Bitter Feelings Over Logging Big Trees on the Bitterroot

MISSOULA, Montana, February 22, 2005 (ENS) - In Montana, the first logging project under the Bush administration's Healthy Forests Restoration Act would mix a small amount of community protection work with the logging of more than nine square miles of forest, including clearcut logging in previously unlogged, old growth forests.

The conservation organization Native Forest Network points out that these forests, near the East Fork of the Bitterroot River, are inhabited by elk, bighorn sheep, moose, mule deer, white-tailed deer, black bear, wolves, coyotes, bull trout, cutthroat trout, goshawks, martens, black-backed woodpeckers, pileated woodpeckers, downey woodpeckers and flammulated owls.

This logging on the Bitterroot National Forest is known to the U.S. Forest Service as the Middle East Fork Hazardous Fuel Reduction project. firs

Large old firs like this are marked for logging under the Middle East Fork Hazardous Fuel Reduction project. (Photo courtesy Native Forest Network)
The Bitterroot National Forest personnel rationalize what they call "regeneration" logging that targets old-growth Douglas firs - some up to four feet in diameter. They say the clearcutting is needed is because these trees are either infested with bark beetles or "at imminent risk of spread of the beetle epidemic."

Yet no public statement made by Bitterroot Forest personnel back through 2000 mentions beetles on the forest until the November 2004 Federal Register notice of the Middle East Fork Hazardous Fuel Reduction logging project.

The annual Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station Eco-Report issued in 2004, which analyzes threats to this ecosystem, does not mention beetles. Nor did the 2003 Eco-Report identify bark beetles as a threat to the Bitterroot.

Conservationists are outraged, but not surprised, by the beetle gambit. They have little faith in the U.S. Forest Service statements given the state of affairs on the Bitterroot National Forest.

In the summer of 2000, wildfire swept portions of the Bitterroot, and more than 300,000 acres were burned.


This famous photo of elk trapped by the Bitterroot fire of 2000 has come to epitomize the dangers of wildfire. (Photo by John McColgan courtesy BLM Alaska Fire Service)
By November 2001, Bitterroot Forest personnel had prepared an environmental impact statement evaluating fuel reduction, watershed improvement and tree planting activities to take place over the next several years on portions of the burned area.

The project as outlined in that statement - then the largest post-fire recovery effort of its kind - was supposed to accomplish 46,000 acres of hazardous fuels reduction, 46 miles of road decommissioning, and more than 500 miles of road maintenance to eliminate sediment sources and improve fish habitat. It also includes restoration work in 16 miles of streams and reforestation work on over 33,000 acres.

That environmental impact statement was not subject to the usual public appeals process, but became the Bitterroot National Forest's Burned Area Recovery Plan under a court settlement after conservation groups sued.

Information obtained February 7 by the Native Forest Network from the Forest Service under the Freedom of Information Act shows that millions of dollars supposedly earmarked to accomplish the Burned Area Recovery Plan is missing, and little progress has been made during the past 12 months on restoration work promised under the Plan.

The Freedom of Information Act search revealed that over $16 million in Bitterroot restoration funds is missing, meaning completion of the restoration work in the future is doubtful.

Of $25.5 million on hand for Burned Area Recovery restoration work in 2002 taken away to pay for costs of the 2002 wildfire season, only $8.9 million has been returned.

On February 7, 2002 the U.S. Forest Service, timber industry and seven conservation groups signed a settlement agreement regarding the Bitterroot National Forest’s Burned Area Recovery plan. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth and U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey attended the settlement negotiations as required by a federal district court judge.


A partially burned hillside after the Bitterroot fire. October 2000. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
The public appeals process for the Burned Area Recovery plan was circumvented by having Rey sign the Record of Decision. At the time, in November of 2001, Forest Service spokeswoman Ellen Davis defended sidestepping the public process, saying, "The ultimate goal of this for us, the professionals who deal with land management issues everyday, is to get out on the ground and do the restoration work that so badly needs to be done."

Explaining why the Forest Service needed to circumvent the public process on the Bitterroot, Chief Bosworth told the "New York Times" on December 9, 2001, "It's imperative that we move forward with the project to help restore the land and prevent further environmental degradation."

But the terms of the settlement agreement are being ignored, according to the documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. During the past 12 months, they show, restoration work has inched forward while miles of forest have been logged.

"The Forest Service’s on-going failure with Burned Area Recovery restoration coupled with the fact that they are planning to cut down remarkable old-growth forests with trees up to four feet in diameter as part of Montana’s first Healthy Forest Restoration Act project makes it incredibly difficult for us to find common ground and build trust with the agency," said Matthew Koehler of Native Forest Network, who has done extensive field monitoring on the Bitterroot National Forest.

Forest Service records released to the Native Forest Network under the Freedom of Information Act show that during the past 12 months:

While the restoration work lags far behind schedule and may never be completed due to the $16 million funding shortage, 11,742 acres - over 18 square miles - of the Bitterroot National Forest have been logged.


An old growth Douglas fir within the Middle East Fork Hazardous Fuel Reduction project (Photo courtesy Native Forest Network)
"There is an ongoing failure by Bitterroot Forest Supervisor Dave Bull, Regional Forester Gail Kimbell and Chief Dale Bosworth to honor and fulfill the provisions in the Bitterroot burned area restoration agreement," said retired Forest Service district ranger and professional forester John Grove, a member of Friends of the Bitterroot.

"The excuse has been given that funding for restoration was withdrawn for fighting forest fires in other areas. Yet today, tens of thousands of dollars are being spent preparing a massive timber sale on the East Fork drainage of the Bitterroot, an area already severely damaged by excessive roading and past timber sales," Grove said.

Conservation groups point out that the vast majority of the logging – done under the guise of restoration and fuel-reduction – has occurred far from the nearest community and that logging companies have systematically cut down the largest, most fire-resistant trees.

"My priorities start and stop with what I can do to facilitate the restoration of healthy forests. That's the priority," Gail Kimbell, regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service Northern Region, told the "Missoulan" newspaper on March 16, 2004.

The Native Forest Network answers that actions speak louder than words.