On June 23 a group of conservation advocates gathered at Bernice’s Bakery for a timely field trip to a small plot of burned trees. They carpooled 15 miles up the Blackfoot to Gold Creek Road, where they shook hands with members of the Forest Service team responsible for designing a salvage logging plan for the Mineral fire of 2003. Then everybody piled in Forest Service minivans and a couple of pickup trucks to drive 17 miles on windy gravel roads through former Champion International land now owned and managed by Plum Creek Timber.
The Mineral fire burned some 70,000 acres in the summer of 2003. One person attributed the fire’s intensity to past corporate logging practices, but a Forest Service guy noted that relentless wind had driven the fire that day. “It wouldn’t have mattered what kind of forest was there,” he said.
The Missoula-based Native Forest Network had requested this field trip, which took place just weeks before the Forest Service team will decide the fate of the salvage proposal. Spending the day in the field together were about 18 concerned citizens and Missoula-area activists—some of whom are veterans of post-fire litigation from the 2000 fires. Their informal gathering provided an opportunity for citizens and Forest Service officials to learn from one another. But it also revealed a gnawing skepticism that will need to be overcome if relationships are to improve.
The group arrived at the trailhead and took a short stroll toward the nearby boundary of the Rattlesnake Wilderness along the popular West Fork Gold Creek trail. Here, in the noticeably cooler woods, past blue flagging outlining the proposed cut, they found a forest that experienced a starkly different fire from that which sped through the private lands below. In this mixed conifer stand, fire snaked along the forest floor, scorching the duff. A blackened spruce stood just a few feet from a surviving fir. Many trees already had fallen, opening holes in the canopy and allowing sunlight to filter down and coax young trees upward. Flames had swept through some of the lodgepole stands with more intensity, killing virtually all the trees.
Ecologically minded members of the group argued that these woods don’t need any work to become healthy; they already are healthy. But the Mineral Fire Salvage proposal isn’t intended to improve the health of the forest, or even to protect human communities from wildfire.
“This is an opportunity to salvage what was burned in 2003 to provide wood products,” explained Debbie Austin, the Lolo Forest Supervisor.
With that remark, eyes rolled and heads sagged.
The main concern in the group centered on the location of the salvage project. Why choose to log an intact forest so close to wilderness? But group members were also skeptical over a relatively new rule, called “categorical exclusion,” that the Forest Service had employed in the planning process. Categorical exclusions allow the Forest Service to cut months off the planning process by avoiding the preparation of a formal Environmental Assessment or Environmental Impact Statement.
Conservationists say this rule change effectively shuts the public out. Today’s informal—and voluntary—participation comes just weeks before a decision will be made.
Taking advantage of the opportunity, group members asked various versions of the same question: Why use rule changes made under the auspices of the Healthy Forests Initiative to log an already healthy forest that is far from any towns? Especially when it’s wedged between wilderness and heavily compromised, corporate-managed forest land—with a popular hiking trail running through the middle of the most controversial part of the cut.
“Fire is playing its natural, beneficial role in the ecosystem,” said Matthew Koehler of the Native Forest Network. “Yet it’s being marked for salvage logging.”
Austin, the forest supervisor, said she’d be irresponsible to not consider the area for logging. After all, the forest plan—in effect a zoning document for the entire Lolo National Forest—calls for an emphasis on timber production for this patch of ground. And the categorical exclusion allows for this kind of salvage project without performing redundant work—saving both time and taxpayer money.
Bruce Higgins, the project manager, points out that the Forest Service has proposed logging only 145 acres, and only taking standing trees that are dead or dying. He explained to the group that all larch would be off limits to cutting, and probably any Douglas fir over 14 inches in diameter—he says trees that size can have bark thick enough to survive the low- and moderate-intensity fire that snaked through this stand.
Higgins pulled out a hatchet and performed a cambium test on a big, green spruce while a group of people, some wearing “Greenpeace Forest Crimes Unit” T-shirts, gathered around. The crown was full of green needles, and at a scuff mark higher up the wood was still moist. But according to Higgins, with the cambium dead at the bottom, it’s just a matter of time before the tree dies.
Some argued that the tree would provide nutrients and long-term water retention if spared from logging. Higgins agreed, but pointed to the large number of already fallen trees in the area. “We’re leaving all those.”
Austin says her team is close to deciding the fate of this patch of woods—but wanted to get together with the conservation community before making a final decision. During this field trip, the group asked pointed questions but also commended the Forest Service team for the thought they’d put into the project. Still, there is a long way to go before enough trust is built between these groups to ward off suspicion—or threats of litigation—when a project uses unfamiliar short cuts.
The identification of projects and the decision to use categorical exclusions is up to local Forest Service professionals.
Conservationists may not trust administration-driven change, but the most important relationship remains at the local level.
These informal gatherings could be a sign of progress in the relationship between those who take it upon themselves to care for the woods and those charged with the responsibility of decision-making.
After the discussion and debates ended, everyone piled into Forest Service mini-vans for the 17-mile ride to Highway 200. Talk turned from the proposed salvage to the wet spring we’ve had, and guesses about when this year’s fire season might start.