Watch Clearcuts and Habitat Fragmentation Grow Before Your Eyes!

I just ran across an interesting new Google tool called Earth Engine, that allows you to view a timelapse of annual Landsat imagines from 1984 to 2012.   I’ve only used the tool to poke around the northern Rockies region, but it’s especially interesting to look at the timelapse images from places like the Bitterroot National Forest, the Lolo and Flathead National Forest in the Seeley-Swan Valley and the Clearwater and Nez Perce National Forest along U.S. Highway 12, just over Lolo Pass.  Of course, the most dramatic timelapse images from Montana might be of the clearcuts and habitat fragmentation that took place on the Kootenai National Forest in northwest Montana.  Sadly, I have a feeling that some parts of the national forests in Washington and Oregon will show the growth of clearcuts and habitat fragmentation even better than Montana examples. Check it out for yourself.

20 thoughts on “Watch Clearcuts and Habitat Fragmentation Grow Before Your Eyes!”

  1. It would also be interesting to see the timelapse of the Sierra Nevada, from 1993 to 2012, to see the growth of burned areas. Of course, you’ll see no clearcutting on the Forest Service lands, during that entire time. Could this be a new tool to continue to blame the past and block the future? I’m sure it is a good thing that we won’t be going back to the destructive activities of the distant past, though.


    This view of the Highway 50 corridor on the Eldorado NF shows 4 major wildfires during this timespan. Clearly visible are the earlier Pilliken and Wrights Fires. Next comes the 1992 Cleveland Fire and then the Freds Fire later. I have walked much of that Highway 50 corridor, during the salvage boom of 1989 to 1992. There used to be 300 year old trees in those burned areas. Now, there isn’t.

    Also, thanks for this interesting tool, Matt. I will be utilizing it “liberally”. *smirk*

    • Wow, Larry, pan ever-so slightly to the west and north of the link you provided and watch the clearcuts and habitat fragmentation sprout up like mushrooms after the rain!

      • Of course, that is private land, Matt. However, there is no arguing that 30 years ago, the Forest Service did a lot of clearcutting. It’s a good thing we learned, 20 years ago, that clearcutting wasn’t good for our forests here. Yet, the goalposts continue to move, often at dizzying speeds. Some have moved the goalposts as far as they can go, and that is a reality we cannot ignore.

  3. I might use the tool to look at the Wrights fire — I worked the fire and did surveys of fire effects. Also might look at time lapses of the clearcuts I helped plant on the El Dorado in the 80s.

    • I was able to beat the Big Hill helicopter crew into a fire within the Wrights Fire, back in 1990. I was working insect salvage in the area and the fire was called in, so I hustled out there and got the opportunity to be first on a wildfire. It was brushy and rocky but, the fire was just creeping around. The bummer was that I didn’t get to name it, or stay on the fire until it was out. The fire guys bumped me off the fire when it was clear that they had it handled.

      I looked at some other areas I know very well, and you can sometimes see where insect salvage has happened, The Tahoe Basin has some examples of that. I also looked at the Foresta area in Yosemite to see how forests can go from old growth, fire-resistant pines, to brushy and barren moonscapes, in just 20 years.

  4. I’ve used the “time clock” tool on google earth for a long time now. Lately I’ve been looking at the “Frank Church Wilderness” in Idaho. It’s neat to see how much has burned off in the last 10 years.I sent Sharon a google earth image awhile back with the burned Frank church adjacent to the “managed” Nez Perce forest. A neat comparison of the clearcuts VS. Wildfire.

    The burned off Frank Church is a view of “what could be” or “what would have been” on the Northern REgion forests if not for the “roaded” nature of the managed forests. Weather is the primary driver of wildfires, but vegetation management isn’t the primary tool of mans manipulation to alter the severity of wildfires, it’s the roads. Access is the key. Something like 95% of wildfires are put out the first day (ye old 10:00 AM policy)…it’s the few that escape that cause problems. Someday…when I’m not working for a living, or maybe some bright person could find how many wildfires were snuffed out in an average year on, say, the Lolo. Or the Nez Perce. I would love to see a USFS map of fire perimiters with dates on the Frank Church. If the radical enviros could go back in time and stop all logging and road building in say, 1945, I have a feeling that without the access roads, the Lolo, Kootenai, Nez Perce, ect. ect., would look very much like the Frank Church today. I also have a feeling the public would react today very much like the public did in 1910.

    Of course, with 100 years of successfull fire suppresion, some “assume” that without the clearcuts…all the forest would have been “green” today. Thoughtfull people would think to overlay the Frank Church over the Nez Perce, and realize that without the access roads, the Nez Perce would look like the Frank Church. One burn butting up against a past burn.

    • Sorry Derek, it got lost in the shuffle, but this is a good time to post those photos (on my computer you can click on these and see them better).

      frank church-2 (no photo)

      frank church-3

  5. Thanks Matthew,
    If for no other reason, to watch for the euphemisms, errant rationalizations, and yeah-but diversions that follow.

    Hard to challenge a Landsat satellite for its “credentials,” now, isn’t it?

    • I’d say that the most recent clearcutting on private lands, shown in the timelapse, is a symptom of reduced cutting on public lands, as well as the threat of increased restrictions on private lands. With the demand for wood being down, we could exchange intensive logging on private lands for sustainable management on public lands, but the serial litigators don’t really want that.

      So, we have the status quo, with more private clearcuts and public lands neglect.

      • You can’t trade intensive logging on private lands for sustainable management on public lands in western Oregon, because the private lands are too logged out, for a few decades at least, to feed the industry.

        That’s why the actual ask of the industry in O&C territory is to take more than half the public lands for intensive logging.

  6. Ah yes…too bad we didn’t have a landsat photo from 1900, or 1940. The following is a comparison of “forest structure” in 1899 and 1991 done on the Flathead forest in Montana by the USFS in the mid 90’s. But then I’m sure the USFS “skewed” the figures cause everyone who’s anyone knows they are lackey’s of the capitalist pig timber baron establishment.

    In 1899, only 6% was old growth while 20% was OG in 1991. 32% was in the sapling/pole stage while only 17% was in 1991. 23% was in the “mature” stage in 1899 while 33% was in that stage in 1991. Once you get away from the “low elevation warm dry frequent fire Ponderosa pine” forest, the uplands burned quite nicely with stand replacing severity.

    Ah…I thought “Mike D” had posted a 2000 “fire history map” of the Frank Church. I’ll scan it and send it to you Sharon if you can’t find it on the blog. Of course, last summers wildfires cooked off the a good part of the “unburned” southeast corner of the “Church.” My “landsat” photo is on the “northwest” corner of the map. The Salmon river is the “dividing line” of my google earth photo.The clearcuts on the Nez Perce are to the northwest of the “Frank Church.”

    I’m also gonna send a crappy scan of a “fire history” map of the northern Kootenai Nat. forest. North of Libby. Keep in mind this is the “wettest” part of the “wettest” forest in Montana. The “colored” portion are fires from the 1800’s through 1940’s. NOW…one has to ask themselves, without “active fire suppresion” in the last 60 years, if the utopian natural processes would have been allowed to continue, how much of the white “unburned” portions of the map would be “colored” in now? Too bad we didn’t have a “landsat” photo of this in 1940-eh?

    The next logical question is, “has evil man logged more than what would have burned in the last 50 years”? The Lolo has logged 17% in the last 60 years…I think the 1910 fire burned that much in one week(most roadless areas on the Lolo are a result of the 1910 fires). The Kootenai led Montana by logging 25% in the last 60 years. One could make the argument that that is about what would have burned. Certainly the “functioning ecosystem” would have cooked off more than the 5% that was logged on the Helena, Beaverhead Deerlodge, and Gallatin.

    No, the endless sea of “green” surrounding the clearcuts was a product of Man, not nature. Dare to wrap your head around that one boys.

    Oh, I forgot. Yes…it should have all been allowed to burn for the sake of the black backed woodpecker.

    • Derek, this reminds me of our field trip to Waldo Canyon this week. I was told, if I understand correctly, that the stands are all the same age, because of (railroad ties?mines?) needing lots of trees back about 100 years ago. So in our country, the even aged ness that leads to lots of dead trees through bugs and/or fire, ultimately was due to the origin of the stands plus fire suppression.

      I think perhaps many lodgepole stands in Central Oregon were the same age when the MPB got them in the 80’s. Don’t know what initiated those stands and if that was “natural” or not.

  7. Here’s a link to a study done last year. The gist of the study is about “reburns”…but they let slip how much of the Frank Church, “Greater Bob Marshall,” and Selway wilderness areas burned in the last 25 years.

    For the “greater Bob Marshall,” greater because it includes Glacier Park,Great Bear,and Scapegoat wilderness, 25% of the “total” (not forested) acres have burned between 1984 and 2007. 54% of the Frank church cooked off in the last 25 years, and 15% of the Selway. Check out the map of the three areas on page 85 to get a “visual” of natures clearcuts. At the same time, in the last 25 years the USFS has been logging about 1% of the “forested acreage” per decade. Even in the go-go get out the cut decades of 1960-1990, the USFS was logging about 7%/decade on the Kootenai,5%/decade on the Lolo and Flathead, and of course, about 1.5%/decade of the “east side” forests like the Helena, Gallatin, and Beaverhead-Deerlodge.

    Of course, since “The Greater Bob” includes very alpine country, broken up by high mountain rock and ice, very compartmentalized, very wet,I would think it would be very much less conducive to large scale wildfires than lower, drier, gentler forests like the Lolo, Kootenai, or Flathead.

    One has to wonder, that if the “managed forests” would have instead been left as wildlerness and undeveloped, as some here would certainly have prefferred and now advocate, today would it be possible or even probable to “overlay” the wildlerness wildfire maps over the Lolo, Kootenai,and Flathead. Considering that only 2% of forest users use “wilderness,” nobody cares if wildfires burn in wilderness. Out of site out of mind. However, with such wildfires in everyones backyard, very much in sight,todays public would look at it the same way the public in 1910 did.

    Never the less,something to research, something to tell the people about. How much has burned in these wilderness areas is another one of the hidden truths that no one seems to want to tell the public.

    • How’s the fish habitat and over-all watershed health in the Frank Church, “Greater Bob Marshall,” and Selway Wilderness, compared with the logged, roaded and developed landscape outside of its boundaries? Do species like bull trout and cuttthroat trout do better insides these Wilderness areas or outside them?

      How’s the wildlife habitat for creatures such as elk, bears, cougar, bobcat, goshawk, lynx, etc in the Frank Church, “Greater Bob Marshall,” and Selway Wilderness, compared with the logged, roaded and developed landscape outside of its boundaries?

      • That must be a rhetorical question right? Even so, if you want to take a stab at answering it, I’d love to see your methodology and logic. You might actually make the same arguements the FS does, particularly with the broad range of wildlife habitats for the species you listed above.

        Why is “Greater Bob Marshall” in quotes?

      • JZ got me to thinking…

        I live in a city. When I go to the post office I go by an elk crossing. Cougars have chased deer through my neighbor’s yard. For a while we had a sign across the street suggesting that kids not wait alone for the school bus at dawn and dusk due to cougars. As for bears, (only black here) they are also around.

        Now, my question is, if a city surrounded by some open space provides habitat for bear, elk, and cougar, maybe the question is not really “does wilderness have more” but “what is enough?” If elk graze in openings and cougar like to eat elk…and people make some openings..

        If I use my Waldo Canyon field trip experience, it seems like a side-effect of downstream human habitation is that it leads to serious investments in post-fire sediment reduction to protect against flooding and siltation in dams.. will this sediment reduction also be good for fish?


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