Forest Role Reversal- Guest Post from Derek Weidensee

The much maligned, much despised, and much misunderstood Clearcut is being seen in a new light these days. The driving force behind the new image is wildfire and the Mountain Pine Beetle (MPB) epidemic that has killed off millions of acres of lodgepole pine primarily in Montana and Colorado. The public never understood the ecology or the silviculture behind a clearcut and thus presumed it only represented the most efficient and therefore greedy method to extract timber. Well, that attitude is changing. Nothing explains the ecology behind a clearcut to the public better than a MPB epidemic or a wildfire. Suddenly they get why foresters did them.
Across millions of acres of MPB killed watersheds, the only “green islands” in a sea of red are the young trees of regenerated clearcuts We know the MPB doesn’t attack these young trees. If you’ll look at my previous “clearcuts don’t burn” posting on the sosf blog, you’ll also see that 80% of regenerated lodgepole clearcuts don’t burn in wildfires. The “green islands” in a sea of black is a striking contrast.
For Google Earth proof of the “green islands”in both settings, type in the following Latitude and Longitudes in the “fly to” box.

(Technical note from Sharon for Google Earth newbies: I think how this works is that you need to download Google Earth to your computer. Then when you click on the Google Earth icon, a screen will come up with a box that says “fly to”. You type the coordinates Derek says into the box and the area will come up. If you are like me and haven’t been paying attention to current technologies, you will be very impressed!)

46 18 56.14N, 112 25 39.47W is a green island in a sea of red north of Butte MT. For a good view of the Green islands in a sea of black type in the following locations:48 25 35.01N, 114 49 44.43W is the Brush Creek fire west of Whitefish MT. 45 41 34.44N, 113 45 13.15W is the Rat creek fire west of Wisdom MT. Perhaps my favorite is 48 48 22.39N, 115 11 12.55W south of Eureka MT. Use the “clockface” on the toolbar to see pre fire photos.

Beware a fickle public. The public’s perception of forest policy is really based upon aesthetics. 20 years ago they say a raw clearcut in a sea of green and decried them. Today they see a green regenerated clearcut in a sea of red or black and they wonder why they didn’t do more of them. The green islands are taking on a “forest role reversal” in the public’s mind. They’re also taking on a role reversal in forest structure that will impact wildlife. I’d like to further discuss this “forest role reversal” as it applies to the public and to wildlife.

Forest role reversal and wildlife: The photo at the top of this post just about sums it up. Last summer I was driving through a 10 year old burn north of Sula Montana when I spooked the herd of Elk in the picture. They were running into a 28 year old regenerated clearcut (so said a nearby sign). The clearing in the foreground they were grazing on was a mature forest that burned and was then salvage logged. It dawned on me that the clearcut that had survived the fire was now the hiding and thermal cover, and the burned old growth is now the forage. 10 years ago the roles were reversed.

Throughout millions of acres of MPB mortality in Montana and Colorado, the only hiding and thermal cover will be the regenerated clearcuts. I know there’s still spruce up high and fir down low, but many watersheds are almost pure stands of lodgepole. Furthermore, and contrary to public perception, very little of the “forested acreage”(I didn’t use total) was logged on National Forests in the impacted forests. Only 3% of the White River forest in Colorado was logged in 50 years. Only 7% of the helena, 5% of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, and 7% of the Gallatin in Montana were logged in 50 years. Even in watersheds with a “timber emphasis”, seldom was more than 20% logged. The green islands are sprinkled about in “not to exceed 40 acre”(thankyou Mr. Bolle) lifeboats in a sea of red, black, and soon to be gray deadfall.

Furthermore, what will the “quality” of the forage be? I know the burned forests will have good quality forage. I know the forage will be heavy in the MPB deadfall but how “accessible” will it be? I read a tidbit in a USFS EIS for a Colorado salvage sale which says the deadfall will “restrict access to” and “make unavailable” the forage. Are there studies that show how much the deadfall will inhibit use? Perhaps salvage logging next to a “green island” would be very beneficial to Elk. Perhaps I could convince Judge Molloy of this. Nevertheless, habitat effectiveness tables will have to be redrawn across the west.

Forest role reversal and the public: Considering the disdain the public has for clearcuts-the following may be a reach. As crazy as it sounds, I think in the next 20 years the public will be choosing the green islands over the gray deadfall for more of their outdoor recreation. Case in point is Breckenridge Colorado. The USFS is proposing to salvage log 5000 acres around the town in a 600′ firebreak.. Because of deadfall, in 10 years the citizens won’t even want to try and walk past that firebreak. When I MPB salvage logged in the late 70’s, we literally had to cut our way in. It was easier to walk across the sale balancing on deadfall without ever touching the ground.

However, just west of town is a row of nice 25 year old “green islands” from the last MPB salvage effort in the 80’s. They were much derided then. I mentioned to the Mayor that he should urge the USFS to “pre-commercially”thin the regenerated lodgepole. This elevates the fire hazard for ten years of course, but then we know the MPB fire hazard isn’t gonna be really bad for 10-15 years until all the deadfall hits the ground. Too bad the USFS has prohibited pre-commercial thinning because of the Lynx Amendment. With thinning, those clearcuts could look like this area.

It’s a 35 year old clearcut thinned 15 years ago. Looks like a park doesn’t it. The below area is a 46 year old clearcut. You wouldn’t even know it if you were driving by would you.

Perhaps the biggest role reversal of all is that it’s starting to look like all that clearcutting was a good idea after all. The biggest missing ecosystem component for these forests wasn’t the old growth, it was the early seral. It was missing age diversity.

Derek Weidensee has been a licensed land surveyor for the last 20 years in Rapid City, South Dakota. Before that he spent 10 years as a logger, five of those in Montana and Idaho.

2 thoughts on “Forest Role Reversal- Guest Post from Derek Weidensee”

  1. Excellent post, Derek. While I’m not a fan of clearcutting, I’ve never wanted to lose that tool out of the toolbox, to use as a last resort. The revelation I have walked away with are the needs of having age diversity when species diversity is next to impossible. It’s a very tough concept to sell, in a very seller’s-dominated market, these days.

    Clearcutting hasn’t happened, here in California National Forests, since 1993. Our lands and forests just aren’t suitable, despite those plans of the 70’s. Maybe we have TOO MUCH species diversity in our forests.

  2. Hi Derek
    Enjoyed your latest article in Evergreen. Right on target. There’s a new wind blowing in DC. It’s called Trust Management. I’ll have an article on it in the next issue of Forestry Source, the house paper of the Society of American Forester. Meanwhile take at look at this webpage

    Thanks again for letting me use your photos on my web-site. They make the point very well indeed.



Leave a Comment