Scary prognosis

Forest managers face unprecedented challenges returning public lands to their natural state

| September 19, 2013

On a drizzly late-summer afternoon John Waverek sits in a white Dodge Ram about three miles above the Crazy Canyon trailhead. The road he's parked on sits parallel to a ridgeline on the southern face of University Mountain and is well worn, but only the Forest Service is allowed to drive through this part of Pattee Canyon. Waverek, a district fire manager officer for the Lolo National Forest, has come up here to prove a point.

He kills the truck's engine and steps out into the rain. "You see this?" he asks, sweeping his open palm out to the immediate surroundings. "Look at this. Does this look like a healthy forest to you?"

No, it doesn't. Even an untrained eye can see slash piles rise from thigh-deep grass all around the truck. The piles of woody debris are as tall as eye-level and scattered throughout the area. The grove is so thick it's hard to imagine where those fallen trees once stood, and their stumps are invisible under the thick grass and knapweed. The remaining ponderosa pines and Douglas firs are packed together so tightly that Waverek has to step through them like he's weaving through a crowd. The spot looks nothing like a healthy forest. It resembles a neglected yard behind some abandoned house.


Waverek says this stand is a prime example of what's wrong with many groves throughout the Lolo National Forest. When asked to elaborate, he chooses his words carefully. It's not doing well, but he won't call it sick. Like most Forest Service employees and scientists, Waverek worries about throwing around phrases like "healthy forests" or "sick trees" because those loaded terms can be misleading and used as political footballs. The issue is too complex to be reduced to such overly simplistic phrases. Experts prefer to use language like "mismanaged" and speak optimistically of "returning forests to a natural state."

Whatever the exact terminology, the general consensus is that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. Forest managers are facing unprecedented challenges, from correcting past policies to mitigating the current and future impacts of climate change.

Waverek zeroes in on one particularly troubling sign. He points to countless white and orange pustules littering most of the ponderosa trunks, the signature marks left by the mountain pine beetles. Most of the infected trees in this area are dead and the others will be soon. Relatively speaking, it won't be long before they begin to fall and the Douglas firs start to grow around them. That could lead to a total stand replacement and/or an enormous fire. It's a situation that makes Waverek cringe.

The beetles

The mountain pine beetle is native to the Rocky Mountain West and, as long as pines have made up the forests, the beetles have been trying to eat them. But never have they attacked them so successfully as in recent years.

University of Montana researcher Diana Six holds three dead mountain pine beetles. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • University of Montana researcher Diana Six holds three dead mountain pine beetles.

The ponderosa's powerful defenses make it one of the beetle's least preferred meals. The trees grow thick bark that is difficult for insects to bore into. Once they do make it past, the beetles then have to contend with high volumes of pitch produced by the ponderosas.

University of Montana researcher Diana Six says beetle attacks of ponderosa pines are one indicator of the abnormal current forest conditions. Beetle populations have fluctuated throughout the centuries and follow the same trajectory of significant climate changes. When temperatures rise, the population booms, and when temperatures fall, the beetles die off. But even taking these historic fluctuations into account, Six says the current status is unprecedented.

"This outbreak is 10 times bigger than any that's happened in the past and it's likely the biggest that's ever happened on the planet," Six says. "It killed 80 percent of the pines in British Columbia, it's now in Saskatchewan and it's expected to keep going as an exotic through the boreal forest and into the eastern pine forests and maybe into the southern United States."

The reason for the epidemic is tied directly to climate change. Cold winters historically kept beetles in check. The bugs used to need two years to reach full maturity, and during the second winter, when the beetles were in the larval stage, the frigid temperatures of high-elevation forests would kill them. Now, with increasingly warmer weather, the beetles mature in just one year and reproduce at an exponential rate.

A sign alerts hikers and bikers of a thinning project in Crazy Canyon. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • A sign alerts hikers and bikers of a thinning project in Crazy Canyon.

While beetle populations continue to grow and threaten forests throughout the West, their numbers in western Montana have actually decreased. Six explains that it's not because temperatures have dropped or because anything is killing the beetles, but rather because there aren't enough trees left to support their enormous numbers.

The new concern for researchers is how the bugs may impact high-elevation whitebark pine. These trees never had to deal with beetle epidemics before because high elevations never got warm enough for beetles to survive. Now that's changing. Six says research in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem shows 1.2 million acres of whitebark pine have died from beetle infestation.


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Here’s some new information to consider

In Montana, it’s estimated that Rep Daines mandated logging bill (the so-called Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act") would result in (compared with 2012 timber sale numbers):

• 300 X’s more logging on the Helena National Forest;
• 150 X’s more logging on the Lewis and Clark National Forest;
• 13 X’s more logging on the Lolo National Forest;
• 7 X’s more logging on the Gallatin National Forest;
• 30 X’s more logging on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest;
• 6 X’s more logging on the Kootenai National Forest; and
• 4 X’s more logging on the Flathead National Forest.

These dramatic increases in logging would be achieved by undermining America’s public lands legacy by simply having members of Congress mandate dramatic increases in industrial logging by exempting all National Forest logging sales up to 15.6 square miles in size from public input, environmental analysis and gutting the Endangered Species Act. Daines’ bill also has the US Congress simply closing the US Federal Court House doors, forbidding any citizen lawsuits on certain types of industrial logging projects, which is inherently undemocratic. Daines’ bill applies to all of America’s 155 National Forests, not just those in Montana.

Please speak out against Congress simply mandating more logging on America’s National Forests by gutting our nation’s laws and regulations. Thank you!…

Posted by Matthew Koehler on 09/30/2013 at 12:44 PM

Below is some substantive information regarding Rep Steve Daines' mandated logging bill, the so-called "Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act," which passed the US House last week. Talk about a "scary prognosis"....Daines mandated logging bill has got to be one of the biggest legislative threats to America's public lands legacy in a generation.

Bottom line is that Rep Daines logging bill undermines America's public lands legacy by mandating dramatic increases in industrial logging by exempting National Forest logging sales up to 15.6 square miles in size from public input, environmental analysis and gutting the Endangered Species Act. The bill also has the US Congress simply closing the US Federal Court House doors, forbidding any citizen lawsuits on certain types of industrial logging projects, which is inherently undemocratic.

Rep Daines wants to forever change the way America's National Forests are managed by simply having politicians mandate dramatic increases in National Forest logging levels all across America's 155 National Forests, at a time when US lumber consumption is down nearly 50%.

Rep Daines claims gridlock prevents National Forest logging, but between 2008 and 2012 the US Forest Service sold enough logging sales in Montana and North Idaho to fill over 239,000 logging trucks, which if lined up end-to-end, would stretch for 2,048 miles.

Certainly it doesn't help the political situation that Sen Tester, Sen Baucus and a small handful of well-funded groups like the Montana Wilderness Association also support politicians mandating huge logging increases of our National Forests, which would be an extreme and radical departure from over 100 years of America's public lands legacy.

In theory the US Senate should be against mandating huge increases in National Forest logging through "Logging Without Laws." gutting the Endangered Species Act, limiting public input and environmental analysis. However, the fact that Senator Tester and Senator Baucus have been pushing their very own mandated National Forest logging bill (the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act) all bets are off and anything can happen in the Senate.


The "Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act:"

• Creates a legally-binding public lands logging mandate with no environmental or fiscal feasibility limits, and reestablishing the discredited 25% logging revenue sharing system with counties that was eliminated over a decade ago.

• Public participation and Endangered Species Act protections would be severely limited in Rep Daines bill. The bill creates huge loopholes in NEPA and such biased ESA requirements that in practice these laws would almost never meaningfully apply. For example, any project less than 10,000 acres (that’s 15.6 square miles) would be categorically excluded from environmental analysis and public participation, and the Forest Service would be required to submit a finding that endangered species are not jeopardized by any project, regardless of its actual effect on the species.

• Rep Daines successfully attached an amendment to the bill that would forbid the US Federal Courts from ever issuing injunctions against Forest Service logging projects based on alleged violations of procedural requirements in selecting, planning, or analyzing the project.

• Another amendment added to the bill has the US Congress closing the US Federal Court House doors for any national forest timber sale resulting from the 2013 wildfires. Essentially this results in "Logging Without Laws," as one entire branch of the US Government (the Judicial branch) is forbidden from examining this issue.

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Posted by Matthew Koehler on 09/24/2013 at 7:51 AM

This article really leaves a lot to be desired, not the least of which is the fact that when published the article included a number of factual errors and mis-attributions. The article certainly isn't an accurate, scientifically- and ecologically-based look at the "unprecedented challenges" National Forest land managers face when restoring America's public national forest lands.

Most of the article takes place in the Pattee Canyon area just outside of Missoula, as the reporter uses Forest Service fire and timber people standing in the Pattee Canyon Recreation Area to supposedly make a case that the forests up at Pattee Canyon are "a prime example of what's wrong with many groves throughout the Lolo National Forest."

What the reporter fails to tell Indy readers is that the forests up in the Pattee Canyon Recreation Area have been heavily logged since the 1870s, or for nearly the past 140 years. That's right, the Pattee Canyon area has a long history of heavy logging, first by settlers and then by the US Army.

Consider these historical sources:

"For more than a century, the grassy, sun-­‐drenched slopes of Mount Sentinel and ponderosa groves and meadows of Pattee Canyon have provided enjoyment for area residents. The acreage overlooks the mouth of Pattee Canyon and the site of one of the Missoula Valley’s first farming operations. David Pattee began farming there in 1871, and soon augmented the farm with flour and sawmill operations. Timber for the mill came from the thick stands of old-growth [forests] thriving on the slopes of Mount Sentinel, Dean Stone Mountain and Pattee Canyon much of which was later set aside for military use as the Fort Missoula Timber Reserve." Source:…

Here's what the USFS's official brochure for the Pattee Canyon Recreation Area says (…

"In 1877, the U.S. Army started building Fort Missoula. Since some of the biggest trees in the area grew in Pattee Canyon, a 1600-acre timber reserve was set aside here to supply the fort. The old timber reserve was the basis of the present day recreation area. In the 1920's the Army built a rifle range in the meadow near the present day picnic area. The range was closed in 1945, but you can still see the earthen backstop and concrete foundations. The Forest Service acquired the timber reserve in 1926.

Again, the fact is that Pattee Canyon has basically been logged numerous times over the past 140 years. This factual and historical information is 100% missing from this article. As such, the public should really question many aspects of this story, especially since the ponderosa pine forests around the Pattee Canyon area were used by the reporter to talk about the health of our entire National Forest lands in Montana.

Using ponderosa pine forests as a case-in-point to talk about the health of America's national forests is irresponsible and misguided for a number of other reasons as well. For one, most all of the old-growth ponderosa pine forests in our region were cut down and sent to the timber mills, or copper mines, a long time ago. So too, these ponderosa pine forests typically existed near the valley bottoms and in lower elevations, meaning that many ponderosa pine forests were cut down and replaced with towns, farms, neighborhoods, etc.

Another issue is that ponderosa pine forests make up a very small percentage of Montana's entire forest ecosystem anyway, about 8% in total. So, again, really using only ponderosa pine forests to somehow make a case for the management of National Forests throughout Montana and the west makes little sense on so many levels.

The vast majority of Montana's forested landscape is dominated by a mix-conifer forest type, including Douglas-fir, sub-alpine fir, Engelmann spruce and lodgepole pine trees. These forest types have a dramatically different life-cycles and are impacted by wildfire in much different ways than stands of ponderosa pine.

For example, it's not rare, "sick" or "unhealthy" for many forest types in Montana to experience wildfires on a 75 yo 250 year rotation cycle, with these less-frequent wildfires being of greater intensity and severity than what this sloppy, poorly researched article leads one to believe.

As such, the vast majority of Montana's forests are not out-of-whack or sick, nor should Montana's forests be described as "resembl[ing] a neglected yard behind some abandoned house."

That's all for now....Thanks.

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Posted by Matthew Koehler on 09/23/2013 at 2:43 PM

I'd like to see the extremes on both sides of the discussion back off from the same old political positions they held a decade ago. The environmental groups quoted didn't appear out of a vacuum; they were a reaction to old, shoddy practices. They do conservation a disservice, though, when they insist on hammering the same old rhetoric into the public. There are tradeoffs to any kind of land management, but saying "the best way to protect habitat is to leave it alone" ignores the fact that we're here, and we consume goods and services. Environmental reactivism is problem-based, and what the landscape needs are steps towards what resembles solutions. When we try to legislate against the extremes with thinly veiled extractionist laws, we're no better off.

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Posted by Greg on 09/21/2013 at 11:25 AM

I just wish people would get off this "natural fire regime" kick. Those 5-25 year fires in P-pine were more often than not SET fires. You know, Indians? Indians wanting good graze for fat deer and elk to eat? Indians wanting to clear off ambush sites as they departed the area for the next camp?
And another thing not mentioned. No such thing as LP old-growth. The stuff kills itself like clockwork once it matures. We should have started mowing it off 20 years ago as it became merch wood -- but 1994-5 is when the roof caved in.
Finally, with a lower water budget, does stems per acre register with any of these scientists?

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Posted by Dave Skinner on 09/20/2013 at 12:09 PM

Some of the information attributed to me in the article is not correct. When I spoke of the beetle previously taking two years to go through a generation, that was in the context of whitebark pine in the high elevations. There, because of warming the beetle has switched to one generation, which has allowed the beetle to really take off and devastate this tree species. When the beetle had two generations in the subalpine, it seldom survived because the larvae would need to survive up to two winters and feed for a long period of time in an increasingly drier and less nutritive food source. In lower elevations, one generation has always been typical. That has not changed, but warmer conditions allow greater brood production and survival and drought stresses trees reducing their defenses allowing them to be killed by fewer beetles-that leads to outbreaks, not just milder winters.
The research that detected 1.2 million acres of killed whitebark pine in the GYE was not my research but that of Wally McFarlane and Jesse Logan. I also did not testify this year on the status of whitebark pine but worked earlier with the Department of the Interior when it was considering relisting the grizzlies in the GYE-which it eventually did.
Diana Six

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Posted by Diana Six on 09/19/2013 at 3:01 PM

No mention of how nearly 100 years of excluding fire from ecosystems to protect communities led to old lodgepole pine forests that set the stage for these mountain pine beetle outbreaks across western U.S. and Canada - climate helped spark the outbreaks but humans cultivating over 40 million acres of susceptible lodgepole pine forests in North America created the food that has made them so extensive.

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Posted by Enviro#1 on 09/19/2013 at 2:11 PM
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