Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Opinion: Montana bill damages lynx, other wildlife habitat

Tester’s forest bill damages wild places, legitimizes secrecy

Guest column | Posted: Tuesday, February 16, 2010 7:59 am

For Montanans who appreciate the need to keep our remaining wild places intact, there are many reasons to oppose Sen. Jon Tester’s forest bill.

For starters, the bill is based upon secretive collaborative agreements that intentionally excluded those who oppose more logging and road building in roadless areas. Next, it creates congressional mandates to radically increase logging, far beyond what the Forest Service has determined to be sustainable for portions of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Kootenai national forests, areas already damaged by past over-cutting. The bill actually declassifies over 200,000 acres of forest and Bureau of Land Management wilderness study areas, most of this domain protected by the late Sen. Lee Metcalf. It undercuts the popular national forest roadless rules. And the mandated cutting levels will, at least in part, come from roadless areas.

Road-building and logging in roadless areas creates erosion and weed infestations, decreases water quality, fragments habitat and degrades habitat for wilderness-dependent wildlife such as bull trout, wolverine and lynx. It’s expensive. It robs our wildland storehouse of ecosystem services. And it robs Montanans of an unparalleled legacy.

Tester would designate roughly 600,000 acres of forest wilderness, yes, but that’s less than 1/10th of Montana’s national forest roadless acreage. Most of the wilderness areas would be small, “pockets of backcountry,” as bill supporter Chris Naumann recently wrote in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle (Feb. 6). Boundaries for these “pocket wildernesses” were drawn to exclude nearly all conflicts, resulting mostly in high altitude “wilderness on the rocks” that fails to protect ecosystems. And some of the new wildernesses would allow motor vehicles and other incongruous uses.

All this would be bad enough, but much of the rationalization for the bill is based upon discredited ideas that promote logging for forest health and restoration. These ideas have been repeated ad nauseam in and by the media, but they’re wrong. For me this is a real sore point, primarily because scientists and even the Forest Service agree that our healthiest landscapes are wilderness and roadless areas. Frankly, I think it is outrageous that Tester and the closed-door collaborators, including the Montana Wilderness Association, perpetuate the myths by clamoring for logging to doctor our alleged messy bug-killed fire-prone woods.

Well, they are confused, indeed. It turns out that most of the old studies supporting this mind-set were flawed, often based upon examining individual timber stands, not the whole landscape. Recent comprehensive studies conclude that in the Rockies, current fuel loads, fire frequency and severity, and insect infestations are well within the historic range of variation. Also, recently burned or bug-killed woods rarely contribute to increased wildfire danger, so logging the backcountry for forest health is unwarranted, not to mention expensive. Rocky Mountain forests historically tended to evolve toward increasing density after a disturbance. So they’re supposed to become thick, with periodic large severe fires the norm, not the exception. The vast open park-like forest, with frequent “cool” burns is a myth, say the experts, except in the American Southwest. So sure, thin to create defensible space around buildings, but leave the backcountry alone! It is simply incorrect to claim that wild forests, dead trees and all, “need” to be logged!

Finally, research consistently shows that our unhealthiest and most fire-prone forests are those that have been logged and roaded (logging often exacerbates fire danger). So here’s the question: Why, then, does Tester, plus supporting groups such as MWA and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, promote a bill that gives us more logging, more roads, a few “pocket” wilderness areas, and a big net loss of wild country? I think Montana deserves better.

Howie Wolke is a wilderness guide/outfitter with a degree in conservation and wildlife ecology who has explored Montana’s wildlands for 40 years. He writes from Emigrant.



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