Viewpoint: When it comes to forests, who gets the mic?
When it comes to protecting public lands in general and forests in particular, many accept the false dichotomy that environmentalists are the bad guys and government agencies, like the Forest Service, are the good guys. Other interested parties seldom receive a hearing.
Let me tell you a story.
The Bitterroot Restoration Committee (BRC) was formed in November 2007 as a volunteer, consensus-based group dedicated to working with the Forest Service for the restoration of forests in Ravalli County, Montana. One objective of the collaborative was to help reduce the number of legal challenges to commercial logging in the Bitterroot National Forest (BNF).
It was the BRC that initiated the Bitterroot National Forest’s (BNF) 2016-2018 Westside Project when it recommended non-commercial hand-thinning of Douglas fir trees along the Bitterroot Forest boundary at the base of Ward Mountain between Ward Creek and Roaring Lion Creek. The collaborative did not specify the exact areas to be thinned but assumed the BNF would consider looking at the north aspects of the Douglas fir stands for inclusion in the project.
Instead, BNF management took that suggestion for non-commercial thinning and greatly expanded it to include 2 square miles of commercial logging, some non-commercial work, 3.5 miles of new permanent roads, 3.5 miles of temporary roads, and the reopening of 1 mile of unused, overgrown, system roads.
Then the project’s Environmental Assessment (EA) falsely declared the project had the support of the BRC. That claim was a falsehood, because BRC could not reach consensus to support a project significantly expanded from the original suggestion. Unfortunately, when information that BNF’s false claim of BRC’s support became public, the relationship between the two parties began to deteriorate.
It is worth noting that commercial logging was quickly completed during the implementation of the Westside Project which, to some observers, suggested commercial logging was the project’s chief purpose. Further confirmation is that much of the non-commercial work has never been performed and remains unfinished 7 years later.
It was suspiciously coincidental that, as the relationship between BRC and BNF began to worsen, the Ravalli County Collaborative (RCC) was formed early in 2017, its members handpicked by Jeff Burrows, Ravalli County Commissioner and long-time supporter of commercial logging.
The people who serve on BRC, recently renamed to Bitterroot Forest Collaborative (BFC), are people living in Ravalli County—a retired Forest Service engineer, a research geologist, a retired Forest Service wildfire expert, an educator, a businessman, a physical therapist, and a wildlife specialist.
BFC is not against all commercial logging, but tries to ensure such work is done in a way that protects essential ecosystem values, like wildlife, habitat, old growth, roadless areas, fisheries, clean air and water, etc. The collaborative does not assume the BNF will accept all or even most of its recommendations, but it does expect proposals to be given serious consideration by Forest Service management.
BFC’s recommendations are well researched and thoroughly debated by its members. None of the suggestions are extreme. The collaborative does not categorically oppose commercial harvest, nor does it express knee-jerk, negative responses to BNF proposals.
The downhill slide to oblivion for BFC began in earnest when Matt Anderson was promoted from his Alaska position as Tongass’ Thorne Bay District Ranger to Supervisor of the BNF. Anderson’s time as BNF’s Supervisor has exposed his inability or unwillingness to even consider constructive comments or criticism of BNF project proposals. He appears to find it inconvenient, even career-threatening, to engage with BFC’s volunteers whose razor-sharp analyses sometimes contradict his directives. Consequently, BFC’s relationship with BNF has vanished.
BFC, no longer considered useful to Supervisor Anderson’s goals, has been pushed aside and ignored. As a result, Supervisor Anderson and other BNF line officers interact only with the more recently formed collaborative, RCC. Why? Because its most influential members hold opinions that more closely align with the opinions and directives of Supervisor Anderson.
Why does the Forest Service grant the authority of narration to an individual like Supervisor Anderson who nimbly recalibrates his moral compass and demagnetizes it the moment it might pose a threat to his career? Is it because such officials value their careers so highly, they will do anything to meet timber-production numbers issued by the Washington Office, and will proceed without the support of Forest Service scientists whose research reveals that putting-trees-on-trucks is the antithesis of protecting forests?
Forest Service management officials, like Supervisor Anderson, hold the power. History reveals that those who benefit from wielding institutionalized power will not tell the truth, let alone hold themselves accountable. Groups that support the continuation of that power are useful. Those that don’t are considered useless and expendable. Who is allowed to voice a perspective has no relationship to justice, fairness, morality, or even right and wrong.
Power alone decides “who gets the mic.” Supervisor Anderson resolved it will not be the Bitterroot Forest Collaborative.