Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation: Cottonwood ‘fix’ needed


Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation: Cottonwood ‘fix’ needed

Excerpt follows…. Do they have a valid point?

In April of 2022, the Hermit’s Peak fire in New Mexico began as a prescribed fire that got out of control. The Forest Service’s Wildfire Review Report noted that pre-treatment was delayed by a Cottonwood-related injunction. A thinned project area would have had lower wildfire risk. The subsequent 341,000-acre fire destroyed habitat for the threatened Mexican spotted owls, elk and virtually all wildlife in the area. 

Here in Montana, the Stonewall Vegetation Project in the Helena-Lewis and Clark Forest was one of the first projects halted by a Cottonwood injunction. A scientifically planned thinning and harvest of beetle-killed lodgepole pines and unnaturally dense stands of fire-prone trees was intended to enhance habitat and reduce fire risk.

An injunction halted the project in May of 2017 despite the court acknowledging “… that the Project area is susceptible to severe and intense wildfires due to elevated fuel levels caused by ‘heavy accumulations of dead and down timber.’ However, though there is the possibility of serious fire activity within the boundaries of the Project, there is no indication that this area is at risk of imminent fire activity.”

Less than two months later, lightning sparked the Park Creek fire that burned much of the proposed project area, proving that land management decisions are best made by resource professionals and not courts.

The environmental organizations that filed the suit and enabled this disaster were also paid $100,500 for attorney fees under the “Equal Access to Justice Act.” 

22 thoughts on “Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation: Cottonwood ‘fix’ needed”

  1. Ironic that an elk organization uses examples of higher wildfire risk on reason why Cottonwood decision should be reversed. Most elk habitat is in fire dependent ecosystems, and elk are one of the primary beneficiaries of wildfire. Logging and prescribed fire can provide some habitat components on some acres, but much elk habitat will only be restored to its potential with wildfire.

    • Thinning would’ve likely reduced the risk of the prescribed burn. As the article stated a 350,000 fire could and should be blamed on the courts over ruling and delaying the land restoration project. How many times can we examine litigation that results in over dense and unhealthy forests and the consequences that too often follow?

      • “The Hermits Peak Fire experienced rapid growth throughout the day and night on Tuesday. Largely driven by sustained winds of 50 to 60 miles per hour (mph) with gusts up to 70 mph, the fire spread nearly six miles to the east and northeast.” [SOURCE: NM Fire Information, April 13, 2022]

        Keep telling yourself that “thinning” would do anything in these situations.

        Also, does anyone have the actual details about this? “In April of 2022, the Hermit’s Peak fire in New Mexico began as a prescribed fire that got out of control. The Forest Service’s Wildfire Review Report noted that pre-treatment was delayed by a Cottonwood-related injunction.” What “pre-treatment was delayed by a Cottonwood-related injunction?”

        Finally, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which has deep ties to the NRA and whose current CEO (a former NRA executive) used to pal around with Maria Butina (who was convicted in 2018 of acting as an unregistered foreign agent of Russia within the United States) repeatedly demonstrates that the organization has next to zero knowledge about forest ecology. Also, sort of weird that the Helena IR runs this opinion piece without anyone’s name on it. I’ve never before seen an opinion piece come from an organization, and not at least attributed to a person within an organization.

      • Wait, you mean “hiding cover” like…dense forests? The same type of dense forests that the timber industry and some politicians claim is “unhealthy.”

      • Elk can benefit from cover, esp. when calving, but they evolved as high plains and mountain foothills animals with little available cover.

      • In the BLM Elk Viewing Area along the Umpqua River near the Oregon Coast, the 120 or so elk in that herd stay almost entirely in the open pasture and rarely go into adjacent woods, and then usually within a short distance of the pastureland.

        Elliott State Forest is immediately adjacent to the Elk Viewing Area and active management (timber sales, secondary road maintenance, reforestation, etc.) stopped there several years ago because of lawsuits filed by Eugene and Portland environmental groups. The observable result has been that elk and deer populations have diminished significantly in the Elliott as the forest has become more dense and began shading out remaining grasses, forms, and shrubs.

        Elk are prairie animals, just like songbirds and butterflies, but dense Douglas fir and spruce forests are quiet, dark, and seem to be the preferred habitat of mushrooms and fungi, rather than birds or large mammals.

  2. With the way we currently do things, I don’t see any way to fix the problem.

    It’s the same with most issues public land and conservation. Wildlife biologists, botanists, foresters, ecologists, all their knowledge isn’t anywhere near as important as the people skills of some lawyer. If you have a charismatic lawyer, who can convince judges, you win.

    Sometimes when I think of the lack of funding of our public lands I figure maybe it would all be money down the drain anyway.

  3. Yes. – This has been happening for decades the only thing that has changed is that with climate changes the steaks are much higher. This is the issue of the day over shadowing all others discussion on how to manage forest in light of climate change. The general public is not fully aware of this issue and the general press does not acknowledge it

    • John: The reason that steaks are much higher due to climate change is that the cows are being executed for excessive flatulence. Milk and cheese also cost more as a result. On the other hand, thankfully, the climate has been about the same for thousands of years here in Oregon, with no indication it will be changing anymore than it has for the past several centuries. Inflation and higher energy costs seem to be the culprits here for higher steaks, and the general public seems more informed on those issues.

  4. It’s sad that the Rocky Mtn Elk Foundation is repeating the corporate-owned politicians’ endless propaganda about wildfires. It raises the question of: who are the RMEF’s big donors?

    A look at the Stonewall project documents, including the post-Park Creek fire FSEIS reveals that very little of the planned commercial harvest burned in the Park Creek fire. Regarding the prescribed fire areas, the FEIS states “in areas proposed for burning in Alternatives 2 and 3, the fire consumed existing fuels and resulted in effects as described for these alternatives in the final environmental impact statement. The Park Creek fire redistributed the successional classes and moved the project area toward desired conditions.” That doesn’t sound so bad, and the fire certainly does not prove “that land management decisions are best made by resource professionals and not courts” as RMEF states.

    • Hmm. It seems to me that all large NGO’s and politicians are funded by people with money. Including people who own corporations (Bezos, Patagonia) – so which politicians are not, in some sense, “corporate owned”? Are foundations not corporate because people who made their money being corporate – sent the money to a foundation?

      Which NGO can cast the first “corporate” stone? Apparently not, for example, the Sierra Club..
      From InfluenceWatch

      “The foundation and club are heavily backed by numerous corporations. Among the donors to the Sierra Club Foundation in 2015 were Aveda, Craigslist Charitable Fund, REI, and Whole Foods Market. In addition, Adobe, Coca-Cola Company, Boeing, eBay, ExxonMobil, Gap, GE Foundation, Microsoft, Pepsi, Pfizer, Wells-Fargo, and Norfolk Southern matched donations.

      The foundation is also heavily backed by other foundations, left-wing organizations, and even some government agencies. Among the donors to the foundation in 2015 were Bloomberg Philanthropies, the MacArthur Foundation, BlueGreen Alliance, the State of Montana, the Turner Foundation, the United Nations Foundation, the Tides Foundation, TomKat Charitable Trust, Oppenheimer Family Foundation, Natural Resources Defense Council, and The Pinkus Foundation.”

      I’m OK with critiquing funding and funders (especially dark money) but I think we should develop a standard set of criteria for when we think it’s OK and not, and apply that across the board.

      • Yes, I agree we should apply the same criteria across the board, and that all large NGOs are indeed backed by corporate money. That creates a potential financial conflict of interest that may contradict unbiased, science-based management.

        • I don’t think there’s such a thing as unbiased, science-based management. All management is based on values.. including those of scientists. It’s OK, we share our values with each other, talk about them and see where we agree. Research is prioritized, designed, conducted and analyzed using values. And we can discuss those also. People with more money have avenues for promoting their values via the media and through politics. The others of us, not so much.
          Being backed by “philanthropic” money is no better than corporate IMHO.

          • IMHO, money “donated” with an expectation of a financial return to a corporation is lower on the “better” scale than money that is spent altruistically.

      • Great response. I am amazed that we have moved the issue of how climate change is effecting our forest to how NGOs are funded

  5. Much of the recent public land thinning I have observed here in Montana is not good for elk. Much of the time the prescription is in large units with tree spacing that retains so much tree canopy that it prevents a robust shrub understory response that would otherwise provide both forage and hiding cover.. The tree spacing and high crowns also substantially increases sight distances….often hundreds of yards. And the resulting roads continue to be conduits for both people and weeds. Hardly beneficial to elk……so exactly why is RMEF so insistant that thinning is great for elk and apparently wildfire is bad? Perhaps following the money, as usual with RMEF, would provide some clues.

    • Greg, I’m not an elk person but increasing sight distances is probably also “removing ladder fuels” .. and we have seen that wildfire can be bad.. when it removes all trees and shrubberies which it can.

  6. It sounds as if some commenter here are unfamiliar with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. They get money via $35 memberships and $100 diners at which they have raffles for firearms etc. They spend their money by buying private land and giving it to the Forest Service or BLM. RMEF is a conservation org that unlike many others actually conserves. The private land they buy usually either contains prime winter habitat, calving grounds, or provides public access to much larger pieces of hard to access public land. All the land RMEF gives to us is free to use by all user groups, birders, hikers, campers, anti hunters. You’re welcome.

    As for the appropriateness of thinning and prescribed burns I’d look to the USFS who makes the decisions about how and where to thin and burn in cooperation with the state divisions of wildlife. The RMEF supplies funding which probably hires private contractors to do the work. The RMEF might well have biologists, botanists etc as members, but I’d assume decisions on the best place and time to fund conservation actions are decided by public land and wildlife mangers.

    I understand that public entities can be corrupted, but generally speaking I’d think we’d all be a lot better off if we left decisions about how best to care for public lands to the appropriate public servants with deep knowledge and experience in the various sciences.

  7. For once I agree that this is a court-created problem, and the reasoning in Stonewall (2017) illustrates this, mostly by the way it follows the 9th Circuit reasoning in the Pacific Rivers Council case with regard to §7(d) analysis.

    Here is the ESA requirement: “After initiation of consultation required under subsection (a)(2), the Federal agency and the permit or license applicant shall not make any irreversible or irretrievable commitment of resources with respect to the agency action …” The agency action being consulted on in Stonewall is the forest plan lynx amendment, not the project. It’s hard to conceive how a project could foreclose a plan from saying anything, but the Pacific Rivers court missed this distinction (it would not involve “guesswork,” as that court stated). (The other prior case cited in support of this court’s outcome, Lane County Audubon, was about actual timber sales rather than an NFMA forest plan.)

    Bottom line, the problem is not consulting on the forest plan (which is important and should be done), but rather not properly applying §7(d) to projects that may affect the species while consultation on the forest plan occurs. However, if projects are allowed to proceed, either through this legal interpretation or through legislation, there would be additional consultation work at the project level because valid plan-level consultation has not been completed and could not be incorporated. So delay in projects like Stonewall will not be completely “fixed” in any case.


Leave a Comment

Discover more from The Smokey Wire : National Forest News and Views

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading