by Michael Garrity, Opinion
A Feb. 11 opinion column in the Tribune alleged that an appeal of the Benchmark logging proposal was somehow “irresponsible.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council appealed the Benchmark timber sale because it authorizes 763 acres of logging and burning in lynx critical habitat, grizzly bear and goshawk habitat in violation of a host of federal laws. Moreover, science says it’s unlikely to provide the promised fire protection to Benchmark homeowners.
The Forest Service budget estimates the Benchmark project will cost taxpayers more than a million dollars. If it actually made the area safer from wildfire, one might argue that it’s worth it. But given the current national debate over government spending, an expensive, ineffective logging project is hardly defensible.
Why is the project ineffective in regard to wildfire? Simply put, the local Forest Service officials completely disregarded the advice of the U.S. Forest Service’s own wildfire scientist, Jack Cohen.
To effectively protect homes from wildfire, Cohen recommends thinning and trimming low branches in what he terms the “Home Ignition Zone,” which is approximately 150 lineal feet from a home.
Mr. Cohen’s studies show that if logging is done more than 150 feet away from homes, the logging has virtually no effect on the survivability of a home in a wildfire. Without the 150-foot barrier, homes remain highly vulnerable to burning, even when surrounded by fuel breaks.
As the recent fire in logged Plum Creek lands near Seeley Lake demonstrated, thinning forests can actually result in wildfire spreading faster than in the unthinned forests.
The Benchmark timber sale, as proposed, logs more than 150 feet away from homes and cabins in the Benchmark area and leaves the trees near the homes standing because the residents liked the privacy these trees provide. You can’t blame homeowners for that, but it’s an illusion that the logging will somehow protect Benchmark area homes from wildfire.
The Forest Service wants the public to believe that we need to thin forests in order to have healthy forests. Once again, nothing could be further from the truth.
Pine bark beetles were here eons before European settlers ever set foot on the continent. The insects have evolved as part of a long-standing natural cycle and a forest with beetle-killed trees is a healthy forest — it’s just in transition from what we are used to seeing. The recent beetle outbreak is attributable to warmer winters, which don’t kill the beetles, and a decade-long drought that many attribute to human-caused global climate change.
While the Forest Service points to what it believes are the risks of not logging, it routinely denies the benefits of leaving beetle-killed forests undisturbed. For instance, woodpeckers eat the beetles as part of nature’s insect control.
Then they drill holes in the trees for nesting cavities, which are used as nests by many other birds.
When the dead trees fall, they provide cover and habitat for mice, snowshoe hares and squirrels, which in turn are eaten by pine marten, lynx, goshawks and great gray owls. The downed trees also provide important cover for big game and grizzly bears.
The Benchmark project logs next to roadless areas in lynx critical habitat and is likely to destroy five goshawk nesting sites in violation of a host of federal laws including the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
Goshawks are in decline in the Northern Rockies and very sensitive to disturbances near their nest sites.
Contrary to what is claimed by the Forest Service, the proposal will also destroy lynx habitat by logging winter snowshoe hare habitat and forest edge or “ecotone areas” that have alternate prey for lynx, such as cottontail, jack rabbits and ground squirrels.
The logging drives out the prey base for lynx and therefore destroys the area for lynx and other old growth dependent species.
Neither AWR nor NEC leaped into this appeal at the last second. Quite the opposite, we have taken part in every step of the Forest Service’s administrative process in an attempt to remedy the flaws in the proposal. But the agency refuses to heed well-documented and accurate evidence.
We wish we didn’t have to appeal this project to the Regional Forester. But what’s at stake is the safety of the homeowners in the Benchmark area and the future of elk, fish, grizzly bears, lynx, and a myriad of other old growth-dependent species.
We’ve participated responsibly in the process all the way. We’re following the law.
And you know what? The Forest Service should, too.
Michael Garrity is executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, based in Helena.