Summertime Blame-Game Ritual: Ash Creek Fire and the Beaver Creek Logging Project

Ash Creek Fire along Highway 212 in extreme southeastern Montana.

You may have noticed that within the past few days some people are attempting to make a connection between the 186,800 acre Ash Creek Complex Wildfire burning in grass, sage, juniper and pine in extreme southeastern Montana with the Forest Service’s proposed Beaver Creek project, which in March was halted by a federal court judge due to a number of deficiencies in the agency’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).  That project, proposed for the Ashland Ranger District of the Custer National Forest, called for commercial logging on 1,487 acres and prescribed burning on 8,054 acres and also would have required 35 miles of new road construction and reconstruction.

According to a late March 2012 article in the Billings Gazette [emphasis added]:

A federal judge has ordered the Forest Service to halt implementation of [the Beaver Creek] logging project in the largest island of public land in southeastern Montana and to issue a supplemental environmental impact statement to address deficiencies in its first one.

On Monday, District Judge Donald Molloy ruled in favor of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council on some of their complaints filed in July, and dismissed others.

Molloy found in favor of the environmental groups concerning the failure of the EIS to consider stormwater runoff from road construction. Molloy also said the Forest Service failed to explain why it analyzed road density only at the project level and ranger district level, why it applied the road density standard only to forest land and for failing to analyze road density during the project’s implementation.

Not deterred by the fact that the Ash Creek Complex wildfire burned across nearly 300 square miles of grass, sage and scattered pockets of trees on various land ownerships before finally reaching a portion of the proposed Beaver Creek logging project, some people seem to have no problems trying to tie the current wildfire with the proposed logging project in some sort of ridiculous summertime blame-game ritual.

Even the Forest Service couldn’t resist trying to make a connection in this recent article [emphasis added]:

“Had we been able to move forward with the [Beaver Creek] project, the management action could have helped,” said Marna Daley, a public affairs officer for the Gallatin and Custer national forests. “But it’s impossible to predict to what degree.“

“The project would not have prevented a [186,800 acre] fire from occurring,” Daley said. “That was not the purpose of the project. But it could have moderated the fire behavior. I say ’could’ because with the extreme fire activity and behavior we’re seeing, it’s unknown.“

“Impossible to predict.” “Could have.” “It’s unknown.”  Well, if that’s all the case, then why in the world is the Forest Service trying to make hay with a ridiculous attempt at trying to connect a wildfire that burned through 180,000 acres of grass, sage and scattered trees before finally reaching portions of a proposed logging project?  And in reality, it’s not as if a logging project always results in less fire risk, as we pointed out back in 2004 when we produced this Wildfire primer, which was inserted into newspapers across the western United States.

Finally, speaking of “extreme fire activity and behavior” it’s worth pointing out today’s official weather forecast for the Ash Creek Fire:

There is a Red Flag Warning for the fire area today with temperatures forecasted to reach up to 106 degrees, relative humidity levels between 5 to 15% with southerly winds at 10-20 mph and gusts that could reach 35 mph.

Best of luck to the firefighters, as that’s not exactly ideal firefighting weather.  Since the firefighters are already dealing with plenty of hot air, hopefully those people looking to play the annual Wildfire Blame-Game will take a break and cool it.

Cattle herd in post-fire area.

22 Comments

  1. Nice story Matt. Catchy finish.

    Couple observations:

    The “blame-game”, silly as is may seem, is one of those unintended consequences that results from repeated litigation. Folks are fustrated. I think examples such as this (Beaver Creek) are gonna be gobbled up and spun by both sides as “failures”. You can be the Congressionals are watching closely. It will be interesting to see what sorts of legislative “fixes” are proposed following this fire season. As I’ve pointed out before, it seems silly for groups like AWR (representing all of 2000 members) to continually stack themselves against everything in the name of ecosystem protection. Something’s gonna give, and I doubt it will be what either side (or us who try to follow the laws and design “legal” projects) wants.

    Continually citing “uncertainties” as a reason to do nothing is not constructive. What is certain is jobs can be created through carefully designed logging projects (for whatever reason – “restoration”). This is consistent with the principles linked to in your primer to nativeforests.org.

    The science you cite in you wildfire primer is dubious and/or carefully selected to support your cause. There is plenty of credible science that would show that logging can reduce fire behavoir. Granted you were trying to reach a more general and perhaps easily influenced audience (the public), but these are same folks who are going to be reacting to the press coverage and visceral images of this season’s fire behavoir. I think they’ll be more easily influenced by the press and others who might cite the “environmental bungling” as part of the cause, for better or worse.

    You inserted the wildfire primer in papers all over the west. How much did you spend? In light of the critisicm of the timber industy’s recent article I think it would be good to know, in all fairness, what that primer and coverage cost.

    The bunker mentality is silly. Throwing rocks gets us no where. It seems that collaboration has been cited as a bad plan too. Now what. Where do we go?

    • Smokey: So I guess I’ll call BS on your re-phrasing of what I wrote. What I wrote was “required 35 miles of new road construction and reconstruction.” So some of that is totally new road CONSTRUCTION and other miles are RECONSTRUCTION to existing roads. Thanks.

      • Road reconstruction is always a beneficial task, restoring the function of erosion mitigation. The requirement is to restore the roads to Federal specifications. Thanks.

    • And I must admit to being “wrong” in guessing only 6 miles would be “New” roads. The Project record shows that there would have been 14 miles of “maintenace”, 13 miles of “reconstruction”, and 15 miles of “temporary” roads that would hve been “obliterated, recontoured where there were cut and fill slopes, ripped and reseeded. No “new” system roads would have been built. 2 miles of existing roads would have been decommisioned. Now, as to whether 15 miles of “temporary” roads constitutes “new” roads, to paraphrase Bill CLinton, I guess it depends on what your definition of “is”, is. Perhaps the “aura” of an obliterated road adds to “water Quality concerns.”

  2. I see the machine has kicked into damage control. Love the photos. Nary a tree in sight. Why, one might get the impression there is no forest burning…but strange…why would there be a national forest if there were no trees. I’ll be posting photos of the burned forest soon.This dry ponderosa country loves to crown fire, and then re-burn ten years later. But I’ll play nice.

    I wouldn’t worry about damage control with us. I’d worry about the Missoulian, Billings Gazette, Helena IR, Montana Standard, Denver Post. In a few weeks the USFS will tell us if the Goshawk terrotories are toast…and the hipocricy alone will be juicy text. The radical enviros might have been the darlings of the media when Champion used to clearcut entire sections,for the simple reason the media are enviros themselves-albiet the moderate kind. The Missoulian editorial board, hardly a bunch of right wing tea baggers, endorsed the Beaverhead Partnership which called for more logging than was done in the 60’s(of curse I doubt they knew that). They’ve seen the green islands themselves after fires enough to know that thinning and fuels treatments work. The “moderate enviros” with the media are endorsing these collaborations. The radicals have become the drunken college roomate from 20 years ago who shows up on your doorstep “wantin to party man” while you’ve matured out of that era.

    This country’s politics aren’t driven by logic or science. They’re driven by “solutionism”. That good ol American “can do” attitude coupled with politicains falling all over themselves to find a solution to the perceived crisis of the moment. The Bolle report resulted in NEPA and 40 acre clearcuts that just made fragmentation worse to the extent that the USFS now routinely does MPB salvage clearcuts of 120 acres to more resemble “natural patch size”(the biggest clearcut I EVER saw was a MPB salvage done four years ago in Colorado). Nature didn’t burn 40 acre clearcuts. The “spotted owl” crisis resulted in the shutting down of the timber industry that ARizona is trying so hard to win back.And now…JZ is right that the politicians will be soon be looking for a solution to this crisis. The “mega EIS” coupled with the “wolf rider” should be it. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the winds blowin.

    And yes Smokey, 35 miles of “New Construction” is crap. I looked at the “Beaver Project EIS” on the Custer Forest website to check the number, but the website “is down” right now(through no conspiracy I’m sure). I’ll post when it comes up again. Lookin at the project map, I’m guessin about 6 miles of “temporary roads”. It’s typical of the cheap tawdry propoganda that discredits much of the above.

    Finally to you JZ. I’ve been wanting to share with you some data you and your group may find interesting. It’s the Northern Region “acres harvested by cutting method” tables. It’s on their website.It lists how many acres were logged, for every year, for every forest, back to 1945. I do believe Sharon will “Vett” it as an accurate accounting of how many acres was logged. If anything, it “overcounts” the acreage. As in a “thinning harvest” that was “shelterwood harvested 20 years later.” But in the “clearcut forests” of Montana and Idaho,there wasn’t that many “thinning prescriptions”. Oh, and no PCT is recorded. Every region keeps track of it, even though the Northern is the only one who has it on their website (I’ve gotten the SW Region through a FOIA request). I’ll give you a link below, but heres the “path” through their website so you can confirm it came from them. Go to USDA Northern region. “click on(>)” Land & resource management(upper left)>resource management > timber sale summary reports and accomplishments > acres harvested by cutting method.heres the link:
    http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5134430.pdf

    Then while your at it, you can look at the “Forest Inventory and analysis reports” to see how many “forested acres” there are in every forest. An 8th grader can then determine “what percentage of each forest was logged in the last 50 years, and what percentage is being logged now.” Remember, only “percentages can lead us to perspective.”

    Perhaps your group can then do some research on it’s own and issue a press release to tell the real public in Montana and Idaho how many acres are being logged now. I’ve done a lot of research in this area (right Matt). Here’s a couple highlights. The percentages of the “forested acreage” that were logged in the last 50 years. Lolo = 15%, Kootenai=25%, Beaverhead deerlodge=5% Gallatin=6%. I think you’ll find that using the last ten years, the “harvest in the last DECADE” has been Lolo=1.5%, Kootenai=1%, BHDL= .03% (thats 1% in 30 years!!)

    I would share the link to the FIA reports, but the USFS website is “down”(so much for the Custer forest conspiracy-just kidding). Ya know, My brokerage account is NEVER down. Anyway,it’s gonna be an exiting next few years in forestry.

    • Larry: For the record I simply pulled the fire photos directly from the official website for the fire. That seems fair, doesn’t it?

      http://www.inciweb.org/incident/photographs/2958/

      As you can see, there are ten photos available and I choose two of them to put here. If you want to publish other photos from the official website of the fire on this blog, feel free as you have that capability. As anyone can see who looks at the links above, most of the other photos from the official fire website show mainly open grasslands and sage with some scattered trees. Thanks.

        • Sharon: If you are honestly suggesting that the vast majority of the 244,000 acre + Ash Creek wildfire hasn’t burned through grasslands, sagebrush and widely scattered forests and shrublands I believe you’re very much mistaken. Remember, the “logging” project proposed was approximately 1,500 acres and the wildfire perimeter was already something like 180,000 + acres BEFORE even reaching the proposed timber sale.

          • That was my point. The question seems to be whether this project could have helped improve the situation for firefighting or for the environment (wildlife, etc).
            A photo of before and after would have been helpful. It’s certainly not your fault that the only photos you could find were of the grass/shrub. I was just pointing out that obviously the area in question was not grass/shrub.

    • Derek- the outages may be due to the problems with the storm back East. I’m not sure but it’s a possibility, we received a message about things being down although I did not look at it carefully.

  3. Derek has posted his “forested acres” percentages on this blog before. I too have posted my comments and concerns with his percentages and how he’s portraying them, back in Sept 2010 and even as far back as Feb 2009. People can view that comment and discussion here, but suffice to say I don’t believe Derek is honestly portraying some of these numbers. Thanks.

    http://ncfp.wordpress.com/2010/08/31/the-montana-conundrum-guest-post-by-derek-weidensee/#comment-1888

  4. PS: Perhaps, once the Forest Service website is up again, we can look for the road construction and reconstruction totals. But for the time being, I’ll just let everyone know that I obtained the information from the article linked to above:

    http://billingsgazette.com/news/state-and-regional/montana/judge-orders-forest-service-to-rework-eis/article_583e4e02-579d-5a9d-ad8c-2e7bf6051e9b.html

    “The Beaver Creek project, approved by Ashland District Ranger Walt Allen last March, proposed to commercially log 1,487 acres, and set prescribed fire to 8,054 acres. To facilitate the projects, about 35 miles of road construction and reconstruction would be required.”

  5. The question the plaintiff originally asked was “Can you please provide evidence, including the actual names of proposed Forest Service logging projects, that were supposedly prepared, litigated and then burned by wildfire in the process.” Such evidence was provided. While ignoring the original question,the plaintiff responded to such facts by creating a “new” question that was something along the lines of “show me evidence that 1500 acres of thinning would have stopped a 200,000 acre wildfire.” Since the second question has nothing to do with the original question, plaintiff has been denied. Case closed.

    I’m more interested in the “Whitetail Hazardous fuels Project” and the East Otter Project.” They were the ones that the USFS “withdrew” the decision in 2008 once they were litigated. Unfortunately, I don’t have those in my files and must rely on memory, but I have asked the Custer Nat. Forest to find them in their archives and post them. Perhaps plaintiff would join me in my FOIA request.

    Otherwise, defendant is satisfied to let this play out in the court of public opinion from here on out.

  6. Have drought and heat, have fires. Have moisture, not have fires.

    That’s simple.

    Except when people want to log. Then “radical” environmentalists (that adjective, as far as I can tell, is a legally mandated part of the right wing lexicon) and failure to thin are the problem. We have fire due to not enough logging. Got that?

  7. Matt,

    My questions above weren’t designed to be rhetorical or condescending. As you’ve challenged others here, I’m curious for an answer or reply….especially where to go from here?

    • Morning JZ: Personally I thought you brought up lots of good points in your comment above. As far as “where to go from here” the information contained under “Vision” on the top of page two of this document (http://nativeforest.org/pdf/Fire_Primer_04_low_res.pdf) provides some quick bullet point answers.

      More details can be found by looking at the entire Restoration Principles here:
      http://nativeforest.org/pdf/Restoration_Principles.pdf

      Those two documents were produced in 2003 and 2004 and I’d put forth that many of the solutions or goals outlined in these documents remains the same today, especially concerning a restoration vision for America’s National Forests and how to adapt and live with wildfire.

      • At the risk of not being PC, I don’t believe in “restoration” in our western fire forests because I simply don’t know what that means, what we’re restoring stuff to, if it’s actually possible given climate, etc.

        Can you briefly describe policy options you think would be helpful in dealing with living with wildfire without the “restoration” concept?

        • Sharon, I believe the “Citizens’ Call for Ecological Forest Restoration: Forest Restoration Principles and Criteria,” co-signed and supported by over 150 conservation organizations from around the country, pretty well addresses your question.

          http://nativeforest.org/pdf/Restoration_Principles.pdf

          Also, 25% of the “Wildfire Primer” deals with how homeowners can better live with wildfire by developing defensible space around their homes.

          http://nativeforest.org/pdf/Fire_Primer_04_low_res.pdf

          • I looked at them but they did not seem “brief”. No one disagrees with the concept of defensible space. But the latter “primer” seemed more concerned with points about “why logging is bad”.

            Everyone knows that creating defensible space is a good idea. But there are a couple of problems.with it. First, is that exhortations alone don’t seem to work. So what else is needed? The second is whether firefighters will be involved in wildland urban interface fires and what conditions might make it safer for them.

        • Adjusting tree densities to match our current climate would be a good starting point. Also, adjusting species compositions for better resilience would be a good thing. I think that could qualify for “restoration” in the best sense of the word.

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