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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.