by Sara Jane Johnson, Director of the Native Ecosystems Council
Ellen Simpson, the corporate lobbyist for the Montana Wood Products Association, claimed in a recent Your Turn that it is disingenuous for the Native Ecosystems Council and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies to worry about the Elliston Face timber sale costing taxpayers over a million dollars.
Avoiding a public debate about the millions in corporate welfare they get every year through Forest Service subsidized timber sales is understandable from the corporate point of view. But where public resources, public dollars and public priorities are concerned, an honest and open public debate is not only desirable, but increasingly necessary.
As most readers already know, Montana’s lawmakers are looking at numerous options to cut state spending ranging from ending all-day kindergarten to closing MSU-Northern and laying off state workers in an attempt to close a projected $400 million budget deficit. Ominously, we are now seeing increasingly frequent statements from Congress that federal dollars going to states are likely to be reduced even further.
Should we worry about how many federal dollars we get and what they’re used for? Consider the recent warning from the legislature’s chief revenue forecaster, Terry Johnson: “Montana funds about 40 percent, or about $2 billion a year, of government services with federal money. A 1 percent reduction in federal funding would amount to a $20 million annual reduction.”
On June 19, Even Byron reported in the Independent Record that the federal government is sending another $22.5 million to the Forest Service in Montana to pay for more subsidized timber sales for the timber industry. Timber corporations want the public to look the other way while the Forest Service lines up money-losing timber sales that simply fatten the wallets of their stockholders. When this doesn’t work they use the tried-and-true method of screaming beetles and fire.
A prime example is the Elliston Face timber sale area, which consists mostly of green, healthy Douglas fir trees. Unlike lodgepole or ponderosa pines, Doug fir trees are not targeted by bark beetles. It seems obvious, given the large number of dead and dying pines, that the Forest Service should be concentrating on protecting the remaining stands of green trees, especially when they are important wildlife habitat, as is the Elliston Face area. Instead, the federal agency continues to operate in the manner of the past and continues to recklessly spend millions of public dollars to enable timber industry logging.
As for the fire danger, the Forest Service’s own fire expert, Jack Cohen, says the only proven method to protect homes in the wildland-urban interface is to have a fireproof roof and a “defensible space” with few trees for approximately 120 feet around your home. Most people in Elliston already have a defensible space around their homes and fireproof roofs.
The reality is that the Elliston Face timber sale has nothing to do with defensible space or fireproof roofs. The timber sale starts at least a quarter mile south of Elliston on public land. The timbered lands closer to Elliston on the south side of Highway 12 are private lands that would not be cut as part of this timber sale.
If the timber industry were really concerned about wildfires burning down homes, shouldn’t they seek to log the private land close to homes? Sure. But that would mean they wouldn’t get the benefit of the Forest Service’s million-dollar subsidy.
As taxpayers, this timber sale offers the public an option. We can let the Forest Service spend a million dollars of public money for an illegal timber sale that destroys important big-game habitat, or we can stand up for our First Amendment rights to challenge illegal decisions by the federal government and save a million dollars.
Who knows, maybe Congress will decide to use some of these savings for more worthwhile measures, such as helping all Montanans maintain their kindergartens, colleges and human services, instead of subsidizing profits for a very thin slice of the private sector.
Sara Jane Johnson is the director of the Native Ecosystems Council.