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Viewpoint: Bitterroot project a bait and switch

The American Forest Resource Council’s Tom Partin let the cat out of the bag in his 6/5/22 oped in the Missoulian newspaper. As Will Rogers said, “it’s easier to let the cat out of the bag than it is to put it back in.”

Partin reveals the classic bait and switch. He starts with the fire threat and then moves on to say the Bitterroot Front Project is needed to conduct commercial timber harvest on more than 55,000 acres and “will greatly help sustain the existing milling infrastructure. Without the raw material sold by the Forest Service…the industry would not be able to run their mills at capacities.” 

Advocates of commercial logging like to say that all of our forests are overgrown. However, the historic baseline condition in the Bitterroot Mountains was documented in the Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition more than 200 years ago before any European settlement had occurred.

When crossing the Bitterroots they complained of dog-hair forest that prevented the harvest of deer and elk and they nearly starved. An anomaly? A team of scientists concluded that areas of thick forest have always been part of the normal landscape condition (Odion et al. 2014. Examining Historical and Current Mixed-Severity Fire Regimes in Ponderosa Pine and Mixed-Conifer Forests of Western North America).

The Stevensville District Ranger disparages opponents of this boondoggle by saying “they don’t want to work with the communities.” Or is it they are unwilling to trick the communities into thinking commercial logging right to the border of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness will increase the protection of privately owned structures? It won’t.

The Forest Service routinely cherry-picks the scientific literature, conveniently ignoring science that doesn’t promote its commercial logging-heavy agenda.  Most fires start on private lands and then move onto Forest Service land (Downing et al. 2022. Human Ignitions on Private Lands Drive USFS Cross-boundary Transmission and Community Impacts in the Western US).

The most deadly and destructive fire in recent years in Paradise, California was an urban fire started by PG&E’s powerlines. Burned down houses were the understory fuel and were surrounded by unburned trees and the destructive fire in Denton, Montana was a grass fire. The Missoula County Commission explains this situation well in their letter to the Lolo National Forest (Missoula Current 6/10/22).

Scientists from the Forest Service Fire Lab, including retired fire scientist Dr. Jack Cohen have shown for years that thinning beyond the Home Ignition Zone (HIZ), or about 100 feet from structures is not effective in protecting structures. Like the Bitterroot, the Lolo National Forest declares the Wildland-Urban Interface extends miles from the nearest structures into non-urban areas. They even buffer single isolated structures to a two-and-a half-mile distance to open more areas to commercial logging.

Thinning and controlled burning to some distance adjacent to communities and critical infrastructure is reasonable but the Forest Service has twisted the science to fit their own objectives. They don’t want commercial timber sale plans to rise or fall on their own merits so they use an excuse to get around environmental and wildlife protection laws.

The bait and switch from Forest Service line officers is unacceptable. It’s the cat that was let out of the timber industry’s bag. If the goal is old-fashioned commercial timber harvest then have the integrity to say so.

Mike Bader is an independent consultant in Missoula, Montana. He is a veteran of the Yellowstone Fires of 1988 and supervised fuel reduction operations that saved five different structures on the National Historic Register and served as a resource advisor to two Class I Overhead Teams.