More News on Colt Summit and “Collaboration”

This morning’s Missoulian has another look at the Colt Summit timber sale on the Lolo National Forest, the first timber sale on the Lolo to be litigated in over 5 years. Here are some snips from that article:

Project opponent George Wuerthner, a writer and ecologist, countered in an email that the cumulative effects are there for anyone to see from an airplane. In a series of photos he posted online (, he argued the Colt-Summit area is one of the few remaining bits of habitat left in the region.

“I was shocked to see how much of the Seeley-Swan Valley is already logged that is not readily visible from the main highway or even by driving backroads,” Wuerthner wrote. “The problem for the Forest Service is that they are up against limits. You can’t continue to cut more and more of the valley without jeopardizing other values. There is such a thing as cumulative impacts and death by a thousand cuts.”

Friends of the Wild Swan director Arlene Montgomery added that the legal record also contradicts Forest Service claims of being inclusive and thorough.

“I’ve been through the whole project record, and I didn’t see anything that the collaborators who’ve come out against us were any more involved than I was,” Montgomery said. “The fact they think they can paper over cumulative effects in an area so fragmented from past logging – it’s quite remarkable they put in such little regard for our laws. The environmental assessment was devoid of that kind of analysis. And that’s not a gray area where we didn’t know where the line was. It was pretty black and white.”

My personal feeling on the matter is that it’s important for people to understand that not all “collaborative” groups around the country are created equally.  Unfortunately, in the opinion of lots of conservation groups around the country, some of the “collaboration” currently taking place in Montana is viewed negatively because it feels more like a takeover of our public forests by largely well-funded organizations, the timber industry, local governments and politicians.

My observation being a part of some of these Montana “collaborations” is that if you don’t agree up-front to most of what the Forest Service and the timber industry wants to do anyway, that these “collaborative” groups  just make it difficult for a normal citizen or smaller organization to participate.  And, besides, many of these Montana “collaboration” meetings take place mid-day during the week, not exactly an ideal time for most of the general public.

So, essentially, the vast majority of the people attending some of these Montana collaborative meetings are paid to be there.  Either they work for the Forest Service, timber industry, well-funded conservation groups or local governments or a politician.  On top of that, many of the meetings never seem about understanding the latest science, research or legal requirements.  It’s more about supporting the Forest Service’s projects by attending these meetings, smiling, nodding in agreement, eating your bag lunch and then going out and running a PR campaign through paid ads, letters to the editors and hosting one-sided events to give the impression that everyone in the world agrees with what the Forest Service has come up with.

Take Colt Summit, for example. It’s clear from the administrative record that the Forest Service designed the Colt Summit Project and the specific prescriptions, then delivered the project to the SWCC (Southwestern Crown of the Continent Collaborative group) for approval and inclusion in the SWCC’s CFLRP application.

Claims by some of the “collaborators” that the plaintiffs didn’t participate in the up-front planning for the Colt Summit project are completely untrue.  In fact, the public record for this timber sale actually reflects a higher level of involvement from the plaintiffs from some of the ‘collaborators.’ Plaintiffs attended all meetings, all field trips and submitted extensive, detailed and substantive comments during the entire NEPA process.  Some of the collaborating conservation groups didn’t even submit detailed comments during NEPA.  They are essentially replacing their largely self-selective “collaborative group” for the NEPA process, which is open equally and inclusively for all Americans.

One of my main concerns with some of the worst examples of “collaboration” that I see in Montana is that some of these conservationist ‘collaborators’ are running what are essentially political campaigns, not campaigns to hold the Forest Service accountable and make sure that management of national forests is guided by law, the latest science and economically-sound policies.  These conservation groups, such as the Montana Wilderness Association,  have effectively abandoned any of these public education efforts. Honestly, I’m not sure that most of MWA’s new hires over the past few years have any clue about the law, science and economics of the federal timber sale program.  Furthermore, some of these conservation groups have basically neutered themselves from speaking out against Forest Service logging projects or the timber industry’s demands to do away with the public appeals process and exempt many Montana logging projects from court challenge.

What the future of national forest management looks like without an effective checks-and-balance on the Forest Service and timber industry is anyone’s guess, but my hunch is that some of these “collaborative” approaches that we are seeing here in Montana will not be in the best interest of America’s public lands legacy.

17 thoughts on “More News on Colt Summit and “Collaboration””

  1. Matt, interesting perspectives. Thanks for thaking the time to share. Probably a lot of validity to your points.

    As you pointed out, not all collaborative groups are the same though. You’ve painted the Montana collaborative with somewhat of a conspiracy brush. I hardly think that subversion of the laws at the expense of endangered species in some sort of “Earth First, we’ll log the other planets later” approach is the intent of the group, but I’m just speculating based on my limited knowledge of the SWCC. Obviously the AWR thinks otherwise….

    In my experiences with project level collaboration, there are very healthy doses of scientific discussions as well as educating the group about NEPA and regulatory compliance. There have been a lot of “ah-hah!” and eye-opening moments for members of the group who thought that their participation would make projects happen easier, faster and be less prone to appeals/litigation, which we’ve seen is not the case, eh? I think collaboratively developed projects are going to be slower to develop concensus around, higher profile and have a giant litigation target on them.

    So Matt, perhaps from that perspective, collaboration is a good thing? if a group of people (uh, sorry, “diverse interests”) are willing to help the FS develop the right projects, for the right reasons, knowing that their particpation will raise the project profile and litigation risk, what could be wrong with that? Not everyone in these groups are “sellouts”. There is a lot of internal policing.

    I don’t put a lot of sock in the “meetings held on weekdays” arguement. It’s a fairly common criticism of collaboratives, but it’s not getting any traction. It sounds more like whining. I’ve participated in lots of very poorly attended evening meetings when the “common folk” can attend. Also, most quickly lose interest given that projects take years to develop and get thru NEPA. I suppose in all fairness someone could test that theory out by advertising the heck out of a convienient to attend meeting and see what happens.

    • I totally agree, JZ. If anyone thought that this form of collaboration was going to be a magic fix-it-all, they were being delusional. The Serial Litigators aren’t going to give up their power through collaboration. The preservationists have a very hard sell to the public, trying to convince people that doing nothing will restore our forests. That wildfires are “natural and beneficial”. That the recreation industry will supply jobs, in a dead and dying forest.

      It also appears that pro-management collaborators need to be educated about the environmental laws. Why propose something which pushes against those laws, rules and policies. We should be doing what the lands need, and not what the collaboration thinks they can push through. If you propose something that fits well under NEPA, with collaborative support, it would be a lot harder for a lawsuit to be successful.

      • Larry, Why do you have to throw out dirty words like “Serial Litigators” and “preservationists”? I know you intend to insult, but those people are my heroes. Those are the people who brought the machinery of forest liquidation to account. They are the people who insist on “law and order” instead of backroom deals. In my world, all card carrying preservationists can stand up and be proud of what they are doing.

        • Backroom deals also include courtroom “settlements”, where the plaintiff gets a “blank check” to get whatever they want from a court battle, with the Forest Service having to either accept the plaintiffs demands, or drop their project altogether. My words are not dirty, but accurate in describing what they do and what they want. Chad Hanson fits that description perfectly.

          • I think what makes a “Backroom deal” is that people are excluded. So I agree with Larry that settlements can be just as much a “backroom deal” as FS officials meeting and deciding separately with timber, oil and gas interests, ski areas or environmental groups.

            As one of the judges said in the hearing on the 2001 Roadless Rule we attended, “elections have consequences.” Which means that folks in power can pick whom they talk to and whom they don’t talk to. Not sure that “backroom deals” is a helpful description unless every meeting about everything everytime is open to everyone..

            • How in the world can a settlement reached in a US federal court be considered a “backroom deal?” I’d also like to learn more specifics about this statement from Larry about “plaintiffs [supposedly] getting a ‘blank check’ to get whatever they want from a court battle.”

              • It depends on your definition of a “backroom deal”. Most have the ideas of secrecy and not being open to the public.Here’s the Cambridge Dictionaries definition:
                “done secretly or without attracting attention”. With court settlements it seems that the results are not secret, but the dealmaking is not open to people who are outside the circle of plaintiffs, defendants, intervenors (?) and judges.
                Certainly others are not allowed to weigh in; see my previous post here about the view of Jack Ward Thomas (former Chief) on how this works. His view is that sometimes the Chief or other administration officials don’t have the last word.

              • The plaintiffs MADE the deal, with the Judges, and the Forest Service wasn’t allowed any input on what was settled on. We couldn’t even FLY logs, already on the ground, within tractor units. They demanded that our roadside hazard tree marking be reviewed and approved, before cutting. They demanded that any hazard tree above 40″ could be cut, but not removed. They demanded stuff that was not really part of their “victory” over “not enough analysis”, regarding the blackbacked woodpecker. Hanson determined that roadside hazard trees were “habitat”, and that roads that his Prius could drive on were the only ones worthy of being made safe, from falling dead trees.

  2. A few more random thoughts since it’s too hot to mow the grass right now….

    With regard to Ms. Montgomeries claims that the FS wasn’t inclusive and thorough…The NEPA process is the tool that levels the playing field. Once the process starts, the voice(s)/opinion(s) of a collaborative group essentially count as one. The same as anyone else who chooses to participate in the publc process. The FS needs to develop alternatives around all of the input and comments. Failure to do so would be a violation of NEPA. Obviously she participated, so I’m not sure I understand her point.

    I’m not speaking towards the Colt Summit project here, just in general. If, prior to the NEPA process, the FS determines that some degree of management of an area is necessary for whatever reason, then it’s great to have across the board input (from a well balanced collaborative group, for example) to provide the checks-and-balances you speak of. Many conservation groups either decline the opportunity or simply argue for “no action” right from the start. That doesn’t really help, if some degree of action is warranted and/or inevitable.

    Wood is good, and there are plenty of acres of NFS lands where it can be obtained responsibly, with minimal negative (and in many cases beneficial) consequences given the needs of the land. I would agree, however, that the framing the need for such projects is often poor (“catastrophic fire reduction” or “restoration”). I also don’t think it matters too much what we call it….timber projects will always be challenged. So what’s the difference?

    Also, a cumulative effects analysis relies to some degree on fuzzy logic. There is no black-and-white. There are too many unforseen variables. While the direct and indirect effects of an alternative can usually be measured, cumulative effects often rely on professional judgement, which will always be challenged. While Mr. Beebe will argue that because of these uncertainties we should do nothing, the show is going to go on, like it or not. Again, wood is good.

    On average, a million acres of Region One burns every year and only 25,000 acres are harvested. I’m not sure how big R1 is (it’s big) so the real question is, are we really having a negative effect, any effect at all? Really??? We’re not talking conversion to subdivisions or making a parking lot. We’re working with some pretty dynamic forested landscapes. Harvested areas grow back. Probably the reason Mr. Wuerthner would never be able to tell as he drove the highway or backroads. Pictures from a flight over our wildeness areas where fire has been allowed to burn for 40 years wouldn’t look much different.

  3. Perhaps my brains a bit fuzzy from spending the day outdoors at high elevation. But it sounds like the Forest Service did plenty of cumulative effects.. in fact Judge Molloy seemed happy with every discussion of cumulative effects except on lynx. Now the fragmentation that Wuerthner writes about would seemingly affect all species, right?

    Project opponent George Wuerthner, a writer and ecologist, countered in an email that the cumulative effects are there for anyone to see from an airplane. In a series of photos he posted online (, he argued the Colt-Summit area is one of the few remaining bits of habitat left in the region.

    “I was shocked to see how much of the Seeley-Swan Valley is already logged that is not readily visible from the main highway or even by driving backroads,” Wuerthner wrote. “The problem for the Forest Service is that they are up against limits. You can’t continue to cut more and more of the valley without jeopardizing other values. There is such a thing as cumulative impacts and death by a thousand cuts.”

    So clearly the FS has considered cumulative effects in a way that makes sense to Judge Molloy and is apparently then, legal… except for lynx. So I just don’t get what Wuerthner’s talking about. Does he want the FS to analyze something else? Or is he just saying in this area, nothing should happen (except fires) period, regardless of the pros and cons. But that’s not in any law.

    Also, I don’t know what he meant by “few remaining bits of habitat” in the “region”. Of course, region is an undefined idea. Still a person driving around may see much habitat, say, in Montana. Or Alberta, or ???. I mean if he’s talking about lynx.

  4. Exactly Sharon. Cumulative effects are a question of scale. While we (might) agree that the Colt Summit Project could further fragment (lynx) habitat in that locale, is the really project going to be the demise of lynx in that area? Broaden the net and the cumulative effects analysis/arguement becomes so diluted that it becomes moot. If the checkerboard ownership and past harvest history have had such a detrimental impact to lynx, are the timbered stands in the Colt Summit project area really currently contributing towards the viablity of lynx? What is the right scale to measure against? A female’s home range? Male’s home range? project level, “regionally”?

    The Northern Rockies Lynx Management Direction is fairly clear on how much habitat can be put into “unsuitable” through timber harvest in any decade. I doubt the FS “papered” this over in their analysis, although I’d be the first to admit I haven’t read the project file, nor do I really care to. At this point I’m only interested in tracking and learning from the litigation trends. Since the lynx seems to be a focal species for AWR in their litigation, I’m confident we can address their concerns in upcoming projects and stay within the law. Enough, I’m sure, to satisfy Mr. Garrity and his minions (and high paid lawyers) to the point that litigation won’t be necessary. After all, by his own admission, if we follow the “laws” they won’t challenge us right?

    I also take exception to Mr. Wuethner’s self styled “ecologist” ramblings on this one (Colt Summit) that advocate for no action.

    Perhaps he has some sort of moral debt to be repaid after all of his years as a “hunting guide”, but any ecologist worth his salt would be able to identify what the effects of a proposed action are to all species/habitats without characterizing things as a “ravaged” or “butchered” landscape…This “snake oil” salesman approach designed to win support from the AWR-ites paints him into the same marginalized (we don’t bother listening to you anymore) corner as the industry folks (cited in Matt’s post above). As Matt pointed out, there are many folks who are ignorant as to the “law, science and economics of the federal timber sale program”. I think it’s apparent that George is one of them. How else would you propose to fund the “beneficial” and unchallenged (road closure/decomissioning) portions of the project?

  5. Thanks JZ!…..JZ has just dropped the bomb in how rational, and easy to understand this debate is. Very well said. The underlining point is that we as a consumptive society need the forest for all of its benefits. We can benefit the forest and it can benefit us. We have the tools (however cumbersome they are, but indeed necessary), the will power of local residents and communities that live with in the forest, the vocal response from all parties involved and not, and the undying passion to see what we believe the forest resource should look like.

    However, i am very concerned while Montana has gleaned the image of stewardship and responsible management of the public resource, that irrational and purely emotional debates like this article and a few environmentalist will dilute this issue further. How far, who knows? But, if i were to take a guess, there will be day when the public realizes the USFS has a vast resource in which society should begin to use again. Only, now use the lands in an environmentally feasible way, to help everybody and everything. As i was standing on top of a mountain in SW Oregon today looking over the many decades of forestry and its practices, i could only wonder if all of this effort to litigate timber sales and take the preservationist approach to public lands could be directed in a more meaningful respectable way. A way in which collaboration, like the SWCC and many other’s, actually do do to provide the “best interest of America’s public lands legacy”.

    On one hand active management (collaboration, NEPA, “not great but the best option”), on the other little or no management. I would choose the first, because collaboration is less expensive, more effective, and by all accounts more rewarding for all Americans if society “starts now”, rather then in decades to come.

  6. Hipno.. are you a younger person? Perhaps your generation will be able to finally discard the “timber war” mentality and start again with a joint vision where people seek common ground and build relationships of trust. I only hope my generation will know when to carefully advise and when to step out of the way.

    • Yea, Sharon i hope so. Im sure many of piers are frustrated with the Forest Service, so much that they don’t even want to work for them. Its very sad to say the least that even in a dwindling profession most of my generation will not even think twice to enter the Government forestry, duly because of the ramifications of being sued/fired or not even being able to manage the forest. The will to do anything in the woods is gone and unfortunately that will take the young smart foresters into the private field. One in which is over flooded at the moment.

      One thing i’m scared of is if all of those in the USFS who could carefully advise and mentor our younger generation begin to retire or their positions are affected through attrition. When all the expertise and experience of FS timber management is lost, then what? Even worse management and more law suites. I hope this will not be the case.

      As of now, your totally right, common ground and trust to get things done the right way, where environmentalist realize that many of the so called timber barons are even more environmentally conscious and respectable then them. However tedious collaboration is, it works and projects are getting done where even different visions work together, not just talk about what could be.

      • I am certainly mentoring, taking an active part in training the crew to work more as a unit. I’m not the crew leader, and I really don’t want to be. We’re the “Geriatric Crew”, with our youngest member being 42 years old. After 4 weeks, working in difficult timber, I think our work is very good. We have to juggle so very many parameters, making sometimes very difficult choices. The trees are tall, and conditions change very rapidly. Sometimes you have to cut a beautiful 130 year old 28″ dbh sugar pine, because it is between a 48″ dbh ponderosa pine, and a 44″ dbh incense cedar, neither of which can be cut. (We do have the option of making a “clump”)

        Back to kids in forestry, they can see the shackles that Federal foresters have to wear. I tend to think that many young Forest Service “Ologists” are trending towards active management, where scientifically appropriate. This could be a very good opportunity to create some more momentum, towards mitigating the terrible impacts we’re currently seeing.


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