Most Montanans probably heard the news last week that two lumber mills were shutting down temporarily. There are big piles of logs sitting in their log yards, but the financial crisis caused by the melt-down of the sub-prime loan market combined with a major slump in housing construction is making it unprofitable for the mills to sell their lumber at such depressed prices. Meanwhile, the state Land Board has granted approval for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) to move ahead with one of the largest harvests of old growth timber on state lands in recent history. Given the prevailing economic conditions the question seems obvious: What’s the rush for the state to sell off such a large chunk of our dwindling old growth forests with timber at bargain-basement prices?
The Three Creeks sale near Swan Lake has been controversial from the start since it is located in old growth forest, sensitive grizzly bear and lynx habitat, designated bull trout critical habitat, and has the potential to impact a number of other species. To appreciate the size of the project, consider first that the entire Swan River State Forest contains between 38,000 and 39,000 acres. Of that, this single project encompasses about 10,383 acres—or slightly more than one-fourth of the whole darn thing. The DNRC proposed harvesting 1,884 total acres in three large sales over a period of three to four years with an expected yield of between six to nine million board feet per sale. Some smaller “permit sales” are also part of the mix. Additionally, the agency proposed cutting 1,222 acres of old growth.
According to DNRC’s testimony before the Land Board, the “one driver” for the Three Creeks Project is “addressing insect and disease issues” which the agency says have severely impacted the Douglas fir, grand fir, and larch within the project area. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on the project was begun in 2004 with scoping requests and released to the public for comment in 2006. The analysis immediately drew significant concern from a number of conservation groups intimately familiar with the on-the-ground conditions in the Swan River State Forest.
The Land Board took up the proposal at its February 2007 meeting and conservationists presented extensive testimony outlining their concerns, including the depressed price for timber, the lack of an old growth recruitment plan, and questioning why the project had almost doubled in size from the original plan.
Arlene Montgomery, representing Friends of the Wild Swan, testified that during a preliminary field tour, she had asked DNRC’s Dan Roberson why the planned old growth harvest had increased, and he responded that the agency couldn’t meet its timber production target for this project without cutting old growth. Rather succinctly, Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center told the Board she believed, “This timber sale and the ones coming in the future are pitting old growth and sustainable yield targets against each other…and sustained yield won.”
To his credit, State Auditor John Morrison took the lead in addressing the environmental concerns and asked DNRC to convene an advisory group that would tour the Phase One site, which included 420 acres of old growth. As Morrison put it: “The kind of advisory group I am talking about would really sink its teeth into this after the results of Phase One started to become clear so they could make recommendations and comments to us so we could be best advised as we move into Phase Two.” Governor Schweitzer asked DNRC Director Mary Sexton if there was any problem with taking the actions suggested by Morrison and Sexton replied: “We’d be glad to incorporate that on an informal basis and work with you.”
Unfortunately, that’s not what happened.
DNRC sold the timber to Plum Creek, but the company decided not to harvest it early in the year and by mid-summer the fire danger was so extreme it was too dangerous to attempt. The promised advisory committee was never implemented since, as DNRC tells it, there was nothing to see.
Things started to go really wrong at the December 2007 Land Board meeting when DNRC sought approval for Phase Two. Representing the groups that had initially raised concerns over the project, MEIC’s Anne Hedges asked the Board to postpone approval of Phase Two until the on-the-ground field tour and the opportunity for review and suggestions—as per Morrison’s plan—had been accomplished. The Board, however, comprised of Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Morrison, Attorney General Mike McGrath, Secretary of State Brad Johnson, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch voted unanimously to approve Phase Two.
Following the Board’s approval, the Montana Conservation Voters, Montana Environmental Information Center, Montana Audubon, Montana Trout Unlimited, Friends of the Wild Swan, the Montana Old Growth Project, and the Montana Chapter of the Sierra Club sent a jointly-signed letter to Land Board members and DNRC Director Mary Sexton noting their major concerns and noting that “the Land Board reneged on its commitment to have DNRC form and consult with an advisory committee prior to considering Phase Two of this sale” and refused to “hold DNRC accountable to even the most basic procedural directions given by the Board.” Once again, they requested that Phase Two be postponed until the prior commitments were met.
This week the January meeting of the Land Board came and went without a peep from Board members about the Three Creeks project.
Considering it’s an election year, that four of the five Land Board members are once again running for office, and that lumber prices are as low as they’ve been in a decade, one might justifiably wonder what’s the rush to sell off our state’s remaining old growth forests? Perhaps even more puzzling to political observers is what these candidates feel they have to gain by blowing off their promises to some of the key constituent groups that helped put them in office—and who may well hold them accountable.
Helena’s George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.