Montana Wilderness Association & Collaborative Group Promoting Myths Instead of Facts

By George Wuerthner

The recent commentary on community collaboratives that was signed by a number of timber company representatives and forester along with the Montana Wilderness Association (MWA) promotes myths instead of truth with regards to forestry issues in western Montana.  As a former MWA board member, it particularly disturbing to see the organization championing frivolous timber sales that cost taxpayers money and destroy forest ecosystems. It appears the MWA is suffering from the Stockholm Syndrome.

Among other things, the commentary says that people are frustrated  when lawyers and judges trump local professional land managers. What the MWA doesn’t acknowledge is that no one wins a lawsuit unless there is a clear violation of rules and laws. Apparently the MWA is supporting illegal actions on our national forests.

Indeed, one can be thankful that at least some conservation organizations see their role as protecting the taxpayer purse strings and the land from money-losing timber sales and destructive forest practices instead of lining the pockets of private timber companies.

Their commentary champions collaboratives as “democracy” but fails to note that the vast majority of people and interests do not get to participate. While paid foresters and lobbyist for timber companies can attend the numerous meetings that are held during work week days, most people are not represented, particularly the majority of Americans who own these lands – a fact that the MWA apparently does not acknowledge.

Furthermore, the MWA supports the timber industry propaganda about thinning.

The bulk of the plant communities burned in Montana are high elevation forests dominated by lodgepole pine, fir and spruce. These forests naturally burn infrequently in high severity fires often hundred of years apart. These forests are neither out of their historic condition and are perfectly healthy. Fire in these ecosystems are driven by climate/weather, not fuels. Therefore, logging cannot preclude blazes in these forests.

Large fires only occur when there are severe fire weather conditions of high temperatures, low humidity, drought and most importantly high winds. Put those combinations together with an ignition source and you have unstoppable fires. The overwhelming conclusion of numerous scientific reviews is that under severe fire weather, thinning has no effect on fire spread. But you won’t get that information from the Montana Wilderness Association.

Even more importantly large severe fires are ecologically important. Indeed, there are numerous wildlife species that live in mortal fear of green forests because they are highly dependent on the periodic input of snags and down wood that is created by large wildfires. But don’t hold your breath waiting for the MWA to mention this.

Finally, logging is not benign. Logging roads spread sediment into streams affecting fish. They help to spread weeds. Logging removes biomass and down wood important for habitat. Logging removes the carbon that is stored in forests and even burnt forests store more carbon than logged forest sites. Logging disturbs sensitive wildlife like grizzly and elk. And finally logging can scar scenic values. But you will never see the MWA mention any of these associated and cumulative impacts.

It seems the MWA measurement of success is whether it can have a beer with timber and other former foes. There’s nothing wrong with sitting down to discuss common interests. But the real measure for a conservation group should be the wildlife habitat and wildlands it has saved. By this measure, the MWA is failing miserably. It’s time for the MWA to relinguish its mantle as a wildlands advocate and admit it has been captured by the timber industry. Patty Hearst would understand.

George Wuerthner is a former MWA board member, an ecologist and an author of 38 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy

8 Comments

  1. I fully agree with George. I participated in an attempt to make the local collaboration work. The process was so sickeningly slow and time consuming that important participants dwindled away. All of the sessions were during the work-week hours. I was fortunate to be retired and had the time to waste, but too many lost interest or just could not stay involved.

    The wilderness advocates in Montana seem to have compromised themselves into a bit of repudiation of long-held beliefs. For what…funds? Friends? A very disappointing scenario.

    And George W.’s commentary is “right on”, in my experience in those northwest high elevation forests. Extreme weather is the primary factor in the rash of monster fires this past decade. And what should be obvious (and is often unremarked upon) is that the majority of the PNW acres burned these past years have NOT been textbook “forestland” but were mixed timber/grassland/sagebrush ecotypes with little commercial value for timber. The huge fires in the Okanogan Highlands were mostly grass/shrub sites intermixed with timbered north slopes and draws. This makes for great headlines (“over half-million acres of forestland scorched”) and rallies the uneducated public about the need to harvest and thin. Always looking for easy answers for complex issues.

  2. Fact: Montana’s unmanaged national forests are harvesting 24% of the planned Allowable Sale Quantity and 5 % of the annual timber growth while 20 times that volume dies from fire, insects, and disease. Is this prudent husbandry of our public lands?

    “Let nature take its course” may have been appropriate for stone-age hunter-gatherers and has its place today in “Museum Management” as practiced in our national parks and in wilderness areas. “Hands Off” , a simple answer to complex problems, is not a rational management approach for multi-purpose public lands serving the widely divergent (and increasing) needs of 323 million (and growing) owners as we enter the Anthropocene epoch.

    • But how much of that “allowable timber sale quantity” is fully funded? It seems one of the most limiting factors in current national forest management is a lack of adequate funds…for almost all resources. Congress has strangled NF management by this lack of funds.

  3. Allow me to add a postscript to my comment of 12:36 pm.

    Collaboration is an honest effort to solve the problem of “Hands Off” management by compromise through mutual respect. While far from perfect, it does (or should) result in action on the ground. If not collaboration, what alternative does Mr. Wuerthner, or Mr. Koehler, propose?

    • Hi Mac. I’m one of the radical people that thinks an open, inclusive, transparent process – such as those outlined in bedrock environmental laws such as NEPA – works pretty well, especially in a democratic country. Thanks for the question.

      P.S. You also do realize that the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Region has meet its annual timber harvest goals the past two years, right?

  4. Hey Matthew,

    The system works “pretty well”. Really? The NEPA process plus a tangled web of unclear and conflicting laws, court decisions, executive orders, FS regulations, environmental assessment overkill, congressional inaction, underfunding, and serial litigation have worked so well that Montana is cutting 5% of its timber growth while 20 times that volume dies and while mills close, workers are idled, families are disrupted, and local governments and schools are endangered. So, everything is lovely and collaboration (an attempt to solve some of the problem) is unneeded, a fraud, and a takeover by the greedy special interests intent on raping the land. (Sorry! I got carried away.)

    Also, readers should be be aware that the annual regional or forest timber “goals” have nothing to do with on-the-ground needs or forest planning objectives. These “goals” are artifacts, Potemkin villages erected by the Forest Service, establishing the volume achievable under its annual budget – a budget created by politicians who have other matters more important than public land management to worry about. Montana is cutting about 25% of its Annual Sell Quantity (ASQ), a very, very conservative estimate of the volume that should be cut to maintain forest health and meet multiple use objectives as established by the forests’ plans. This failure exists nationwide. The Apalachicola N.F. in Florida is meeting its annual “goal” by cutting 3% of the annual growth and 26% of the ASQ while treating 35% of the planned acres.

  5. No one wins a lawsuit? A loosing lawsuit to stop salvaging “wins” when the delay makes the otherwise salvagable material too rotten to use. A “clear violation of the rules” oftentimes seem moot.

    Yes, there may be timber company representatives involved with collaboratives. I might add that the “executives” of some very large environmental organizations are paid salaries that rival what executives in the private world get.

    If the endless “analysis paralysis” and lawsuits/threats of lawsuits/collaboration/etc. weren’t so expensive, maybe a sale could actually make a profit. I calculated the national forest nearby takes something like 6 times more manpower than private enterprise to produce a million board feet of timber. Further, they produce just a fraction of what the forest is capable of producing. Maybe there needs to be a few more business people in charge. In the private world, a timber sale that could not pay its way would probably not be a timber sale; in other words, unlike federal forests, the private world does not have to beg for sale planning money because it actually generates its own operating cash as it goes along. If it didn’t, it would go broke because defict spending is a very short-term proposition (somehow, that doesn’t seem too much of a concern for the fed’s). Going broke is not something stock holders tolerate though taxpayers seem okay with the idea.

    Forests do store carbon but, at some point, the amount of carbon that is annually being sequestered is greatly diminished. If that timber could be harvested and the timber’s carbon stored in the form of 2x4s, the forest could then more vigorously begin storing more carbon.

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