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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.