Summertime Blame-Game Ritual: Ash Creek Fire and the Beaver Creek Logging Project

Ash Creek Fire along Highway 212 in extreme southeastern Montana.

You may have noticed that within the past few days some people are attempting to make a connection between the 186,800 acre Ash Creek Complex Wildfire burning in grass, sage, juniper and pine in extreme southeastern Montana with the Forest Service’s proposed Beaver Creek project, which in March was halted by a federal court judge due to a number of deficiencies in the agency’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).  That project, proposed for the Ashland Ranger District of the Custer National Forest, called for commercial logging on 1,487 acres and prescribed burning on 8,054 acres and also would have required 35 miles of new road construction and reconstruction.

According to a late March 2012 article in the Billings Gazette [emphasis added]:

A federal judge has ordered the Forest Service to halt implementation of [the Beaver Creek] logging project in the largest island of public land in southeastern Montana and to issue a supplemental environmental impact statement to address deficiencies in its first one.

On Monday, District Judge Donald Molloy ruled in favor of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies and Native Ecosystems Council on some of their complaints filed in July, and dismissed others.

Molloy found in favor of the environmental groups concerning the failure of the EIS to consider stormwater runoff from road construction. Molloy also said the Forest Service failed to explain why it analyzed road density only at the project level and ranger district level, why it applied the road density standard only to forest land and for failing to analyze road density during the project’s implementation.

Not deterred by the fact that the Ash Creek Complex wildfire burned across nearly 300 square miles of grass, sage and scattered pockets of trees on various land ownerships before finally reaching a portion of the proposed Beaver Creek logging project, some people seem to have no problems trying to tie the current wildfire with the proposed logging project in some sort of ridiculous summertime blame-game ritual.

Even the Forest Service couldn’t resist trying to make a connection in this recent article [emphasis added]:

“Had we been able to move forward with the [Beaver Creek] project, the management action could have helped,” said Marna Daley, a public affairs officer for the Gallatin and Custer national forests. “But it’s impossible to predict to what degree.“

“The project would not have prevented a [186,800 acre] fire from occurring,” Daley said. “That was not the purpose of the project. But it could have moderated the fire behavior. I say ’could’ because with the extreme fire activity and behavior we’re seeing, it’s unknown.“

“Impossible to predict.” “Could have.” “It’s unknown.”  Well, if that’s all the case, then why in the world is the Forest Service trying to make hay with a ridiculous attempt at trying to connect a wildfire that burned through 180,000 acres of grass, sage and scattered trees before finally reaching portions of a proposed logging project?  And in reality, it’s not as if a logging project always results in less fire risk, as we pointed out back in 2004 when we produced this Wildfire primer, which was inserted into newspapers across the western United States.

Finally, speaking of “extreme fire activity and behavior” it’s worth pointing out today’s official weather forecast for the Ash Creek Fire:

There is a Red Flag Warning for the fire area today with temperatures forecasted to reach up to 106 degrees, relative humidity levels between 5 to 15% with southerly winds at 10-20 mph and gusts that could reach 35 mph.

Best of luck to the firefighters, as that’s not exactly ideal firefighting weather.  Since the firefighters are already dealing with plenty of hot air, hopefully those people looking to play the annual Wildfire Blame-Game will take a break and cool it.

Cattle herd in post-fire area.