Commentary: Colt Summit timber sale based on false assumptions

Ecologist and former hunting guide George Wuerthner has a new piece on the Lolo National Forest’s Colt Summit Timber Sale over at The Wildlife News.   Below is a snip, but make sure to give the entire article it a read.  We’ve also debated the substantive issues related to this timber sale numerous times on this site.

The Colt Summit timber sale on the Seeley Lake Ranger District is the first logging proposal on the Lolo National Forest to be challenged in five years.  It has become symbolic of a bigger fight over logging in the Northern Rockies. It is the proverbial line in the sand. It is actually typical of the may timber sales now being promoted by the Forest Service based on flawed assumptions about fire ecology and exaggerated public benefits, so in a sense is worthy of scrutiny since it is representative of what environmentalists around the West are encountering these days.

The Colt Summit Timber sale is being challenged by the Friends of the Wild Swan, Native Ecosystems Council, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, and Mountain Ecosystems Defense Council. They have filed a law suit to stop the timber sale arguing that the logging may jeopardize endangered grizzly bear, lynx and bull trout. Also, Wildwest Institute filed a brief in support of the plaintiffs (they are members of the Lolo Restoration committee).

Wuerthner also recently got some new pictures of the Colt Summit timber sale area from the air.  You can also take a Google Earth tour here. As anyone can clearly see from the aerial images, the surrounding area (including the portions of the Lolo National Forest and private lands) have already been heavily logged and roaded, significantly compromising critical habitat for lynx, grizzly bears, bull trout and other critters.  In fact, these images makes it pretty clear that the Colt Summit project area is smack dab in the middle of one of the only wildlife corridors in that part of the valley.  Really, most of the valley has been clearcut, logged and roaded from the border of the Mission Mountain Wilderness on the west to the Bob Marshal Wilderness on the east.   Yet, despite tremendous fragmentation of the landscape, The Wilderness Society, Montana Wilderness Association, National Wildlife Federation, Yaak Valley Forest Council and others joined up with the Montana Wood Products Association and Montana Logging Association to file a brief in support of more logging in the area.

Past logging has heavily degraded the Seeley-Swan Valley in Montana, including here on either side of Lake Inez and Seeley Lake on the Lolo National Forest. Photo by George Wuerthner.

Clearcuts in the Swan Valley, MT near Loon Lake on the slope of Mission Mountains. Photo by George Wuerthner.
Clearcuts in the Swan Valley, MT near Loon Lake on the slope of Mission Mountains. Photo by George Wuerthner.

18 thoughts on “Commentary: Colt Summit timber sale based on false assumptions”

  1. Easy there Derek…it’s just information sharing…


    Thanks for the post, I’ve been following the Colt Summit project for a while. Also, I owe you an apology….I passed thru your area on my way out east last weekend but didn’t get a chance to look you up and buy that beverage (kool-aide?) I owe you…next time eh?

    Speaking of Kool-aide, followers of the Wildlife News has seemingly adopted George as their new prophet and willing to drink it up. Perhaps it’s his self styled “ecologist and former hunting guide” that buys his credibilty with that crowd?

    Nothing against George and his writings (they’ve been generally balanced to-date) but as a self styled ecologist (forester/fire ecologist) and former hunting guide myself (10+ years) I’d have to disagree with his “findings” in the links above. In fact all I read was a bunch of regurgitated and canned comments that argue for the “no action” alternative…nothing substantive and certainly no solutions offered….

    I’m in no way arguing for the merits of the Colt Summit project. I would agree that the “fuels/fuel reduction” card has been played irresponsibly and too heavily (thanks to the “tools” we’re given by Congress) by the Agency. But the idea of opposing a responsible forest management / logging project because it will ostensibly ruin the last bastions of ESA habitat (how many acres are we talking anyway???) is ludicrous. Those “clearcuts” that are cited in his article as some sort of horrible abomination are well regenerated with desireable species are well on their way to becoming the next forest that will provide for habitat/climate change and all that other good stuff….

    In my travels thru Montana last weekend I remarked at the vigor of some of the “clearcuts” that I laid out when I worked for Plum Creek some 15 years ago…I could barely recognize some of the units that, even I though back then, looked like a warzone. WOW…healthy stands of larch and pondersa pine everywhere! The point is that we’re talking about a dynamic and resilient (eco)system…

    In stark contrast was the “bazillion” acres of dead/dying bug kiled trees (I went over McDonald Pass), that AWR is suggesting we need to leave and allow natural processes to occur??? to provide for what??? When a fraction of a percent of those dead/dying acres are proposed for harvest (for whatever “restorative” reason) and are fought over……well….I guess I’d have to side with the conspirators…er, I mean collaborators.

  2. Matthew, what I don’t get is 1) if it is a fuels reduction project around homes then 2) isn’t the landscape already fragmented? I think I read somewhere that humans and associated animals and pets can disturb wildlife for a certain number of feet or miles around the habitation.

    • Sharon, what gives you the impression that the Colt Summit project is a “fuels reduction project around homes?”

      Being somewhat familiar with the project area I can certainly tell you that it’s a very remote part of Montana, with widely scattered homes, cabins, etc…if there are even any at all.

      Please refer to the pictures in the post and also this google earth tour ( to see the remote nature, and lack of homes, in the project area and immediate surroundings. In all the debate about this project I never once heard the ‘collaborators’ or the Forest Service claim this was a “fuels reduction project around homes?”

      P.S. Two years ago I spoke to a group of UM students right up near the Colt Summit project area. On my drive up there I needed to take a restroom break, so I pulled off Hwy 83 and drove about 50 feet off the highway and parked on a Forest Service road that was gated. I got out and as I was doing my business a tremendous ruckus broke out no more than 30 yards from me. It was a huge grizzly bear feeding on a deer that must have been killed on the highway….Wild Rockies!

  3. Matthew, I think we previously discussed this in one of the previous posts on the subject.

    Here are the actual current acres and activities proposed..from a previous post.

    I got the impression that fuels reduction is one of the reasons for the project from part of the purpose and need. For example in the decision notice here.

    “I believe the modified proposed action meets all three of the project objectives well and moves the Colt Summit area toward desired conditions.
    Restore forest health
    The modified proposed action will reduce the relative density of the proposed treatment areas from an average of 57 percent in 2010 (well within the zone of imminent mortality), to an average of 41 percent in 2014 (well below the zone of imminent mortality). The residual stands will have less competition and will be more resilient to drought, insects, disease and fire.
    The average DBH of the residual stand would go up as would the proportion of ponderosa pine and western larch trees.
    The modified proposed action would not affect the quantity of old-growth in the project area, and could help protect old-growth and stands that could mature into old-growth. The guideline for 8 percent of an ecological management unit to be managed for old growth would continue to be exceeded.
    The modified proposed action would maintain and protect old-growth characteristics in a 22-acre stand (unit 28) that currently meets old-growth criteria, and help move 115 acres in other stands (units 6, 6A, 6B, 7, 7A, 7B, and 29) towards meeting old-growth characteristics 5 to 30 years sooner, through less competition and faster growth, than if not treated.
    Restore grizzly bear, bull trout, and aquatic and riparian habitat on Colt Creek by decommissioning Road 646 and rerouting the primary access to the area.
    Through the closure of the Colt Creek Road 646 the modified proposed action will add 330 acres of grizzly bear security core habitat in prime riparian habitat (1 percent increase in Mission Subunit and 8 percent increase in the Colt Summit project area). The location of the increased security core is very desirable because it links to core security areas to the west and extends the core security area between the Mission Mountain Wilderness and the Bob Marshall Wilderness on the east. This will also increase security habitat for wolverine, fisher, elk and other wildlife.

    Road density and location, disturbance history, riparian conservation areas, and disturbance regimes will benefit by the decommissioning of the Colt Road (#646) because it will decrease the overall road density and remove a road from the Colt Creek valley bottom. Implementation will cumulatively improve the baseline bull trout habitat from “functioning-at-risk” to “functioning appropriately” for the Upper Clearwater HUC.
    The modified proposed action will have other beneficial effects to water quality and fisheries habitat. There would be an increase in approximately 0.6 miles of stream access, previously unavailable, and the ability to withstand 100-year flood events with the replacement/removal of two aquatic barriers (these are the last known barriers on Forest Service lands in the Upper Clearwater Drainage). There would be a net reduction of sediment delivery in Colt and Bertha creeks, and portions of the Clearwater River mainstem, by about 75 percent which would lead to improvements in egg to-young-of-year survival of fish species, and aid in western pearlshell survival within the project area and downstream vicinity. A long-term benefit would be the drastic reduction in risk of culvert failure that would result in approximately 40 to 86 tons of direct sediment delivery per crossing.
    A bonus is that the re-routing of the primary access road and vista treatments will provide very scenic viewing opportunities for visitors to the Forest. Recreationists seeking non-motorized recreation opportunities will benefit from the decommissioning of Road 646 and retention of a trail.
    Reduce hazardous fuels in the wildland-urban interface.
    The modified proposed action would result in the following improvements in potential fire behavior characteristics: a 26 percent improvement in areas with flame lengths less than 4 feet (important because it would allow for direct attack in 82 percent of the project area); reduce crown fires by a 25 percent, increasing acres of surface-fire type; and approximately a 24 percent increase in area with rate-of-spread at 5 chains per hour or less.”

    It seems to me the last time we had this discussion you said it wasn’t “real” WUI and I said a house is a house and everyone’s definitions are different, or something to that effect.

    My point was that we could see houses on Google earth, houses and people have impacts, and it could be that the creatures you speak of do not completely avoid those impacts (e.g. eating deer 39 yards plus 50 feet from a busy highway) to those impacts, why would we think they would be to prescribed burning or thinning where people enter and then leave relatively quickly.

    Plus again I have to point out what FWS their letter linked to my post here.
    Their conclusions seem pretty clear to me.

    Also, I asked some questions which they could not answer due to my status as an FS employee. Soon I will be a retiree. I wonder if they will be able to answer my questions then, or whether the cone of silence will be in place to a plain old citizen.

  4. Sharon, What I took exception to was your notion above that the Colt Summit project “is a fuels reduction project around homes.” I stated that I didn’t think that was correct and honestly, all the stuff you pasted above doesn’t indicate to me that Colt Summit “is a fuels reduction project around homes.”

    As I already mentioned, the area around the Colt Summit project area is one of the more remote parts of western Montana, which by anyone’s lower 48 standards would be incredibly remote.

    Also, since you just also posted a lot of stuff about watershed restoration and road work, I should remind everyone that 1) the plaintiffs have made it crystal clear that they support and don’t oppose the road decommissioning and culvert removal work. In fact, here’s a snip from the plaintiffs actual summary judgement brief:

    Wherefore, Plaintiffs respectfully request this Court grant their motion for summary judgment, declare the Forest Service violated the law, and enjoin the Forest Service from approving and/or authorizing work on the Colt Summit project (excluding the road decommissioning and culvert removal work) pending full compliance with the law.”

    And 2) that the USFS already has much of this restoration work already under contract and it’s moving forward, and has been since last fall. See: FS Confirms Restoration Work Under Contract

  5. Le’s parse that out. I said it “had a goal of fuels reduction” (which seems to be true from the purpose and need) and was “around homes” (which was in the purpose and need as long as the p&n includes WUI). I don’t think either of these is untrue, but like you said the #1 purpose does not seem to be WUI fuels.

    My point was if there are homes there, then how can it be “incredibly remote”. Highway 63 is right there, how can it be such a “remote part of Montana”?

    As to the watershed part, I just included that as I captured the whole discussion of the deciding official’s decision; it probably would have been clearer if I had just put the WUI paragraph in, however I think there is something to be said for posting the decision rationale in the official’s own words.

    What the Google earth photos say to me is a “scenic western landscape with roads, private land, past timber cutting and lakes.”

  6. Sharon, It’s hwy 83 and it’s the only paved two lane road that goes through the Seeley-Swan Valley. That part of the Seeley-Swan Valley around the Colt Summit project is incredibly remote. Best as I can tell on-line the population density of that part of the valley is somewhere between one person to 1.5 people per square mile. I live in Montana, I’ve been to and through that area a number of times, and it sounds like you have not. It’s just sort of weird to me that we’re having a debate about how remote some place is that you’ve never even been too. This valley sit between the Mission Mtn Wilderness and the Bob Marshall Wilderness with no cell coverage and a small scattering of homes outside of Seeley Lake, which sits 20 miles south of the project area and has a population (2010 census) of 1,659.

    Heck, the local paper even describes the area this way: “The area could be described as rural, remote and isolated.”

    • Matthew, what would make you think that I have “never even been to” a place? I didn’t just fall off the forest turnip truck! Not to speak of multitudinous vacations..

      I have been on field trips on various topics for the last 30 years or so in the Seeley-Swan area. In fact, one national silviculture workshop we visited to preview and then on the actual tour.

      I do think if you want to impose a “you must have been to the site” to talk meaningfully about the project, it would be OK and I would respect that. However, I think that should apply to all individuals commenting on a project to the FS, and to all the board members of groups funding litigation. In fact, I think boards of groups litigating should not only have to visit the site, but also meet with the collaborative group that developed the project, and the discussions should be recorded and posted on the web, as well as part of the litigation record.

      Perhaps I have been influenced by too much time spent on roadless debates and that has affected the way I view the area. If we were thinking of putting highway 83 in and neither it nor the homes were there, we would say that the road would “destroy” the valley because of the influence of the road and associated human impacts. But it’s not “destroyed” it’s still “incredibly remote.” I am puzzled.

  7. Sharon, my impression that you had never been to the area was based upon some of the statements you were making about the area. Still, you appear to contend that the project area around Colt Summit isn’t remote. I guess we’ll just have to disagree on that point, the 1 to 1.5 people per square mile fact notwithstanding.

    I’m not looking to impose a “you must have been to the site” requirement, since I don’t believe that’s what the management of America’s public lands, which belong equally to all Americans, should be about. Sounds like you favor such a requirement. That’s fine and certainly your right. In the age of $4.00 plus gasoline, incredibly high airfare and perhaps the approaching end of long-distance travel period, I’m not sure such an approach will sit well with many Americans however.

  8. Here’s a thought…

    Perhaps instead of the EAJA, we have the EATA or Equal Access to “Travel” Act that sets up a reimbursement account for travel to project sites for those wishing to comment and/or litigate as Sharon suggested.

  9. That’s a great idea JZ. There’s a project I’ve been wanting to look at on the Puerto Rico National Forest and also one on the Apalachicola National Forest in Florida, but I can’t make it down that way until, say January or February of next year. Where do I get my travel voucher?

  10. Yeah…the details would have to be worked out, eh?

    You may have inadvertently just made the same point that others are trying to make about the frivolous lawsuits and EAJA…..

  11. What’s a “frivolous lawsuit” JZ. You know that’s an actual legal term and any attorney found guilty of filing such a “frivolous lawsuit” would be punished and likely dis-barred? Fact is federal court judges don’t let actual “frivolous lawsuits” go through their courts, and they certainly don’t rule in favor plaintiffs filing supposed “frivolous lawsuits.” Me thinks that some people just consider all lawsuits against the FS “frivolous”…unless, of course, they support said lawsuits.

  12. You are right….thanks for the correction.

    Perhaps “misguided” would be a better characterization, but I’m not going to argue about it. Plenty of other people are doing that.


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