Lawsuit will question fuel breaks

The Los Padres National Forest has proposed the Santa Barbara Mountain Communities Defense Zone Project.

“The desired condition for chaparral is to establish a diversity of shrub age classes in key areas near communities to improve the effectiveness of fire suppression operations. Adequate defensible space around communities could greatly reduce the risk of structure loss, as well as improve safety for residents. Thus, at the urban interface there will be a management emphasis on direct community protection. This could be accomplished in at least two ways: (1) by removing or heavily modifying shrublands immediately adjacent to populated areas (Wildland-Urban Interface Defense Zones); and (2) by strategically creating blocks of young, less flammable vegetation near the interface areas. Both types of fuels modification could slow or even halt the rate of fire spread into urban areas.”

Two conservation organizations have filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court “to protect fragile habitat and rare species in the path of a massive, remote fuel break recently approved in the Los Padres National Forest.”  According to this article, “The suit is also an effort to encourage the Los Padres National Forest to focus on reducing fire risk where it matters most, directly in and around communities.”   Interestingly, the Forest Service used a categorical exclusion from NEPA, which suggests that they think there is no scientific controversy about the effects of fire breaks that are beyond the area needed for defensible space.  I’d like to see a court weigh in on this, and how far away “near” and “remote” are, but it might just decide that a CE for “timber stand improvement” can’t be used where there is no timber.

Do elk need trees? Maybe.

This is an update to a September 12 post “Do elk need trees?”  The Forest punted the issue to its forest plan revision: http://helenair.com/news/natural-resources/forest-service-withdraws-controversial-big-game-standard/article_e5e22d8b-41f3-535f-94e6-58e098c86958.html

The first draft of the proposed Helena-Lewis and Clark revised forest plan punts elk security to project-level decision making. Here’s the draft guideline: “In order to influence elk distribution on NFS lands, management actions should not reduce the amount of elk security available during the archery and rifle hunting seasons over the long-term (generally ten or more years). Short-term reductions in elk security may occur when needed to achieve other resource management objectives. Elk security should be defined and applied at a scale that is informed by interagency recommendations if available, knowledge of the specific area, and the best available scientific information.”

The Forest Service is back to writing 1970s-era “plans” that left everything up to the local ranger. I foresee lots of litigation about the validity of these individual security interpretations on each project (instead of just determining if the project is consistent with the forest plan).

U.S. Depends on Forest Products Trade

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Several comments on this blog argue that the U.S. depends on forest products imports to satisfy its consumption. That’s half correct and misses the point.

In 2014, the U.S. bought forest products from other countries to the tune of $42 billion. We buy wood products from Canada, China, and the EU.

But, wait, there’s more! In 2014, the U.S. forest products industry also sold $41 billion of wood products to consumers in other countries — Canada, China, with the EU and Mexico tied for third. In other words, we buy as much wood stuff from other countries as we sell to other countries, and to and from the same countries, too.

It’s also worth noting that “Timber demands—not timber supplies—currently limit production growth in the United States” (quoting the abstract). The U.S. has seen a long-term decline in paper and pulp demand associated with decreasing manufacturing (less demand for cardboard boxes to package the stuff we aren’t making so much of) and increasing use of computers that replace paper to record and store information.

The U.S. forest products industry depends on trade. It depends on international trade agreements. It depends on interest rates, currency exchange rates, and other macroeconomic factors that serious people think about. Those people don’t care about national forest logging levels.

“The mill produces about as much lumber in one shift today as it did with two shifts in the 1970s.”

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I continue to fine some nuggets of good information in the Missoulian’s big series on the timber industry in Montana, even though none of the Missoulian articles (to date) have bothered to reach out to anyone in the environmental community and get our perspective on the timber industry, public lands management and the reality that we’re pretty much always blamed for all the timber industry’s woes.

The title of this post is a direct quote from Paul McKenzie, the resource manager for the F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Company in Columbia Falls, Montana, and is taken from this article.

Let the substance of that acknowledgement from Stoltze Lumber sink in for a second. Essentially they are admitting that when they mechanized their lumber mills half their employees were let go, but they still produced the same amount of lumber. And yet, despite this fact, the timber industry in Montana still gets away with blaming all the timber industry worker layoffs on environmentalists? How is that even possible?

Previous Missoulian articles documented the Montana timber industry’s “old-growth forest liquidation” strategy, which dominated the scene in Montana from 1970 to 1990. During those two decades corporations like Champion International tripled logging levels on their own lands – most of it via logging of old-growth forests. But other timber mills in Montana also took part in that old-growth logging frenzy of the 70s and 80s.

As the timber industry was pretty much mowing through all their own old-growth, they turned to the U.S. Forest Service and started pressuring the agency (and politicians) to open up vast swaths of public national forest lands – including old-growth forests and roadless areas – to large-scale logging and roadbuilding schemes.

Apparently, if you believe the timber industry lobbyists and mill owners story now, they actually had no idea that what they were during in previous decades was bad for forests, fish, ecosystems or long-term sustainability.  Of course, I don’t buy that argument for a minute. And you shouldn’t either.

Lake County Conservation District wants to take over 60,000 acres of Flathead National Forest land in Montana’s Swan Valley

What follows is an action alert from Friends of the Wild Swan. Looks like this is just another proposal (in a long line of similar schemes) to have states and counties take over management of federal public lands, which belong equally to all Americans.

The Lake County Conservation District (LCCD) in Montana has been working on a novel approach to take over management of Flathead National Forest land in the Swan Valley. The Swan Resource Management Study vaguely outlines a plan to take control of 60,000 acres in the Swan Valley in Lake County which then would be managed by the Montana Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) for logging over the next 100 years.

The LCCD seems to believe that these federal lands represent a cash cow for the county to use for various unnamed projects even though most federal timber sales lose money and DNRC doesn’t have an adequate accounting system to track its costs to see whether they make money from timber sales.

There are obviously flaws with the whole premise of controlling just the timber output on federal lands but the LCCD has been moving along with this since 2014 and is soliciting public comments about whether to proceed with asking Congress to authorize the transfer of management. These are federal public lands and they belong to everyone in the U.S. not just Lake County or Montana residents.

The Swan Valley is rich in wildlife and biological diversity. These wild lands are critical habitat for lynx, bull trout, grizzly bears and other fish and wildlife. Allowing the County to have management jurisdiction for purely logging and its associated roads will adversely affect the habitat for many imperiled animals and fish as well as water quality.

According to their website “LCCD residents, especially those with property in the Swan Valley, will be asked their opinion. LCCD wants to know if there is adequate local community support to request Montana’s governor and legislature to begin working on State legislation that would support the establishment of the proposed Conservation Forest. Conversely, LCCD wants to know if the study should be suspended and the idea of a Conservation Forest tabled.”

In an undated letter on the website it says that environmental groups, Lake County residents, legislators and others have been notified of the public meeting on December 7th at the Swan Lake Clubhouse at6:30 pm. However, even though Friends of the Wild Swan attended the previous meeting in 2014 and submitted comments we have not been notified nor have Lake County residents.

Please attend this meeting if you are able or send a letter to the LCCD and Lake CountyCommissioners — tell them:

• This is a bad idea and no more taxpayer funds should be spent on it,

• These wild lands are too valuable for their clean water, fish and wildlife and must be maintained for those values,

• These are federal lands that belong to everyone in the United States, not just Lake County residents. Any activities on Forest Service land must be in compliance with federal laws like the Endangered Species Act, National Forest Management Act, Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act.

We need to let them know loud and clear that their proposal is not a viable option for our precious public lands.

For more information go to: www.swanforestinitiative.org

Send comments to the LCCD at lakecountycd@ronan.net or by mail to 64352 US Hwy 93, Ronan, MT  59864 and to the Lake County Commissioners at lakecommissioners@lakemt.gov or by mail to CountyCourthouse, Room 211, 106 4th Ave E., Polson, MT. 59860

Missoulian recounts Montana timber industry’s ‘old-growth liquidation’ strategy

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If a picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps the ones above and below will help tell the story of the timber industry in Montana, the dramatical liquidation of old-growth forests and the subsequent changes – and challenges – to National Forest management, especially in the context of the timber industry’s quest for more public lands logging, less public oversight and fewer pesky environmental laws and regulations to follow. But hey, we can always just continue to blame environmental groups for all the timber industry’s problems, right?

Below is some more timber industry ‘truth telling’ from the Missoulian’s big timber industry series. Here’s the full article.

1993 was also the year Champion completed its “accelerated old-growth liquidation” strategy. Over the previous 20 years, Champion had tripled its harvest. Much of that took place in the mountains around Primm Meadow.

“That’s why Champion divested,” explained Peter Kolb, Montana State University extension forester. “They said they’re going to convert value on the land that’s not producing a rate of return that’s fair. Once we’ve liquidated that investment, the remaining land has a rate of return that doesn’t meet our business model. They over-harvested their own lands, or from a business perspective, converted it to money for the company.”

The companies then turned to the Forest Service, seeking access to federal timberlands. University of Montana forest economist Alan McQuillan recalled Corrick announcing that Champion needed to buy 60 percent of the Forest Service’s available Montana timber after 1992 or the company wouldn’t be here to stay.

Congress also began receiving reports of “phantom forests” of greatly exaggerated tree inventories and underestimated costs of timber sale preparation and road construction. A General Accounting Office study in 1994 found the Forest Service failed to consider factors like wildlife habitat, sensitive plant species, or recreation in estimating its available timber production area. In one example, the study reported that between 1991 and 1993, costs of preparing timber sales on the Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon climbed 147 percent.

But by then, the agency had plunged into its own rethinking of its mission. After selling around 12 billion board-feet of timber a year in the 1980s nationally, the Forest Service reduced its Allowable Sale Quantity, or ASQ, to about one-third that amount by 1993.

Locally, forest supervisors were also cranking back the spigot of federal timber. Lolo National Forest Supervisor Orville Daniels whacked his ASQ from 120 million board-feet to 50 million.

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History of logging in Montana

The Missoulian is running a series of articles on this subject.  The one in Sunday’s paper asks these questions about the future:

“Banishment from the national forests would doom many Montana timber towns to welfare status, according to advocates in the wood-products industry. But if they’re dependent on access to public timber, isn’t that another form of welfare? Does my family’s tradition of working in the woods entitle it to public subsidy, especially if the commercial market finds Montana’s wood products uncompetitive? Does rescuing Montana’s timber industry justify rewriting some of the nation’s bedrock environmental protections, changing access to its court system, and spending millions of its tax dollars?”

NFMA at 40

This essay in High Country News on the 40th anniversaries of NFMA and FLPMA is worth a look. It’s written by Martin Nie, director of the Bolle Center for People and Forests in the College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana.

“The National Forest Management Act emerged as a response to the clear-cutting and timber harvest controversies of the 1960s and ’70s. To this day, people differ as to whether it provided much-needed course correction for the Forest Service or instead was a solution to a “nonexistent” problem. What the law does, essentially, is require the agency to prepare management plans for every forest. It also places significant environmental constraints on the Forest Service and gives it a mandate to manage for wildlife diversity.”

Wildlife diversity, yes, but also other resources and values. It is worth noting that the text of the NFMA cites the Multiple-Use, Sustained-Yield Act of 1960 a dozen times or so.

Comments, anyone?