Friday, June 22, 2012

Baucus Farm Bill Amendment Bad for Forests

Despite the ecological reality that beetle-kill is part of healthy functioning forest ecosystem, Montana Senator Max Baucus successfully added an amendment to the Farm Bill that would provide additional funds ($200 million) to log beetle-killed trees as well as “stream line” the process of getting out timber sales. Baucus stated this would be “good news” to the timber industry. Here’s a link to one news report on the Baucus amendment.

I don’t blame the Senator for his lack of ecological knowledge. And I am sure he had the best intentions, however, his amendment is “bad news” for our forests.
Among the incorrect assertions made by Baucus is the idea that dead beetle-killed trees increases fire risk. Except for the “red needle” stage, there is no conclusive evidence that dead trees contributes to any greater fire risk. Indeed, there is some research that suggests that dead trees are less prone to fire, especially once the needles and small branches are worn off over time.

Green trees, by contrast, have flammable resins that under conditions of drought and high winds can sustain high intensity blazes.

Baucus’s press release also furthered the misconception that beetle kill leads to a “loss” of the forest. In fact, beetle related mortality is seldom more than 50% of the trees in any forest. The naturally thinned forests that beetles create leads to increased growth rates among the remaining trees.

Dead trees not a wasted resource as implied by timber industry propaganda. Rather they are important for many wildlife species. Up to 45% of all bird species depend on dead trees for some part of their survival including feeding, roosting, and nesting. Dead trees that fall into streams contribute to as much as 50% of the fish habitat in aquatic ecosystems. Dead trees in streams also provide bank stability reducing water velocity and thus erosion.

In addition, dead trees are an important biological legacy to the future forest. The physical presence of dead trees is critical to future forest growth. Dead trees stacked on the ground capture water and concentrate it on the ends of logs where it can enhance seedling growth. The snags left by beetles provides some shade for tree saplings, and acts like a snow fence to trap snow in the winter adding to the water infiltration of the forest soil. The slowly decomposing boles are an important source of nutrients to the future forest.

Logging is not a benign activity. The disturbance that accompanies logging can enhance the spread of weeds. Logging roads are a major source of sedimentation in our streams and one of the major factors in the decline of many native fish populations. Logging activities can displace or disturb sensitive species from grizzlies to elk. Logging removes biological legacy, in effect, starving the forest.

Finally, to put the $200 million Baucus proposes to subsidizes timber operations in perspective, consider that in 2011 the entire 151 million acre national wildlife refuge system cost only around $500 million to operate. Could we not better spend $200 million on other conservation work?

While Senator Baucus’ amendment may have had the best intension, it’s bad news for taxpayers who will pay for the destruction of our forests, not to mention the long-term degradation of our forest ecosystems.

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