by Eve Byron, Independent Record
Author and ecologist George Weurthner told a full house at the University of Montana-Helena Thursday night that if they’re going to do anything about the pine beetle epidemic in the mountains around the city, that they should probably proceed slowly and only in targeted areas around homes and communities.
Large, landscape-type logging of dead and dying trees in the Helena and Beaverhead/Deerlodge national forests, which are two of the hardest hit areas by beetles in Montana, probably won’t prevent large-scale wildfires, Weurthner said. He quickly added that he has seen data that makes him question if these anticipated, potentially catastrophic fires will even take place anytime soon, and that as people learn more about forest ecology they’re learning that accepted practices of the past weren’t always the best way to manage the forests.
“I think the take-home message is that no matter what we think we know today, we’ll revise that tomorrow and maybe even think the opposite in 10 to 20 years,” Weurthner told the crowd of about 100 people. “A lot of what we try to do about the forest is contrary to what’s best for the forest’s ecological system.”
He noted that after years of fire suppression, forest managers are realizing that wildfires are a necessary part of the ecological process. They’re finding that the frequency of wildfires is overestimated, and that what’s often called a “high-severity” fire isn’t necessarily bad, nor are beetle outbreaks.
And he questioned whether the oft-stated reason for some of the recent large fires has to do with years of suppressing wildfires, which led to a build up of fuels and is often the impetus for forest thinning projects. Instead, he attributes recent fires to a warming climate that makes conditions more conducive to large blazes.
“Fires need fuel, but that’s not enough,” Weurthner said. “They need drought, wind and an ignition source.”
He added that thinning the forest by logging only gives people a false sense of security, and that studies have show wildfires can move even more quickly at times through areas that have been treated.
He advocates leaving beetle-killed trees in the forests, saying that after their needles fall off they actually are less prone to burning. Those dead trees provide habitat for bugs, birds and small critters; they provide shade for seedlings; and they collect water.
“Dead trees don’t go to heaven, they stay on the landscape and play important roles. They’re a reinvestment back into the forest,” Weurthner said. “Salvage logging eliminates the ability of the forest to survive. … Logging is a sanitized forest.”
When asked during a lively question-and-answer session about whether to log the Ten Mile watershed west of Helena, which provides the bulk of the city’s drinking water and has been hit hard by the beetles, Weurthner said that perhaps a better use of money would be to get better hookups to the Missouri River, which is the city’s backup water source.
He noted that in other forests that were logged in the 1980s after beetles killed the trees, they’ve grown back and are now just as susceptible to wildfire as elsewhere.
“You have to consider other costs and wonder whether it may be worth it in the end,” Weurthner said.
Some of those in the audience challenged his statements, arguing that there are ways to log forests that don’t have the negative impacts he outlined, and that logging is a sustainable, environmentally friendly use of a renewable resource.
“There are no studies that show how many times mitigation efforts and thinning have potentially stopped big fires,” said Jim Cancroft, a private forester. “I’m just saying that you kind of knock any mitigation efforts except for around the house. I see, after 25 years of working in the woods in this area, that there are absolutely areas that could be treated and treated well.”
Weurthner acknowledged that logging could be strategic in areas near homes and communities, but he still questioned its effectiveness when the wind is blowing and steadfastly advocated keeping dead trees in the forests instead of removing them.
“I’m not sure if it works, but if you do (logging) to hedge your bets, do it close in where it does the least amount of damage,” he said.