by Paul Richards
Queen City News, Helena, Montana
Great-Grandmother stood tall when I recently visited her home above Unionville. She’s still stunted from that lightning strike about 100 years ago, but her beauty remains undaunted. She’s around 350 years of age, with a circumference of nine feet, nine inches. Her prominent lower limb, upon which I regularly sit, has a circumference of six feet, six inches. One hundred yards to the west stands Great-Grandfather, probably more than 400 years old and with a circumference of 10 feet, five inches.
These are the old ones. There used to be so many. Now they are few. Around 95 percent are gone. The survivors dot the landscape south of Helena. Thankfully, many are on public land. Thankfully, that is, until now. Under the guise of fire protection, the Helena National Forest wants to kill these giants.
I used to bicycle from my home in Helena all the way to Great-Grandmother. That’s quite a feat for a grade-school kid on a three-speed. On the steeper parts, I had to walk.
She’s the one who turned me into a tree hugger. She unselfishly shared her neighborhood and the dependent wildlife. The fawns trusted me. The owls didn’t. And the moose calves in the meadows below didn’t know I was watching, although their parents probably did.
Spending time with Great-Grandmother, I learned about thunder, rain and wind, soil and plant growth, and various humans. Some walk lightly on the land. Others leave a heavier imprint.
The Forest Service claims on its website that it won’t cut any old growth. They merely propose to “harvest” approximately 2.3-million board feet of timber in the Clancy and Unionville areas by converting more than 1,300 acres of “closed-forest” habitat to “open-forest” habitat, while clearcutting 116 acres. They want to construct five miles of new logging roads, burn another 2,448 acres of habitat, and “enhance” old growth through timber harvest.
How do you “enhance” old growth? Through timber harvest? The tip-off of the planned carnage comes from simply looking at a detailed map of proposed logging. Commercial timber cuts targeting old growth are slated for the Brooklyn Bridge, Park Lake, Chessman Reservoir, Travis Creek, Park City and Cataract Creek areas. Pretty much everything between Helena and Unionville is on the chopping block too. That’s everything in the public lands above Oro Fino, Grizzly and Dry gulches.
The Forest Service even wants to lop off sections of the Black Mountain/Colorado Mountain Roadless Area, which is officially designated as wilderness under the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, currently sponsored by 185 members of Congressóthe most that have ever sponsored a wilderness bill. From the current Black Hall Meadows Trailhead, they want to build almost a mile of new road and log the old growth on both sides into the roadless area.
Anyone who has ever started a fire knows you start with little pieces, not big logs. We reduce fire danger by clearing the debris around buildings and townsites, especially the “tinder” of sticks, small branches and small trees. We don’t reduce fire hazards by removing old growthóthe area’s most fire-resistant treesófar away from any human structures. Logging the area’s remaining old growth is NOT fuels reduction, it’s short-sighted insanity.
Those who grew up here know these trees are east of the Divide, get minimal moisture and are NOT commercial timberlands! These trees take between seven and 40 years to create one inch, measured in a cross-section. You don’t “harvest” this old growth. You mine it. We’re talking one-time consumption only.
This popular area is currently so wildlife-rich it’s hard to believe the Forest Service wants to mess with it. There are elk, bear, moose, wolverine, even a grizzly bear den near one of the planned cuts.
According to the Forest Service itself, logging the Clancy-Unionville area would adversely impact northern goshawks, boreal owls and pileated woodpeckers, crucial “management indicator species” critically dependent upon old-growth habitat. The northern goshawk is even listed as a “sensitive species” for whom the Forest Service’s duty to ensure viable, self-sustaining populations “applies with special force” according to Inland Empire v. U.S.F.S., 88 F.3d 754, 759 (9th Cir. 1996).
The Clancy-Unionville area is a key wildlife linkage corridor between our region’s three great ecosystems, the Yellowstone, Glacier/Bob Marshall and Salmon-Selway. Official recognition of this corridor is contained in the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act. For details, refer to www.wildrockiesalliance.org/issues/nrepa/.
What to do? Because so many area residents know these public wildlands close to Helena so intimately, I propose that the Forest Service immediately tie ribbons around each tree slated for removal and also tie different colored ribbons around those trees that would be allowed to live. The Forest Service should also clearly stake out the proposed roads, exactly on the ground. The cost for this necessary public information is minimal compared to the $250,000 the Forest Service estimates it will lose logging this old growth in the spring of 2005.
With these areas proposed for logging properly marked, you’ll be able to personally see the scope of this potential catastrophe when you’re out in the woods this fall. Then, please call Tom Clifford, supervisor of the Helena National Forest, at 449-5201, and tell him to stop this nonsense before cutting begins next spring. And, please send checks for ongoing legal action to protect old growth in the Clancy and Unionville areas to the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, P.O. Box 505, Helena, 59624. Together, we can prevent this travesty.
Helena native Paul Richards is a professional journalist, former legislator and local businessman. He currently works as a media consultant and trainer for nonprofit organizations throughout the western U.S.