The Forest for the Trees 

Would more logging have prevented Montana’s forest fires?

A lack of logging did not cause Montana’s forest fires, and neither did policies set in Washington, D.C., during the Clinton administration, says Matthew Koehler, spokesman for the Native Forest Network.

Koehler is angered by and ashamed of the politicization of the wildfire issue by Governor Marc Racicot, Rep. Rick Hill and Senator Conrad Burns in recent weeks.

“The status of the forest didn’t start seven years ago. It is a century in coming,” Koehler says, referring to Montana Republicans’ recent statements blaming the Clinton Administration for the forest fires now raging through the West. “I would rather have waited a month or two to have an open debate about this once people have their lives back, but that isn’t possible. I was surprised and appalled to hear Racicot talking about stewardship. Rick Hill, Conrad Burns, Gov. Racicot and the Montana Wood Products Association do not represent the people of rural western Montana.”

Koehler is angry about calls from those individuals and groups for “more responsible forest stewardship” in the wake of the wildfires sweeping across the western states.

“More responsible forest stewardship” can be interpreted as a demand for more roading and logging, according to Koehler. He believes it is those very situations that have caused the catastrophic fires that have blacked more than 600,000 acres in Montana this summer.

“Fire suppression, removing fire from its natural role in the ecosystem, is to blame,” Koehler says. “Fire suppression by the U.S. Forest Service has been done under pressure from timber companies to protect timber values.”

And Koehler has arguments to support his theories. He points to testimony by Dr. Jack Ward Thomas, former chief of the U.S. Forest Service to the Senate Subcommittee on Agricultural Research, Conservation, Forestry and General Legislation on Aug. 29, 1994. Thomas acknowledged that the Forest Service logs in insect-infested stands not to protect the ecology of the area, but to remove trees before their timber commodity value is reduced by the insects; and that “the Forest Service fights forest fires to maintain high timber commodity value of stands, not to protect forest ecosystems.”

“Because the U.S. Forest Service’s budget is directly tied to cutting down of our national forests, the Forest Service has a long history of doing what is best for their bottom-line, and not what is best for our national forests, clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitat,” Koehler says. “If we ever hope to have our national forests managed in a responsible way, we need to end the commercial timber sales program.”

Koehler cites numerous studies that have been done in recent years. Each of the studies offers the same conclusion, he says: Fires are more severe in areas where logging has occurred.

“Timber harvest, through its effects on forest structure, local microclimate, and fuels accumulation, has increased fire severity more than any other recent human activity,” states the 1996 Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project’s Final Report to Congress.

Logging and roading opens the forest canopy, drying out the ecosystem below the trees and increasing the possibility of fire and the severity of fire when it comes, Koehler says. Studies show logging slash piles can affect ecosystems for up to 30 years after the logging operation occurred.

“Clearly we need to now look at national forest management in a way that is not tied to production of commodities,” Koehler says. “What needs to happen is scientifically based management to restore biodiversity to the forests.”

Koehler’s organization supports proposed legislation that calls for half a billion dollars to be spent on forest rehabilitation.

“We support as a solution, a piece of legislation before Congress called the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act, that would end the commercial timber sale program while redirecting taxpayer dollars—not towards cutting the forests down—but towards scientifically proven restoration that reduces the risk of catastrophic wildfires and restores the biological integrity of our public lands,” Koehler explains. “That would pay every public-lands timber worker about $25,000 a year to restore the forests, not devastate them.”

Koehler says the bill is stalled in a subcommittee and he is not sure when, if ever, it will reach the floor for open debate.

“When this is over and politicians start talking about ‘fire risk reduction,’ we need to be very clear what that is,” Koehler says. “Work done should be done without regard to making money.”

And Koehler fears what might happen in a knee-jerk reaction to the magnitude of the summer’s fires. He opposes the plan proposed by Congressman Rick Hill for emergency measures to “recover vulnerable and affected timber.”

“By Hill’s definition, any tree that is vulnerable to fire or disease or insects is a tree that should be considered for harvest,” Koehler exclaims in disgust. “At last count, that is all the forestland in the western United States.”

By Koehler’s statistics, only about 3 percent of all U.S. timber comes from national forests at this time. He thinks that is a small enough amount to eliminate completely.

“We, as Americans, throw away four times that amount of lumber every year,” Koehler says.

He hopes that the political debate can die away until the fires themselves die. After the rains come and the danger fades will come the time for civil discussion of the issues. Koehler believes the politicians and timber industry representatives need to wait—out of respect for the affected communities and citizens in the path of those fires—before proposing increased logging and roadbuilding on the national forests.

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