“Worthy Objects” 

Who will benefit from the massive Sula Forest timber sale?

A state constitutional mandate has clashed with environmental concerns in the Sula State Forest, where six timber companies will harvest 21 million board feet of charred timber that was severely burned in last summer’s fires.

Although the state is mandated to manage the Sula State Forest, as well as other state lands, in a manner that economically benefits the state’s public schools and universities, two environmental groups believe the economic mandate is in conflict with the forest’s fire-caused ecological needs. The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC), which is responsible for managing state lands, believes it can do both.

Last week, six bids were awarded to five mills in western Montana and one in Washington. The companies will harvest a total of 21 million board feet—just 6.5 million board feet less than all of the timber on federal land that was sold by the Bitterroot National Forest over the past three years.

State lands like the Sula State Forest must, according to the Montana Constitution, be managed as income generators for public schools. It is a mandate that goes back to 1889 and statehood, according to Jon Hayes, DNRC silviculturist. State lands were granted to Montana at statehood and now provide income for nine trusts, eight of which are education trusts. (The ninth is a veterans’ home trust.)

The six separate sales will generate $3.5 million, mostly for K-12 schools, but also to Montana Tech, according to DNRC officials. But two environmental groups, Friends of the Bitterroot and Alliance for the Wild Rockies, say the timber harvest, which is scheduled to begin this winter, is ecologically unnecessary and even harmful to the land as it tries to recover from the devastating summer of 2000.

“In fact, it’s riskier than green sales,” says Friends of the Bitterroot president Jim Olsen. Removing big trees will completely change plant and animal communities as they strive to recover, he says. Standing dead trees still provide needed shade for some species. Others, such as black-backed woodpeckers and hares, rely on snags and groupings of snags.

The existing literature, some of it written by U.S. Forest Service scientists, disputes the notion that there is any ecological benefit in harvesting burned timber, Olsen adds. He suspects there may be more politics behind the decision to log the Sula State Forest than either ecological or economic reasons. And he criticizes Gov. Marc Racicot for his claim that state lands were better managed than federal lands in the period leading up to this year’s epic fire season. “This forest, according to BAER [Burned Area Emergency Recovery] surveys, burned much more severely than the national forest. So much for Racicot’s claim that he knows how to do it better than the current administration and the Forest Service.”

Mike Wood, staff attorney for Alliance for the Wild Rockies, agrees with Olsen that scientific literature says that land should be allowed to heal after a catastrophic event like fire to minimize the impacts heavy equipment will have on damaged soil. “The best thing you can do is allow the forest to stay as it is,” he says.

Wood also has two other concerns: He is not convinced that the Montana Constitution does, in fact, require that state lands generate income for schools, but rather the state is required, he says, to manage state lands in a manner that benefits schools and “other worthy objects.”

To Wood’s way of thinking, “other worthy objects,” which is a phrase taken from state law, means wildlife. “They’re rationalizing the whole salvage operation by having to make money.”

But to the DNRC, “other worthy objects” means the nine trusts that receive money from state lands: UM, MSU, Montana Tech, Western and Eastern colleges, the Great Falls school for the deaf and blind, the boys’ Pine Hills reform school, the veterans’ home, and public buildings.

Both Olsen and Wood also question the speed with which the Environmental Analysis was prepared. The State Lands Board, which has the ultimate say on the DNRC’s proposals, has no multiple-use mission, Olsen says. The harvest of 21 million board feet of timber from recently burned land is not sustainable, despite the DNRC’s Environmental Analysis, which says it is. “I don’t think they made a commitment to reflect that,” he says.

Wood agrees, and says that in spite of what he calls a “good field trip” to the site where citizens met with DNRC officials to take a look at the proposed project, it was apparent to Alliance staffers that timber harvest was a done deal.

Dan Bushnell, a DNRC public affairs officer, calls the deal a “win, win, win situation.” The Environmental Analysis began when smoke was still in the air, and wasn’t a rush job, he says. The harvest won’t begin until winter, when the ground is frozen and the heavy equipment won’t impact the soils much. (Although the DNRC’s press release says harvest could begin this month “and could run through December 2001.”) And a DNRC staffer will be on site to make sure the logging is done properly, with minimal damage to the land.

“We’re not just going to go out and harvest the forest for kicks and giggles,” he says.

Bushnell says the state must manage the lands for the future as well as the present. The DNRC cannot leave a legacy of burned stumps to future generations, he says.

Since there is no appeals process with state lands projects, the only avenue left to citizens who oppose the sale is to sue the state. Wood says he knows of no environmental groups who plan to sue, but speculates that at some point, environmental groups may challenge the State Land Board’s mandate.

In the spring of 2002, the DNRC will begin a decade-long project to plant 100,000 ponderosa pine seedlings with money earned from the timber sale.

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