Slouching toward Hell

Slouching toward Hell

The do’s and don’ts of the regulatory hell-hole Congress has created for the Forest Service are on display in the draft Rice Ridge salvage proposal released last week at Seeley Lake, Montana.

About three percent of the area devastated by last summer’s 160,000-acre Rice Ridge Fire will be salvage logged. The rest is off limits for reasons that the Forest Service would never have considered 25 years ago. Such is the Gordian knot that now prevents the agency from doing the kind of restoration work every private landowner does in the aftermath of big wildfires.

Subtracting wilderness study areas, inventoried roadless areas, riparian habitat conservation areas and Wilderness removed 129,000 acres from consideration, leaving 31,000 acres.

Determining that no new roads would be built, limiting salvage to burnt timber that stands within 1,500 feet of existing roads, then deducting for slopes greater than 35 percent, then subtracting for areas judged to be economically unviable reduced the project size from 31,000 acres to 5,947 acres.

Subtracting for lynx and bull trout habitat, plus areas where fire retardant was dropped within 300 feet of a stream channel, reduced the project area from 5,947 to 3,000 acres.

Forest Service specialists who explained the math at a public hearing in Seeley Lake last week seemed almost apologetic at the miniscule amount of salvage that federal regulations now mandate.

“Ultimately, Forest Service employees are working very hard to accomplish this, and the last thing we want to do is work very hard and not see it be successful,” Remote Sensing Coordinator, Steve Brown, explained. “While we recognize that it may limit some of the opportunity in terms of getting timber, it will more than likely in the end mean that we are successful in getting something.”

What Mr. Brown was saying, without saying it, was that the Forest Service hopes that Montana’s taxpayer-funded serial litigators will give the agency a pass on its Rice Ridge proposal. Good luck.

This must be a bitter pill for Seeley Lake residents who last summer endured weeks of smoke so thick that air quality meters could not accurately measure carcinogenic pollutants generated by the fire. The “new normal” we’re told.

Roger Johnson must be stunned. Mr. Johnson owns Pyramid Lumber Company, a block off Highway 83, which doubles as Seeley Lake’s main street. No mill owner in Montana has done more to help the Forest Service than he has over the last 20 years. The highly-praised Clearwater Stewardship Project would never have gotten off the ground with his help – and his money.

Western Montana is blessed to have some of the finest collaborative forest restoration minds in the country. Did the Forest Service ask for their input? I don’t know, but intend to ask around. Meantime, whatever debate follows the release of the Rice Ridge salvage proposal needs to focus on congressional incompetence and inaction, not the Forest Service. They are operating in the decision space they believe Congress has granted.

If restoring three percent of an area incinerated by a wildfire is the best we can expect, the nation needs to prepare itself for the emotional and environmental shock that will accompany losing what remains of the West’s National Forests: air and water quality, fish and wildlife habitat and the wealth of year-round outdoor recreation opportunity.

For a glimpse at our future, hunt up a good satellite map of Idaho’s 2.366 million-acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. About 90 percent of it has been ravaged by wildfire in recent years. Nature rules here, and nature doesn’t give a damn about human need.

I have no problem with Wilderness. In fact, we are publicly and financially supporting the Scotchman Peaks wilderness proposal here in northern Idaho. But the anti-forestry claim that logging is to blame for the West’s wildfire crisis is nonsense. So is the assertion that salvage logging is “like mugging a burn victim.”

I invite you to walk with me in northern Idaho’s Pack River drainage. My father and I fished here when I was a boy. The upper drainage was leveled by the 1967 Sundance Fire. Fifty-five thousand acres of old growth were lost, most of it in a matter of hours. Salvage logging began as the smoke cleared. Replanting followed quickly. Today, the drainage is blanketed by trees 60 to 70 feet tall. Its beauty begs a question: Must we continue slouching toward hell?

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