clearcuts. If logging can halt or reduce the spread of fires, the Jocko Lakes area would have to be a good test. It failed miserably. To suggest that thinning which is a much lower reduction of fuel compared to a clearcut will significantly slow or stop fires is reckless at best, giving the community a false sense of security.
WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO PROTECT HOMES?
Research has shown that the best way to protect individual homes and/or a community from fire is to reduce the flammability of the buildings, not trying to fireproof the forest. Putting on a metal roof, and clearing burnable materials around a structure would be far less expensive and effective method to protect Seeley lake. If the Forest Service were really working for the public interest, and not the timber industry, they would be promoting home protection over logging. It’s cheaper. It’s more effective. It does not require disturbing the forest. It would even provide jobs. It just doesn’t provide profit to timber companies.
LOGGING AND ENDANGERED SPECIES
Logging will impact endangered species like lynx. The work of lynx biologist John Squires and others repeatedly demonstrates that older forests with a lot of down woody debris (DWD) is critical lynx habitat. Thinning the forest will remove dead trees, and thus will contribute to a reduction to recruitment of dead woody debris in the future. So not only would logging destroy existing lynx habitat today, but it will significantly reduce the creation of additional lynx habitat in the future.
A CLOSED ROAD IS NOT THE SAME AS NO ROAD
The FS and its supporters suggest that the Colt Summit timber sale will be a net benefit because an estimated 25 miles of road will be decommissioned or stored. Road closures are desperately needed to be sure, but what isn’t made clear is that the majority of roads to be closed are ones that are created and/or reopened to facilitate the Colt Summit timber sale.
There is no doubt a need for additional road closures, but one does not have to do any further logging to close roads. The way the FS gets to declare this a net benefit is by closing or eliminating a few miles of roads and comparing it to current condition of doing nothing. But one does not have to log the area to close roads, and because there is no alternative that compares road closures.
The Upper Clearwater watershed where Colt Summit is located is heavily roaded. According to the FS “road densities were high in most of the drainages… . All drainages had between 20 and 30 percent of roads within a 300 foot buffer of a stream.” The FS own fish biologist opines that “sedimentation is also an increased concern due to the high amount of timber harvest, roading, and sensitive soils within this watershed.” The conclusion of the fish biologist is that nearly all sub drainages in the Clearwater drainage were functioning at an unacceptable risk” for sediment.
One way the FS sugar coats its road building enterprises is by suggesting that new roads will be “temporary” and most logging activity will be limited to winter when snow cover will reduce impacts. There is some truth to these assertions, but even the best logging practices will contribute new levels of sedimentation to a system that is clearly already severely degraded. And at least some of these temporary roads will be open for at least six years that the timber sale is implemented guaranteeing that many of these impacts will occur for a considerable amount of time. All of these new roads will be providing new access to hunters/trappers as well as illegal ATV use, the spread of weeds, and in some cases, additional sedimentation into streams, and other harm. All of these are minimized in the FS EA so as to suggest a net benefit to the logging operations.
And even after road closures the impact of roads continues. Roads, even closed roads, are not the same as no road. A closed road still provides easier access to snowmobiles (and trappers use snowmobiles—lookout lynx) and ORVs, and even hunters on foot tend to follow old roads, thereby reducing security for wildlife.
There is also some deception in the statement that the FS will close 25 miles of roads, because by my count at least 14.5 of these miles are a direct result of the proposed timber sale. So the 25 miles is an inflated number. i.e. without the timber sale, one would have fewer miles of road to close in the first place. The closure of 4 miles of streamside road 646 adjacent to Colt Creek will have the greatest benefits by reducing sedimentation in streams. However closure of this road is on-going and not opposed by the appellants.
In addition the EA says that roads will be “decommissioned and/or stored”. It does not define decommissioned. In many cases if a road bed is not ripped up, the slope restored, and trees planted on the site, it cannot be considered “restored.” Worse, stored roads definitely mean they will be reused at some future date.
Furthermore, animals like the grizzly avoid areas of human use. Even a closed road is avoided for a long time after human traffic ceases. In one study in the South Fork of the Flathead, FWP showed that bears would avoid up to 2 miles on either side of an active road, and even a closed road. Using a 2 mile standard, the timber sale will nearly affect the entire width of the Swan Valley in this location.
Finally it’s important to note that the groups that are opposing the timber sale are not opposed to any road closures.
WEEDS INVASION FACILITATED
One of the biggest and long term threats to the forest comes from exotic weed invasion. While roads may be closed and even erased with enough money and time, weed invasion typically is a one way street towards greater ecological degradation. The FS own analysis concludes that “ground disturbances worth noting with this project consist of landings associated with the harvest units, new road construction, road obliteration, road maintenance, road reconstruction, increased traffic due to log haul, and stream crossing upgrades.”
Ground disturbance will increase weed establishment and spread. And if you read between the lines in the FS own weed analysis, the suggestion is that despite some requirements for weed control practices, the likelihood of significant increase in weed establishment is foreseen.
CUMULATIVE IMPACTS IGNORED
The logging should be considered as part of a cumulative impacts. The FS is proposing timber sales on all sides of Colt Summit. When all these logging operations are considered together, along with the negative impacts of past logging, it’s clear the cumulative effects from this are significant.
In the end, Colt Summit is not in the public interest and if implemented will have far more negative impacts to our public lands than any benefits.
I recently attended the wolf hearings held by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission in Helena. The commission is considering initiation of a trapping season, as well as eliminating quotas on the number of wolves that may be killed. The goal is to significantly reduce the state’s wolf population which currently numbers somewhere in the vicinity of 600 animals. The commission will make a final decision on the matter by July. At the hearing I felt like I was witnessing a modern day version of Harper Lee’s famous book To Kill a Mockingbird. In that novel the mockingbird is symbolic of innocence animals and by extension, innocence citizens destroyed by thoughtless and ignorant people. In Lee’s novel the main character, lawyer Atticus Finch, is one of the few residents of the southern community of Maycomb committed to racial equality and fairness. He agrees to defend a black man (a mockingbird in human society) wrongly accused of raping a poor southern girl. For his efforts both Atticus and his children suffer abuse and ridicule from the community. Worse, in the end, Atticus is unable to overcome the racial prejudice of his community members and win acquittal for the black man who was convicted by public opinion rather than facts. Even the otherwise descent people of that community were unable to put aside the cultural biases they had grown up with. In a similar way I believe the wolf has become a symbolic scapegoat for many otherwise descent Montanans who, for whatever reason, cannot overcome the cultural biases against wolves. I do not want to overstate this analogy. Wolves can and do kill elk and deer as well as livestock. They can sometimes even depress elk and deer populations. Yet for many who testified at the commission hearings, it is clear that killing wolves symbolizes more than just a predator that may occasionally create conflicts with human goals. When one can’t lash out at the real and/or imaginary forces that are creating fear or anger, someone or something else is punished. What was termed in my college animal behavior classes as “displaced” aggression. In Montana there is displaced aggression being heaped upon the wolf. For some with the most extreme opinions in Montana, the wolf actually represents the distance federal government or worse a UN global plot to subjugate rural America that they fear is controlling their lives. When they kill wolves, they are lashing out at these institutions they fear. And like the mythical towns people in Maycomb Alabama whose racial prejudice and lynch mob mentally convicted the black man Tom Robinson of imagined crimes based on dubious evidence, the wolf has been convicted and sentenced in the court of public opinion—at least the portion of the public I observed at the hearings. There is no other way to explain the depth of hatred and fear I witnessed. Any rational examination of the evidence against the wolf would not justify the death penalty that I fear will be imposed by the Commission. Over and over again I heard many of the same old inaccurate and often exaggerated justifications for wolf reductions. Among them is the assertion that wolves are decimating the state’s elk and deer herds and destroying hunter opportunity. Yet in 1992 when the state completed its elk management plan, and three years before wolves were reintroduced, there were an estimated 89,000 elk in Montana. By 2007 an article in Montana Outdoors proclaimed there may be as many as 150,000 elk in the state. And a recent communication I had with Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist put the current number at around 140,000 animals. Even as I write this commentary, the headlines in today’s papers proclaimed “FWP: Surveys Show Big Game Populations Bouncing Back.” Any reasonable person looking at those numbers would conclude that the presence of wolves is not a threat to hunting opportunities. Indeed, if I wanted to be as irrational as many of the hunters I heard at the hearing, I could suggest a correlation where the presence of wolves appears to increase elk numbers and hunting opportunities across a state. Similarly, accusations that wolves are a threat to the state’s livestock industry are equally as dubious. Last year according to the Montana Dept of Livestock, more than 140,000 cattle and sheep died from various causes including poisonous plants, disease, and other factors. Out of these 140,000 animals, wolves were responsible for less than a hundred deaths. This is not to suggest that the loss of any livestock is not an economic blow to the individual rancher, but can anyone seriously argue that wolves are a universal threat to the livestock industry that justifies state-wide persecution? And there are many positive benefits to the presence of a large wolf population that were rarely mentioned or acknowledged at the hearing. For instance, temporary or even sustained decrease in elk numbers can lead to a reduction in browsing on riparian vegetation like willows and cottonwood along streams. Healthy riparian areas create more food for beaver. Beaver ponds improve water storage and stream flow, reducing floods—which may be a huge net economic benefit to society. Healthy and functioning streams also equal more trout and other fish, improving fishing opportunities and of course the bottom line for businesses that depend on serving the fishing public. Predation by wolves can also reduce the occurrence of diseases that are a potential threat to both livestock and wildlife. For instance, the spread of disease like chronic wasting disease and brucellosis can have economic consequences to the livestock industry as well as elk and deer hunting. Wolves by their presence tend to reduce disease across a herd by dispersing elk and deer as well as by preying on sick animals. Collectively these positive economic benefits to society and even to the livestock industry may far outnumber any negative costs associated with wolf livestock losses. If we are going to manage wolves so they full fill their ecological function as top predators, one can’t kill the majority of wolves off and expect to maintain these positive ecological benefits. Even more troubling to me is that Montanans seem to want to use brute force instead of their brains to deal with wolf conflicts. A great deal of recent science on the social ecology of wolves as well as the positive benefits of predators on ecosystems is largely ignored by current management policies. There is a growing body research that suggests increased persecution of predators is likely to increase, not decrease, human conflicts. Even if you lower the wolf population, you may actually increase the human conflicts. Widespread and aggressive indiscriminate killing of wolves or any other predator may have unintended consequences. Hunting and trapping tends to skew predator populations towards younger age classes; Younger animals are less skillful hunters. They are the very animals most likely to wander into the backyards of people’s homes or come into a ranch yard to nab a young calf or lamb. Due to their inexperience and lack of hunting skill, younger animals are more inclined to seek out livestock as prey. In addition, a wolf population suffering from heavy mortality leads to break up of packs where breeding is usually limited to the dominant male and female. Fragmenting the population into many smaller packs can result in more breeding females and often results in a higher survival of pups. In a very short time the population rebounds, prompting endless calls for more persecution. Predator control can even potentially lead to greater kill of elk and deer. Smaller packs with many pups to feed are unable to guard their kills against other scavengers. When an adult kills an elk or deer, by the time it can carry meat back to the den and return, much of the carcass may be stripped of any remaining meat, leaving that animal no choice but to kill another elk or deer. Smaller packs may in the end also produce more pups—and like teenagers everywhere—the greater food demands of growing pups may lead to the killing of more prey and/or livestock. And since many wolves co-exist with livestock, the indiscriminate and random removal of wolves by hunting and trapping can actually create a void that may be filled by other wolves that may be more inclined to prey on livestock. There are definitely conflicts that sometimes arise between wolves and people. However, the intelligent way to respond is through the surgical removal of individual animals or packs and adoption of non-lethal animal husbandry practices. For instance, after California passed a state-wide ban on use of traps and poison to control predators, Marin County Commissioners voted to replace lethal measures with non-lethal methods. The tax payer funds that previously went to lethal control were used instead to build fences, purchase guard dogs and lambing sheds. In the end there was a reduction in predator losses while at the same time, the county spent less funds than what it had previously spent on lethal predator control. A similar effort in Montana’s own Blackfoot Valley where dead carcasses which serve as an attractant for predators are promptly removed has also lead to a reduction in livestock /predator conflicts. Such changes in policies demonstrate what is possible when people use their brains instead of their guns. In the novel to Kill a Mockingbird, the indiscriminate killing of mockingbirds represented the unnecessary and thoughtless destruction of animals and humans based on old biases. The sad truth is that in Montana we are still killing symbolic mockingbirds by our archaic and irrational attitudes towards predators like the wolf.