by Michael Garrity, Your Turn editorial
The recent smoke filling the Helena Valley due to an out-of-control “controlled burn” by the Forest Service should confirm once and for all that government agencies can and do make mistakes. Sometimes, as with the 1,000 acres burned on the Grady Ranch, the agency blindly goes forward with planned activities and tragic consequences result.
And sometimes, as in logging critical elk-calving habitat near Elliston, the Forest Service makes the same mistakes over and over while others fight hard to avoid the tragic consequences.
The Independent Record recently reported that Duane Harp, the Helena District ranger, announced his decision to cancel the planned Elliston Face Fuels Reduction timber sale. Unfortunately, the article included statements from Harp that are misleading. The IR’s readers deserve to know the truth.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies and the Native Ecosystems Council have appealed these same logging plans successfully three times already. We contend that the timber sale would impact grizzly and lynx travel corridors, imperil critical elk winter and calving range, violate the agency’s own forest plan for minimal elk hiding cover, and destroy habitat for other old-growth-dependent species such as the goshawk.
In the recent article, Mr. Harp told the IR reporter that he had just found new maps produced by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks that show the area to be logged would violate Forest Service standards for critical elk hiding cover. Unfortunately, Mr. Harp was not being entirely candid. Forest Service records clearly show that for some time now, Montana’s wildlife management agency, the Forest Service’s own experts and local residents have all said that elk use the timber sale area as winter range.
The simple truth is that the Alliance and Native Ecosystems Council provided the Forest Service with copies of these maps in our comments long ago. We also took the time to meet with and explain to Mr. Harp that the planned logging would break numerous laws and violate the forest’s own plan for required elk cover. Unfortunately, he refused to listen and said the agency intended to go ahead with the timber sale once again. Now for the fourth time, Mr. Harp has dropped the logging plans because his attorneys told him he was likely to lose in court.
Ironically, only a few days later the IR reported that Montana is investing more than $16 million to purchase the nearby Spotted Dog Ranch, touting the great value of its 27,000 acres as elk habitat for one of the largest herds in the state. Yet, even though the Forest Service has finally conceded that the Elliston Face contains important elk-calving grounds, the timber sale would have allowed motorized equipment to harvest and haul logs during elk calving season. Using such heavy machinery in this area from late May to the middle of June would likely drive out the elk during calving, when they’re most vulnerable — a tragic consequence.
Moreover, since the forest in the Elliston Face area is primarily Douglas fir trees, which are not affected by the pine beetle, these live trees provide important habitat not only for elk, but for goshawks and other old-growth-dependent species. These islands of green forest should be protected instead of being cut down for a nonexistent timber market.
After making the same mistake so many times already, we hope the agency has finally learned its lesson. The record is clear and convincing. The plan should be permanently dropped before causing tragic consequences to elk and other old-growth-dependent species.
Michael Garrity is executive director of Alliance for the Wild Rockies.