Thursday, January 22, 2009

Loving the Forests to Death

A report in today's Helena Independent Record highlights one of the great ironies, and great outrages, of our time: that the groups who claim to love our forests the most are doing everything in their power to destroy them, by obstructing any federal mitigation efforts that involve the harvesting of trees.

Our Western forests are in crisis, with beetles and wildfires destroying vastly more trees every year than the timber industry ever could, even in its heyday. Yet as the story below illustrates, litigious "tree-huggers" are the single biggest obstacle to saving the trees. Bigger than budget constraints. Bigger than bureaucratic inertia. Bigger than "analysis paralysis."

The story pretty much speaks for itself, but it's not an isolated case. Many a national forest has been stymied in its efforts to respond to the crisis, by extremists who would rather see the forests die en masse, and go up in flames, than see a single tree removed by human hands.

Managers of the Helena National Forest had a plan to counter invading mountain pine beetles and buffer nearby communities from the wildfire threat, which involved culling parts of the overly-dense forest in an effort to reduce "fuel loads" and cut out the cancer. That was in 2003. But because there was a commercial element to the plan -- because some of the logs could be milled and put to productive and profitable uses -- the zero-cut crowd, true to form, went running to the federal courts, demanding it be stopped.

Six years later, the plan has been upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. But at this point the damage has been done, and there's not much forest left to save.

It's outrageous. It's criminal. It's madness. But it's typical of how knee-jerk obstructionism by gang green is helping to wipe out the very forests they claim to love -- and explains why federal agencies have been so ineffectual in countering the forest health crisis. The 3 groups that helped kill this forest, just for the record, are Alliance of the Wild Rockies, Native Ecosystems Council and the Wildwest Institute. An army of rampaging loggers couldn't have done this forest more harm.

Here's the story:

Court rules in favor of logging project

By Eve Byron

Three environmental groups couldn’t quash a project on national forest lands meant to lessen the threat of wildfires near Clancy and Unionville southwest of Helena, but it appears that the tiny mountain pine beetle has made the Helena National Forest rethink its plan.

In a decision issued Tuesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the Helena forest’s 2003 plan to undertake commercial thinning and other efforts to remove small trees and vegetation on about 1,500 acres. However, Helena District Ranger Duane Harp said the prescription is only good now for about 100 acres containing Douglas fir trees, since about 90 percent of the trees on the remaining 1,400 acres — mainly lodgepole pines — are now dead.

“We are obviously extremely pleased that the Ninth Circuit has found in our favor. But it’s bittersweet news because with the current beetle epidemic, the vast majority of the project area, which was proposed for timber harvest, is now dead,” Harp said. “You can’t use the prescription for green trees on dead trees.

“So I guess we’ve implemented the no-action alternative.”

Mike Garrity, executive director of the Alliance of the Wild Rockies, said that if the Helena forest had worked with his organization and the two others that began appealing the lawsuit in 2004 — Native Ecosystems Council and the Wildwest Institute — that some compromise might have been reached to allow the project to move forward. He said the groups did agree with the forest that some thinning should be done on forest lands near homes while the lawsuit was under way, and that his group has worked with the Helena forest and others in the past to craft projects that wouldn’t be litigated.

“Our main focus was that the forest’s own five-year review of its forest plan showed that it was failing to ensure the viability of species,” Garrity said. “The forest service never disclosed that report to public, as originally planned, and has never addressed that concern even though it continues to implement the same flawed forest plan.”

He added that the appeals court’s decision wasn’t “published,” meaning it can’t be used as precedent, and that they disagree with the findings of the three-member judicial panel that issued the ruling. Garrity said they’re considering whether to ask for an opinion involving more of the appeals court’s judges.

Planning for what became known as the Clancy/Unionville Project began in 1997, because the forest service and some of the neighbors in the area thought this might reduce the threat of large-scale catastrophic wildfire. Harp said he also hoped thinning the forest here would also create a habitat less conducive to mountain pine beetles.

A final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision for the project was issued in 2000, but was successfully appealed and sent back to then-forest Supervisor Tom Clifford by the regional forester. Additional analysis was conducted and a new decision issued in February 2003. It’s that decision that’s been in litigation until this week’s Ninth Circuit Court ruling.

Garrity and others have long disputed that logging is good for reducing the threat of wildfire forestwide; they’d rather see it implemented only near homes for that purpose. They also argue that it’s impossible for the forest to “log its way out of the beetle epidemic.”

“British Columbia has a huge beetle infestation, and they log like crazy in Canada,” Garrity said. “There aren’t any scientific, peer-reviewed papers that say you can log your way out of a beetle infestation.

He adds that once the needles fall off of the dead trees after a year or two, the fire hazard actually is reduced. The danger increases, however, when those trees eventually fall to the forest floor, creating ladder fuels that fires use to creep up a tree from the ground into the crowns of trees.

But Harp said that at this point, the fire hazard has significantly increased in the Clancy and Unionville areas due to the standing dead trees.

Harp said they plan to remove “hazard trees” lining roads in the area that are at risk of falling on vehicles or people. They also may try to sell the dead trees as part of a commercial harvest plan, but will have to do additional studies to look at the impacts. He doesn’t expect any logging, other than possibly for hazard trees, in the area this year, but he wants to proceed as quickly as possible because the longer the dead trees stand in the forest, the less value they have to sawmills.

“We now have to decide if we will do any harvest at all under the Clancy Unionville decision,” Harp said. “We will however, move forward with the prescribed burning and other treatments that are outside the timber harvest units.”

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