On a drizzly late-summer afternoon John Waverek sits in a white Dodge Ram about three miles above the Crazy Canyon trailhead. The road he's parked on sits parallel to a ridgeline on the southern face of University Mountain and is well worn, but only the Forest Service is allowed to drive through this part of Pattee Canyon. Waverek, a district fire manager officer for the Lolo National Forest, has come up here to prove a point.
He kills the truck's engine and steps out into the rain. "You see this?" he asks, sweeping his open palm out to the immediate surroundings. "Look at this. Does this look like a healthy forest to you?"
No, it doesn't. Even an untrained eye can see slash piles rise from thigh-deep grass all around the truck. The piles of woody debris are as tall as eye-level and scattered throughout the area. The grove is so thick it's hard to imagine where those fallen trees once stood, and their stumps are invisible under the thick grass and knapweed. The remaining ponderosa pines and Douglas firs are packed together so tightly that Waverek has to step through them like he's weaving through a crowd. The spot looks nothing like a healthy forest. It resembles a neglected yard behind some abandoned house.
Waverek says this stand is a prime example of what's wrong with many groves throughout the Lolo National Forest. When asked to elaborate, he chooses his words carefully. It's not doing well, but he won't call it sick. Like most Forest Service employees and scientists, Waverek worries about throwing around phrases like "healthy forests" or "sick trees" because those loaded terms can be misleading and used as political footballs. The issue is too complex to be reduced to such overly simplistic phrases. Experts prefer to use language like "mismanaged" and speak optimistically of "returning forests to a natural state."
Whatever the exact terminology, the general consensus is that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Forest managers are facing unprecedented challenges, from correcting past policies to mitigating the current and future impacts of climate change.
Waverek zeroes in on one particularly troubling sign. He points to countless white and orange pustules littering most of the ponderosa trunks, the signature marks left by the mountain pine beetles. Most of the infected trees in this area are dead and the others will be soon. Relatively speaking, it won't be long before they begin to fall and the Douglas firs start to grow around them. That could lead to a total stand replacement and/or an enormous fire. It's a situation that makes Waverek cringe.
The mountain pine beetle is native to the Rocky Mountain West and, as long as pines have made up the forests, the beetles have been trying to eat them. But never have they attacked them so successfully as in recent years.
The ponderosa's powerful defenses make it one of the beetle's least preferred meals. The trees grow thick bark that is difficult for insects to bore into. Once they do make it past, the beetles then have to contend with high volumes of pitch produced by the ponderosas.
University of Montana researcher Diana Six says beetle attacks of ponderosa pines are one indicator of the abnormal current forest conditions. Beetle populations have fluctuated throughout the centuries and follow the same trajectory of significant climate changes. When temperatures rise, the population booms, and when temperatures fall, the beetles die off. But even taking these historic fluctuations into account, Six says the current status is unprecedented.
"This outbreak is 10 times bigger than any that's happened in the past and it's likely the biggest that's ever happened on the planet," Six says. "It killed 80 percent of the pines in British Columbia, it's now in Saskatchewan and it's expected to keep going as an exotic through the boreal forest and into the eastern pine forests and maybe into the southern United States."
The reason for the epidemic is tied directly to climate change. Cold winters historically kept beetles in check. The bugs used to need two years to reach full maturity, and during the second winter, when the beetles were in the larval stage, the frigid temperatures of high-elevation forests would kill them. Now, with increasingly warmer weather, the beetles mature in just one year and reproduce at an exponential rate.
While beetle populations continue to grow and threaten forests throughout the West, their numbers in western Montana have actually decreased. Six explains that it's not because temperatures have dropped or because anything is killing the beetles, but rather because there aren't enough trees left to support their enormous numbers.
The new concern for researchers is how the bugs may impact high-elevation whitebark pine. These trees never had to deal with beetle epidemics before because high elevations never got warm enough for beetles to survive. Now that's changing. Six says research in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem shows 1.2 million acres of whitebark pine have died from beetle infestation.
"That's a tree species that has absolutely no defenses, so they're just sitting ducks," Six says.
Grizzly bears rely on whitebark pine seeds as a primary food source before entering hibernation. Earlier this year, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service considered removing grizzly bears from the Endangered Species List, Six testified in Washington, D.C., that the bear's major food source is disappearing.
"It's a very disturbing time to me," Six says. "Just a few years ago we thought the beetles wouldn't move into whitebark pine for 20 years, but it's already happened. That tree is now being recommended for listing as an endangered species."
Foresters say there isn't anything they can do to protect whitebark pines or stave off the beetles. The only thing that can reverse the trend is colder winters, and climate models predict hotter temperatures in the years to come.
Waverek sees the problem playing out in Crazy Canyon with the ponderosa pines. Many trees are already dead from beetles, but he says there's another factor.
Ponderosas evolved to grow places many other pines can't. They thrive in hot and dry climates and, because they live where water is scarce, they survive in thin forests. The problem up Crazy Canyon is that the ponderosa stands are at a density way beyond natural levels.
"We've got accounts of people driving wagons through here in the mid-1800s," Waverek says. "Unless they took the road, there's no way that'd happen now."
Ponderosa pines around Missoula once grew in stands of only 12–15 trees per acre; today there can be up to 500. Density was low, Waverek argues, because fires came through the area once every five to 25 years and burnt away most of the shade-tolerant undergrowth and saplings too young to take the heat. But more than a century of fire suppression has disrupted that natural cycle, and now the forest is so thick that everything would go if the fires returned.
Out by 10:00 am
Waverek talks about using fire the same way your neighbor uses a Weed Eater. In a perfect world, flames clear out dead or weak trees and help promote healthy new growth. But many areas of the Lolo National Forest, including the grove he's standing in, are too overgrown for a prescribed burn.
Around the turn of the 20th century, some of the largest fires in American history burned through the national forests. The Great Burn in 1910 destroyed over 3 million acres of forest in Montana, Idaho and Washington and killed 86 people. As a result, the federal government perceived wildfires as a threat to valuable resources and lives and adopted a policy of complete fire suppression.
By 1934, federal policy called for all fires extinguished "by 10:00 a.m. the next morning." For better or worse, the policy was successful. In the 1930s, wildfires burned roughly 30 million acres; by the late 1960s that number decreased to less than 5 million.
Around that same, researchers began to figure out that fire played a crucial role in the life cycles of several tree species. The flames burn away undergrowth, returning nutrients to the soil and allowing tree seeds an opportunity to sprout.
The Forest Service has gotten more comfortable with fires in recent years and readily acknowledges that tree mortality is just as critical as tree viability to forest health. Wildfires in high elevations and far from human development are allowed to burn but monitored for potential threats. In low elevations, fire has been successfully reintroduced to a few ponderosa stands around Missoula to promote a more natural fire schedule.
Waverek drives farther down the Forest Service road, closer to the Crazy Canyon trailhead. The trees are broadly spaced and stand like Corinthian columns. The undergrowth is low to the ground. Waverek approaches a particularly large tree and points to a charred triangular scar on the uphill side of the trunk. He's pleased.
"This was a good burn," he says. "You can see how the wood underneath is now exposed."
When the flames penetrate the bark of a mature ponderosa, the tree rushes pitch to the area to seal it off. Repeated over time, this process increases the tree's density, allowing it to remain standing long after it's dead to provide habitat for birds and small mammals.
While fire is a vital part of returning forests to their natural state, the potential consequences make it a less-than-popular tactic.
"In Montana, no one wants to be responsible for the risks," says Carl Seielstad, a University of Montana professor of fire science management. "In the case of the Forest Service or any other agency, if it's perceived that you're responsible for letting it burn then you're on the hook for what happens downstream. That's the fundamental reason why so little fire is allowed to burn outside the wilderness areas."
The Forest Service acknowledges that this presents a problem. They want to reintroduce fire, but it needs to be on their terms. The agency says if fires came through without interference, they would burn at a high intensity and wipe out most, if not all, of the large trees in the forest.
For example, after the Lolo Creek Complex fire sparked on Aug. 18, it took less than two days for it to spread over 5,000 acres. More than 750 people, 39 engines, five helicopters and about $12.5 million were eventually used to fight the blaze. When crews successfully contained it about three weeks later, 10,900 acres of mixed conifer forest had burned. Just under 2,000 of those belonged to the Forest Service. The largest landholder affected by the fire was Plum Creek Timber Company, which owns 7,000 acres.
Every year, Plum Creek pays about 25 cents an acre to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation as a kind of insurance against any potential fires on the company's 900,000 acres. The company actively thinned and logged the Lolo Creek area over the last several decades and had more planned for the near future. Plum Creek says it will still cut whatever timber is salvageable for paper pulp, fiberboard and lumber. The wood that's too burnt may fuel sawmill boilers.
Critics believe the Forest Service is still too lenient with timber companies and point to the Lolo Creek Complex as evidence. While Plum Creek says more thinning and logging is the answer, opponents disagree.
"It's ridiculous on its face to think the cause of our problems—the industrial techniques that damaged the forests—will get us out of the mess we're in ... ," says Matthew Koehler, executive director of the nonprofit WildWest Institute. "Logging makes a forest hotter, windier and drier. Anyone who went through the summer in Missoula and thinks we need forests that are hotter, windier and drier is misguided."
A lasting legacy
While experts agree our public forests need attention, opinions vary on the best solutions. It's part of the reason Waverek and others avoid terms like "healthy" and "sick" when describing their work.
"The thing is that [forest health] becomes code for different things," says Boise State University researcher John Freemuth. "Does it mean active management? Does it mean cutting more trees in the name of forest health? Does that mean restoring what forests looked like before white Europeans? Or do we mean forests that don't burn as often that produce more goods and services?"
The answer depends on whom you ask—and those answers are often influenced by problems with past policies.
Freemuth has taught at Boise State for 27 years and specializes in public lands policy. During the Clinton administration, he served on the Bureau of Land Management Science Advisory Board. He says that throughout its history, the U.S. Forest Service has evolved to meet the needs of the American public and, in doing so, inadvertently struggled to maintain the public's trust.
"Because of how it managed its holdings, the agency lost the faith of the American people at one point and they've been trying to get it back ever since," he says.
From World War II through the early 1980s, the Forest Service, the largest landholder in the United States, managed much of its holdings essentially as giant timber farms. Timber companies were allowed to build logging roads within 100 feet of one another deep into the forest. Though many of them are now closed to vehicles, the Lolo National Forest contains 6,200 miles of roads, or enough to drive from coast-to-coast twice. Thousands of acres at a time were clear cut, habitat was destroyed, runoff polluted streams and burned slash piles diminished air quality.
In the late 1960s, the environmental movement established itself and fought for legislation that changed how the agency managed the country's national forests. One major change was the National Environmental Policy Act. Hailed as the Magna Carta for environmental protection, NEPA mandated that federal agencies define how their proposed actions will affect the environment and what possible viable alternatives there may be. The court system oversees the NEPA process and ultimately decides if the proposed plans would be allowed. For the first time, the Forest Service had to consider the impacts of future timber sales and other land improvement projects. The policy radically changed the face of the agency.
"To that point the Forest Service was run by engineers and [timber guys], then many more research biologists stepped in," Freemuth says. "It was wrenching for them internally, but they became a much more multifaceted organization."
The changes couldn't, however, undo the damage in the woods. The new Forest Service has in its hands thousands of acres of single-age and over-populated tree stands, around 380,000 miles of roads, noxious weeds and many outdated stream-damaging culverts. Much of the agency's resources go toward undoing the damage of the past, but progress is slow.
The way the laws are written, environmental groups can easily challenge the Forest Service's plans, citing anything from lack of habitat protection to filing technicalities. If a judge sides with the environmentalists on just one issue, the Forest Service must go back, reassess its plan and provide more analysis.
"There's a thing called NEPA-proofing a forest plan," Freemuth says. The process basically involves foresters covering every possible way the plan will affect the environment and the animals within it, from, say, water quality in the short-term to long-term viability of lynx habitat.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies has sued the agency more than any other environmental organization, and Executive Director Mike Garrity says they've won 87 percent of the time. He argues that if the agency more diligently protected habitat for endangered species, the lawsuits wouldn't be necessary.
As an example, AWR is one of several plaintiffs that successfully sued the Forest Service over the Colt-Summit Project in the Seeley-Swan. Initially proposed in 2009, the plan was a result of a collaboration between landowners, the Forest Service, environmental groups and timber companies that aimed to reduce hazardous fuels and restore habitat in the area. But as of last month the project was still on hold after U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy agreed with environmental groups that the plan didn't do enough to consider the impact on lynx habitat. Garrity says that decades of logging in the area have already damaged the threatened species and cutting more trees won't help.
"The Forest Service and the phony environmental groups claim they support logging because it supports habitat, but that's an Orwellian [concept]," he says. "The best way to protect habitat is to leave it alone."
Officials in the Forest Service say they're as frustrated by the process as anyone, but they're beholden to the law and trying to balance the demands of a very divided country.
"If you look at the American people, like it or not, we have diverse values," says Traci Sylte, a Forest Service soil and water program manager. "When everybody's unhappy that's probably where we should be. If one side is happy we're probably too close to them. We manage for the public, and we need them to realize that makes it a very challenging role for the Forest Service."
A best guess
For the Forest Service and all the other land management agencies, the biggest challenges are likely yet to come. From changes in insect life cycles to longer fire seasons, most of the problems are tied to climate change.
"When referring to climate change everyone immediately thinks of the ice sheets in the Arctic, but we're seeing changes down here on the same scale," researcher Diana Six says.
Most climate models—like the one Six mentioned that predicted pine beetle movement into whitebark pine—were created a few years ago and have already proven inaccurate. The best estimates most researchers can make is that gradually the forests are going to be replaced with different species of flora.
"My prediction is everything growing in the forest now will move up in elevation," says Forest Service tree scientist John Errecart. "Climate change models are a best guess at this point. That makes it difficult for us to get it right."
Scientists can point to certain shifts in local weather patterns. Rain, instead of snow, is coming at the shoulder months of winter. That means low elevations accumulate lower snowpacks, and the snowpacks at high altitudes melt about three weeks faster. Fire season has grown by 70 days, on average. In addition, unusually hot summers are causing water to evaporate from watersheds and soils faster than ever before.
"Water is out of our control," hydrologist Traci Sylte says. "All we can do is try and keep shade over the streams and keep the banks healthy. There's nothing we can do."
Less water in rivers means even dryer conditions in the mountains and forests at greater risk for bug and disease infestations, tree deaths and wildfires. But if thinning means giving the ponderosa stands around Missoula a better chance, John Waverek is up for it. Still he worries about what a drying climate will mean for the already stressed forests. He's coming into his 40th year of preventing and fighting wildfires around Missoula and soon it'll be someone else's job. He's retiring at the end of the season.
After driving out of Crazy Canyon, Waverek goes a short distance down the road and crosses to the other side of Pattee Canyon. Midway up the eastern slope a younger forest emerges from the older ponderosas looming from behind. Freshly laid asphalt driveways pull away from the main road and up to luxury homes tucked into a dense blend of Douglas fir, larch and ponderosa.
"When I first moved to Missoula in 1981, this was the place to buy real estate ... everything was just black," he says, surveying the hillside. A fire in 1977 wiped the mountain clean, but the untrained eye would never know. The vegetation has returned to the point the homes can barely be seen through thick, healthy trees; only their roofs and moldings peek out from behind the crowns.
"Man, it's getting thick up here," Waverek says with a grin. You can see him already eyeing where thinning projects need to start. "The work never ends."This article was updated Thursday, Sept. 19 with the correct cost of fighting the Lolo Creek Complex fire.