Home Fires Burning 

Bitterrooters offer their own alternative to the big timber sale

While the Forest Service floated their proposals last week for how much timber ought to be taken from charred lands on the Bitterroot National Forest (BNF), local citizens and environmental groups were putting the finishing touches on a plan that would leave the trees where they are while still putting Bitterroot Valley residents to work in the woods.

The Friends of the Bitterroot’s (FOB) “citizen’s alternative” contrasts sharply with the Forest Service’s alternatives, which would cut up to 280 million board feet—enough to fill logging trucks that would stretch, if lined up end to end, from Missoula nearly to Seattle—in the name of reducing fuel loads for future fires. The intensive logging also calls into question just how the BNF intends to use its share of the $1.8 billion Congress allocated last year for protection of homes and property in the urban-wildland interface.

According to Jim Olsen, co-author of the alternative and Friends of the Bitteroot member, their plan meets the concerns of Bitteroot Valley residents and allows for natural recovery of the burned area.

“The best use of the millions of dollars Congress allocated last year to help deal with the fire issue is to help people prepare for the eventuality of fire where homes intermingle with forest lands,” says Olsen. The citizens’ alternative also outlines provisions for aiding natural recovery of burned areas, reduce non-native weed infestation, and protect local creeks, streams and watersheds.

Another key component of the plan is a comprehensive education program designed to protect homes from wildfire and reduce fire risk on private lands. The creation of a community conservation corps that would employ local residents is also proposed.

Yet given the size and intensity of last summer’s burn, is it feasible that Bitterroot Valley residents will buy into landscaping as the answer to fears of catastrophic fires? Whether or not conventional wisdom can be altered to change political will has historically not had much to do with fire science. But in this case, the seeds of change might be found in the work of the Forest Service’s own Intermountain Fire Laboratory based in Missoula. In studying last year’s disaster in Los Alamos as well as other fire-stricken locales around the West, researchers found what private landowners do to protect themselves from fire determines more about threats to life and property than the way federal forest land is managed to mitigate fire. According to one study, landscaping within 40 meters of a home, as well as building design and materials, dictate almost entirely whether a home will catch fire. The same study also claims that the way in which lands away from the urban-wildland interface are managed have little to do with how homes will fare in large-scale fire events.

The Forest Service, for its part, seems to be in agreement with the FOB on the importance of protecting homes and property. They disagree, however, about leaving what Bitteroot Forest Manager Craig Bobzien characterized as an unnatural build up of fuels in such areas.

“I don’t want another summer where we were fighting fire in people’s backyards,” says Bobzien. “As far as the 40 meters thing is concerned, If we’re fighting a fire, we want to be fighting it in the forest, a mile or two from anyone’s homes.”

Bobzien also delineated differences between his agency and the FOB in a mission to reduce what he called “dangerous fuel loads,” the kind that burn with enough intensity to damage soil and streams. “We are trying to target areas that have over 25 to 30 tons per acre of fuel build up,” says Bobzien. “And this is where you’ll see we’re cutting. Research, some of which we’ve had help with from the university, seems to indicate that historically, there was five to 25 tons per acre in these lower elevation forests, and that is what we’d like to try to wind up with.”

Such concerns over unnaturally high fuel loads is part of why Congress allocated nearly $1.8 billion last year to reduce fuel loads in the urban wildland interface. While there is no scientific evidence to support the contention that salvage logging reduces the chance of fire, proponents of FOB’s alternative question whether the Forest Service is using the money as Congress intended. At a Congressional subcommittee meeting last month held by Idaho Senator Larry Craig, the question came up about whether the Bitterroot and other national forests were financing timber sales with money intended to protect citizens from fire damage.

“Apparently, the question struck a nerve,” recalls Larry Campbell, executive director of FOB. “It’s clear that they’re basically serving sawmills rather than people. At a time when they ought to be using whatever resources they have available for addressing the immediate needs of people at risk, they are using those resources to crank out an old-style timber sale.”

Despite the rancor over funding, FOB and other local environmental groups aren’t at war with the Forest Service. Instead, they hope to get citizens in the Bitterroot’s backyard involved in pushing the BNF to choose an alternative that involves less logging and more protection of homes. Bobzien is optimistic that there is more than enough common ground for the groups to sit down and come to some agreement.

“We agree that fire is a natural process and that some fires are inevitable,” says Bobzien. “I think there are parts of their plan in terms of road rehabilitation and watershed protection that we agree on. People have chosen to live in these areas, and we’re still trying to meet with that new precedent.”

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