Sarah Johnson

A recent article on the Forest Service’s Pintler Face logging, road-building and burning project suggests that only those who take part in “collaboration” should have the right to challenge final decisions in federal court.

As one of the plaintiffs against the project, Native Ecosystems Council wants to make it absolutely clear that collaboration is not the same as following federal laws and the best available science when it comes to Forest Service projects on National Forests.

The article quotes a forester from Sun Mountain Lumber of Deer Lodge who says the collaborative is “a diverse group of people trying to improve forest health and reduce fuels and keep jobs.” That may be the intention, but nowhere in the article does it explain how clearcutting, bulldozing new roads, and burning will “improve forest health.” Why? Because it won’t.

The Pintler Face Project includes over 11,000 acres of deforestation, including 27 separate clearcuts, 22 of which will be over 40 acres in size. The average size of these large clearcuts will be 151.5 acres, with the largest clearcut being 496 acres.

Far from “improving forest health” clearcutting destroys forests and the occupied habitat for lynx, grizzly bears and wolverine which are listed for protection and restoration under the Endangered Species Act. All of these species thrive in thick, not logged forests. According to the Forest Service’s own lynx scientist, John Squires, lynx avoid clearcuts for up to 50 years.

Loss of elk security

The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest Revised Forest Plan correctly identifies elk security as 250 acres or more of contiguous forest cover at least a half mile from a motorized route.

In a report between Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Forest Service, it was repeatedly noted that in some areas of Montana, because of the loss of hiding cover from logging on national forest lands, elk are spending significant amounts of time on private lands where most hunters are not allowed.

Yet the loss of elk security due to the large clearcuts was never evaluated in the Pintler Face project.

Clearcutting old growth and mature forests destroys bird habitat

Two thirds of Western forest bird species are in decline, resulting in the loss of 29% in bird numbers since mid-1970s. Of these, at least half of those species are dependent upon old growth and snag forests.

The species associated with old growth on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest include the black-backed woodpecker, boreal owl, brown creeper, chestnut-backed chickadee, flammulated owl, golden-crowned kinglet, hairy woodpecker, Hammond’s flycatcher, hermit thrush, Lewis woodpecker, northern goshawk, pileated woodpecker, pine grosbeak, red-breasted nuthatch, Swainson’s thrush, three-toed woodpecker, Townsend’s warbler, varied thrush, Wilson warbler, and great gray owl.

Yet, once again, the loss of Western forest bird habitat due to logging and burning was never evaluated in the Pintler Face project.

Collaborative agreements are not legally binding

While we were criticized for not attending collaborative meetings, the fact is that agreements reached by collaborators and the Forest Service are not legally binding. Our co-plaintiff, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, spent 8 months collaborating with the Forest Service on logging Helena’s Ten Mile watershed. The Forest Service promptly broke the logging and roading agreement in its final decision. The primary reason we rarely meet with the Forest Service anymore is because they repeatedly lie to us.

The National Environmental Policy Act requires the Forest Service to let all Americans have a say in the management of our national forests, not just the local timber industry and their collaborators, including challenging projects in court.

Sara Johnson, director of Native Ecosystems Council, is a former Forest Service wildlife biologist and has a Ph. D. from Montana State University.