by George Wuerthner
The Elliston Face logging sale on the Helena National Forest near the town of Elliston is yet another example of how the Forest Service exploits the public’s misconceptions about wildfire and forest ecology to further its logging agenda. Like the old-time physicians who bled the “bad” blood to treat patients no matter what the ailment, the Forest Service seems incapable of doing any management that doesn’t include logging as the solution to any problem — whether real or manufactured.
For example, the Forest Service justifies the Elliston Face timber sale on the basis of reducing what they call “hazardous” fuels (which, as an ecologist, I call woody biomass). To quote the FS, “This project would reduce wildland fire risk and help protect lives, communities, and ecosystems from the potential consequences of a high-intensity wildland fire within treatment areas.”
The Forest Service makes these assertions even though the statement is full of falsehoods, misleading and/or unproven assumptions. For instance, there is no attempt to determine the probability of a fire. Douglas fir/lodgepole pine forests that dominate the Elliston Face sale area are naturally characterized by mixed severity and stand-replacement fires that naturally occur every half-century to several centuries apart. So the likelihood that this particular area will burn any time in the near future is extremely low — yet the Forest Service treats it as if the area is in imminent danger of a fire.
This is important because even the Forest Service’s own analysis concludes that logging of the Elliston Face will have some adverse impacts on soils, watersheds, wildlife, scenery and recreation. So we need to ask whether the potential effects of a fire that may not occur for a century or more is worth the negative impacts created by the logging process now.
Furthermore, the FS fosters the perception that wildfire is imminent because some of the lodgepole pine have died from pine beetle. Yet they conveniently neglect to note that all the fuel in the world will not produce a blaze if climatic conditions are non-conducive to a fire. If you don’t have the right climatic conditions, you won’t get a blaze. That all those conditions, including an ignition source, wind, low humidity and extended drought will all come together in the same place at the same time is extremely rare — which is why these forests do not burn but once every century or two.
Plus a red-needled tree is no more flammable than a green tree under the climatic conditions that drive large blazes. The presence of fine fuels and flammable resins makes all trees susceptible to fires under the right conditions. And contrary to common perception, dead trees — once they lose the needles and small branches — are less likely to burn. So the presence of dead lodgepole pine does not significantly increases fire hazard; in fact, it can reduce fire risk.
But the misconceptions don’t end there. Whether thinning forests actually reduces fire hazard is not clearly demonstrated by research. Some studies suggest that thinning can sometimes reduce fire spread, but other studies have found that thinning can actually INCREASE fire risk by opening up the forest to greater drying and wind penetration and by creating conditions that favor the rapid regrowth of understory shrubs and trees that can provide the fine fuels that sustain fires.
Let’s keep in mind that some of the largest wildfires in Montana in recent years have raced through heavily logged areas, including the Black Cat and Jocko Lakes fires near Missoula and the Derby fire near Big Timber, among others. In other words, logging, even the near-complete removal of trees by clearcutting, did not effectively stop large blazes.
Beyond that fact, all studies suggest that the effectiveness of thinning — even where it is thought to work — rapidly declines as understory grasses, shrubs and trees released from competition regrow, creating more of the small fine fuels that support fires. Thus thinning isn’t a one-time event and will have to be repeated frequently even if it does work, which, as I have stated, is not by all means conclusive.
But it gets worse than that. The Forest Service’s own analysis has six indicator species — including pileated woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, martin, northern goshawk. These species depend on dead snags and down wood that pine beetles and wildfire create. But the FS treats beetles and wildfire as unwelcome events.
Logging would obviously reduce the availability of such dead tree habitat now, as well as in the future. In fact, the EIS ironically notes that “marten (mature forest Indicator) has not been observed but is probably present year-round in very low numbers — because of the paucity of large woody debris,” which logging will only decrease further.
The closest the timber sale boundary is to the town of Elliston is about a half-mile, with the majority of the town in a non-forested valley more than a mile from the timber sale closest edge.
Research by the FS’s own scientists suggests that thinning any greater distance than a hundred or so feet from a home provides little additional reduction in fire risk. In other words, this timber sale will do little to safeguard Elliston from wildfire — indeed, most of the town is in no jeopardy whatsoever from a direct fire front.
Second, the best way to reduce fire hazard isn’t to log the forest, but to reduce the flammability of homes by installing metal roofs, removing trees near homes, and so forth. All of this work should take place on private lands. In this regard, it is up to the citizens of Elliston to take responsibility for their own personal home safety.
Furthermore, if the county commissioners were truly concerned about fire hazards, they would not permit house construction in the fire plain. Zoning is the best way to protect homes and save lives rather than expect taxpayers to fix the problem they created by allowing home construction in inappropriate sites. Building in a fire plain is just as foolish as building in a river floodplain.
While the Forest Service document implicitly portrays large wildfires as somehow “destructive,” such fires are a natural part of these forest ecosystems. Thus the Forest Service creates a “problem” by mischaracterization of a natural process that poses little real threat to the town of Elliston. Its advocacy of a money-losing timber sale that may cost taxpayers more than $1 million is irresponsible.
Instead of using the Elliston Face to counter misconceptions about wildfire and who is actually responsible for protecting property, the FS exploits the fears of misinformed citizens. One can only conclude the agency is still the handmaiden to the timber industry rather than a public servant working on behalf of all citizens of the country.
George Wuerthner has published 35 books, including several on wildfire ecology.