The Montana Conundrum- Guest Post by Derek Weidensee

All decked out but no place to go: photo of roadside hazard tree removal in bark beetle country.

And then we come to Montana, which still has a timber industry. Even though many environmentalists have stopped litigating, some groups still litigate even “healthy forest” timber sales. Why hasn’t Montana succeeded in ending litigation where the other areas have? The majority of the public in Colorado, Arizona, and Lake Tahoe tend to consider themselves “environmentalists”. The majority in Montana wouldn’t. Could it be that we have a very ironic anomaly where increased logging can only occur where the majority consider themselves to be environmentalists?

Sometimes in order to better understand a hotly debated issue such as logging we get sucked into the details. This has the unfortunate result of losing sight of the “big picture”. We get so lost in the micro, we lose sight of the macro. Big numbers by themselves don’t mean anything, only percentages can lead us to perspective.

Perhaps it would be informative to discuss how much has been logged. The following percentages come from the USFS forest inventory analysis (FIA) reports (can you find the misspelling on this web page?) and the USFS “cut and sold” reports which list harvest acreage for every national forest for every year back to 1945. The following percentages are based on “forested acreage”. No water, rock, or grass acres were used in my calculations.

The following table represents the amount of “forested acres” that were logged in the past 50 years: Lolo…………………………………..17%
Let’s focus on the 5% that was logged on the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest since it’s the focus of Tester’s Beaverhead Partnership collaboration. 5% sounds pretty sustainable to me. I mentioned the above numbers to two prominent Montana environmentalists. It was the first they heard of it. I think it would help us all to learn together to start from a joint basis of facts.

The Partnership plan proposes to log 70,000 acres in ten years. Sounds like a lot-until you find out it’s only 2.5% of the “forested acreage”. If you projected that out 50 years, that would mean that 18% would be logged in 100 years. By that time the sapling that grew up in a clearcut done in 1960 would be ready for harvest. If 80% of the landscape for natural processes is not enough, what is?

In the five years ending in 2008, the BDNF logged an average of 500 acres/year. That’s .02% of the forested acreage. At that rate it’ll take 50 years to log 1%! In the last five years the Lolo harvested 2500 acres/year. At that rate it’ll take 50 years to log 7%. A lot of these groups had, in the past, advocated a “zero cut” on national forests. Isn’t 500 acres per year close enough to zero?

On forests that aren’t litigated, the NEPA mandated EA’s get pretty small. I compared one in Montana to one in Colorado. They were both MPB salvage timber sales. The one in Montana treated 1300 acres and ran to 200 pages, the one in Colorado treated 4,000 acres and ran to 57 pages!

Finally, the biggest cause of all should be knowing that environmentalists are good people at heart. They’re not evil. They’re good fathers and husbands. I’ve read the 1985 Lolo forest plan. There’s no doubt they planned to convert 90% of the Lolo to a tree farm by the year 2050. I’ve read USFS inventories from 1950. A third of NW Montana was old growth. There’s no doubt there’s less today. You’ve stopped old growth logging. You’ve set aside roadless. Our life ambition is to be successful at our work. You have been successful.

I also know that the pendulum of public policy in this country swings to the extremes. I’m sure the “zero cut” groups never dreamed they would have stopped all logging so easily. The USFS responded to “changing public values” in the 90’s by scaling back timber harvest. I’m sure they never dreamed it would go too far (I’ve always wanted to ask Jack Ward Thomas where he wanted it to be). Let’s hope the pendulum stops somewhere in the middle.

Note from Sharon. I tried to check Derek’s facts on the internet, but it wasn’t as easy as a person might think without going into corporate databases.

Montana has more litigation and appeals (as described in the GAO study) due to (here are a variety of hypotheses):

Venue shopping by organizations who want to win
The old timber industry built up an associated appeals and litigation industry which is continuing
People only trust that fuels treatments are needed if they aren’t sold to the timber industry.
People in Colorado just want those dead trees outta there and don’t care who takes them.
Other hypotheses?

I also tried to run down all the ongoing litigation of timber and fuels projects in Colorado. I could only find two. One deals with a lawyer/neighbor of the project; the other is a law school class project. So litigation does not seem like a serious problem here.

I also attended a speech by Secretary Vilsack and one by Governor Ritter on Friday in Fort Collins who were both very strongly for using the dead trees that we have everywhere in stacks in bark beetle country. If it is about using wood, as opposed to cutting trees, a biomass industry could start the litigation dynamic all over again. Yet those hazard trees in the photo could be used for various purposes, including to reduce fossil fuel usage. That’s why it would be good to understand the real reasons behind litigation in different areas of the country.

Finally, while trying to check on acreages, I ran across this link to a study that described 8-10 K acres of treatment on the San Juan (this study is entirely very interesting) with the goal of getting up to 20-30 K (only 10% mechanical, most prescribed burning). My colleagues assure me that there are plenty of environmental lawyers in Durango, yet they are not litigated on fuels treatment projects.

Also I see this AP report of a hazard tree removal project along roads on the Helena that is about 10K acres on the Helena over 5-7 years. Will the advent of bark beetle mortality make Montana become more like Colorado in terms of appeals and litigation?

What do you think about the Montana Conundrum? Is your state more like Montana or Colorado?

7 thoughts on “The Montana Conundrum- Guest Post by Derek Weidensee”

  1. I need to think about this a bit. But anyone, including Derek, have a sense of how many proposed sales on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, among other forests in Montana, have gone without bid in recent years? And we could talk about why that might be as well, e.g., international markets, recession, and possibly the threat of appeal and litigation, etc.

    It would also be interesting to consider how appealed/litigated projects were packaged by the USFS in MT and CO in the past. Are there differences in terms of where projects were located, some problematic bundling of projects (with non-controversial projects bundled with controversial ones), and of course all the endangered/threatened species issues that are very different up here (grizzly, bull trout, etc).

  2. Martin- that is one hypothesis I completely missed. Of course, the endangered species angle.
    The differences in project design might be of interest, also the state of the purchasers. It also might be interesting to take a sample of projects of the same size and design across the west and look at the NEPA and the appeal and litigation history and attempt to discern patterns.

    Of course, this might be only of historic interest since the presence of a seemingly infinite supply of dead road hazard trees and WUI fuels trees might change the social-economic-political context of treatment and litigation.

  3. There is a tendency in the Forest Service to attempt have timber sales break even. During the NEPA process specialists often look at adding all the mitigation they can with the expected value of the timber. This worked OK when the timber market was escalating in value, but when the timber value declines the sales often become deficit. Often there is a couple years between the NEPA and the actual sale and values do change. Lodgepole pine is not a high value species and has even less when it is dead. Small diameters and low volumes per acre make logging costs high. In some instances the sales are negative coming out of the NEPA due to project design features. It seems to be politically incorrect to make money from natural resources. I even had one specialist tell me that economics should not be considered in natural resource decisions, and this specialist is now a Ranger. The whole stewardship concept seems to be a way around the deficit sale, by packaging all of the fuels treatments, thinning, and mitigations into one package in which the timber sale is embedded in.

  4. “Creative project design” has been going on for years. I once administered a salvage sale that included (by design) several pine plantations which needed thinning. They stretched the salvage sale boundary to include these plantations and spend K-V money on it which was generated from the salvage efforts.

    My last fire salvage project included flying submerchantable material out of the helicopter units (minus the wildlife log requiremnts). They, literally, produced mountains of “cull” material which had to be burned on the landing (because there is no biomass market, here in California). It was extremely costly for the purchaser to buy off on these “features” but, the sales did finally sell, after the purchaser (the monopolistic Sierra Pacific Industries) didn’t bid on several of the sales. Even with the bid rates at minimum, all the lumped-on “features” didn’t pencil-out for the mill.

    Our lands do benefit from some of those design features. Especially in the salvage arena. Anyone who uses profit/loss to judge the success of a fuels project simply isn’t acknowledging the tangible benefits on the ground.

  5. Hello: I may have more to add latter, but for the time being, I’d just like to share with the group some information I exchanged with Derek/Logger over an on-line comment section back in February 2009. This information is directly related to Derek’s assertions regarding the amount of ‘forested acres’ that were logged in the past 50 years on the Lolo National Forest” as well as related to Derek’s assertion that he thinks “it would help us all to learn together to start from a joint basis of facts.”

    As you can see from the information below, which was shared with Derek almost 18 months ago, I strongly question Derek’s percentage figures and his methodology.

    For example, while Derek quotes those figures for various national forests in Montana, when I checked his math and methodology on the Lolo National Forest, a much different percentage came through.

    Folks should keep in mind that Derek’s percentage figures include “forested areas” within designed Wilderness (off limits to logging) as well as upper elevation forests, such as some gnarly white bark pines growing at 10,000 feet that the logging industry has no interest in.

    I wrote Derek about 18 months ago and said the percentage figures he was using were misleading. He continues to use the same figures.

    Specific to the Lolo National Forest, a more accurate and honest way to look at the situation is that according to the Lolo NF’s own report (, 1,013,853 acres of the Lolo NF are identified as “suitable for timber production.” Over the past 50 years, 347,000 acres (or 542 square miles) of the Lolo National Forest have been logged. That means that over the past 50 years, 34.2% of the forested lands suitable for timber production on the Lolo National Forest were logged.

    I would suspect that if someone would take the time to look at the other national forests listed in Derek’s article, they’d find that the percentage of the suitable timber base logged over the past fifty years for each of these forests is much higher than the percentages that Derek is using.

    Also, I should point out that the National Forests in Montana ended 2009 with more timber volume under contract to logging companies than at any point in the previous decade. And the GAO report found that in the USFS’s Northern Region, more than 92% of fuel reduction projects went forward without ligation. But, hey, apparently we have a “Montana Conundrum,” right?

    Oh, and as someone who’s been pretty involved with timber sale ligation over the past decade, I should point out that I’ve never ever heard of any “venue shopping” taking place when it came time to filing a lawsuit on an illegal timber sale. It seemed pretty standard really. If the timber sale was taking place in Montana, the cases went to a federal judge in Montana. If the timber sale was taking place on a national forest in Idaho, the case went to a federal judge in Idaho. I never once heard anyone say, “Oh, we need to make sure to get this case before this judge.” Maybe “venue shopping” happens in other arenas, but I certainly never encountered in related to specific timber sale lawsuits.

    As for other hypotheses, perhaps Montana has “more” litigation and appeals than other regions of the country (even though, I should point out, that by any objective measure litigation and appeals are way down in Montana and the country…so I really just don’t think this crying about “all this litigation” is very valid in the first place) because 1) Montana’s national forests have more to lose, in terms of species, natural processes, roadless lands, wildlife habitat, etc 2) the politics of Montana and the timber industry pressure here cause the USFS to put out projects based on shaky science and a flimsy application of the laws or 3) the Forest Service in Montana and the Northern Region has done a very poor job of living up to the requirement and promises in their previous forest plans…and attempts by the Bush Administration (and possibly Obama Administration) to re-write the NFMA regs without enforceable standards for wildlife or soils or old-growth, etc resulted in some folks looking to the US court system to hold the USFS accountable.



    Date: Wed, 25 Feb 2009

    Logger: I’m checking out the Lolo report ( and I have some questions.

    Of the 2,079,327 acres Lolo National Forest, 1,975,360 acres is forest land.

    Also, it looks like 1,810,452 acres of the Lolo NF are nonreserved forest land. The report states that “About 56 percent of the nonreserved forest land is actually considered to be suitable for timber production.”

    So, according to this report, 1,013,853 acres of the Lolo NF is suitable for timber production.

    When you came up with your figure that “Only 17% of the ‘forested acres’ on the Lolo NF were logged in the last 50 years” are you sure you used 1,013,853 acres of the Lolo suitable for timber production? Or did you use the 1,810,452 acres of the Lolo NF classified as “nonreserved forest land?

    I ask because you are using different terminology than what’s in the report and also because your 17% figure may actually be quite inaccurate unless you compared that to the 1,013,853 acres of suitable land.

    Also, where did you find the figures for how much of these national forests were logged in the last fifty years?

    Finally, I didn’t see in the report that “Theres 600,000 acres of dry Ponderosa/Doug Fir on the Lolo.”

    The report indicates that only 4% of the forest area on the Lolo is ponderosa pine, which would be about 72,418 and only about 50,000 acres of the Lolo is in a warm/dry habitat group.

    Please email me directly at so we can have a conversation in more than 250 word blocks. Thanks.


    Date: Sat, 28 Feb 2009 09:51:24 -0600

    Logger, Thanks for the additional information. You weren’t really being accurate with your statement that “only 17% of the ‘forested acres’ on the Lolo NF were logged in the last 50 years.”

    Apparently you have included the forested parts of the Wilderness in this figure and have also included “forested acres” at 8,000 feet that might be growing some gnarly whitebark pine that the logging industry has no interest in.

    That’s why the correct way to look at this (and the USFS would back me up on this) is within the context of the 1,013,853 acres of the Lolo NF that’s suitable for timber production. So, over the past 50 years 347,000 acres (542 square miles) of the Lolo National Forest have been logged. That’s 34.2% of the lands suitable for timber production logged in the past 50 years. Given our cold climate, high elevations and short growing season (thereby long timber rotations) that is certainly a signification amount.

    Furthermore, as you admit yourself a lot of that logging targeted old-growth forests. Another issue facing the Lolo (and other NF in MT) is also the fact that much of this logged land sits in a checkerboard with Plum Creek lands that have been clearcut and very heavily managed. Think of Gold Creek or the Jocko or Petty Creek or Lolo Creek, etc.

    I’d suggest that before you continue sharing your figures with everyone that you revise them to be more accurate. Thanks.

  6. It is unfortunate to associate the horrible past logging practices with the future of our forests. Not one person has advocated going back to rampant clearcutting, roadbuilding and “jammer roads”. Why not do this analysis on the last 10 years, to have a more useful comparison of the options we still have? It is abundantly clear that there is no danger of going back to those damaging practices, just as doctors aren’t going back to bloodletting and skull-drilling for ordinary afflictions.

  7. Forested is forested. Just because it’s not in the “suitable land” base, does that mean there are no more trees there? We know suitable is only where “timber poduction is the emphasis”. Suitable is a moving target. I do believe that in the last plan the Lolo had something like 1,500,00 acres in the suitable land base.

    Sharon edited out a part I had about comparing USFS below cost timber sales Vs. State of Montana DNRC timber sales which make $2.00 in revenue for every $1.00 in cost. Two days ago I visited a proposed DNRC timber sale treating MPB outside Bozeman Mt., I also visited a USFS timber sale that also proposes to treat MPB near Bozeman. As planners, has anyone ever wondered, that since every state timber sale program makes money, and naturally has much less environmental analysis than NEPA requires the USFS to go through, is there one bit of evidence that State timber sales are degrading the environment? For that matter, can anyone recall where the “no action” alternative was ever picked. Certainly, after taking a “hard look before we leap” there must be some projects where the planners determined the environmental costs would be too high. Of course theirs lots of wiggle room within alternatives, but Does all the NEPA analysis really change the managers mind about going forward or not, or is it just a rubber stamp?


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