Back into the woods

The West goes to work cleaning up its forests

 

Note: three sidebar articles accompany this story under these headlines: "The West's fire survivors," "Making forests safe again won't be a walk in the park," and "A modest chief moved the Forest Service miles down the road."

PINESDALE, Mont. - On the windy afternoon of Aug. 5, 2000, Marlin Powell stood on his roof with a video camera, watching a wildfire sweep down the Bitterroot Mountains. Most of his neighbors had evacuated their homes scattered throughout the wooded foothills south of Missoula. But Powell was curious.

"I filmed the fire as it came down the mountain and surrounded my house, not 200 feet away," he says. "It had taken the fire four to five days to burn from Blodgett Canyon into (the next drainage) Mill Creek. It took only five hours for it to burn off the mountain."

Billowing smoke hid the 200-foot flames until the fire was upon Powell. "I was scared when those black clouds came over," he says. "I could hear the fire roar like a freight train."

At the last possible moment, a change in wind direction saved Powell and all but a few homes in Pinesdale. But the Blodgett Fire continued to rage on the ridgetops, and by the end of the week it had become the nation's top-priority fire. More than 600 firefighters, buoyed by a fleet of helicopters and slurry bombers, battled the 11,276-acre blaze.

It was one of scores of fires last year that scared the bejeezus out of Westerners living along forest boundaries - an area officials refer to as the wildland-urban interface. In Montana, Idaho and the Dakotas, fires routed 5,793 families in 19 communities and destroyed 321 homes. Fire scorched the grounds of nuclear labs in Washington and Idaho, while a backfire set to fight a runaway prescribed burn destroyed about 400 homes in Los Alamos, N.M., and burned across parts of the Los Alamos nuclear labs (HCN, 6/5/00: The West's hottest question: How to burn what's bound to burn).

By the time the fire season burned out, wildfires had scorched 7.4 million acres nationwide, more than twice the 10-year average, and destroyed 861 buildings. Taxpayers shelled out more than $1.6 billion to pay for equipment, supplies and the services of more than 30,000 workers.

The 2000 fire season was a wake-up call for many, including Marlin Powell, who is now working with the Forest Service and the town of Pinesdale to protect the town's watershed from future catastrophic fires. Until last summer, he says, he hadn't realized he was sitting on a tinderbox. "Unfortunately, you wait until a threat hits you right in the face before you start to evaluate everything around you," he says.

The summer of 2000 also reminded many of a fire season 90 years earlier, when the Great Fires of 1910 raged across 2.6 million acres of the Northern Rockies. In a single 36-hour period, known as the Big Blowup, perhaps 75 percent of that area burned. Those fires hit at a critical moment in history, when foresters were pushing the young U.S. Forest Service to fight wildfires, rather than light them as the Indians and early settlers had done. In the wake of the Great Fires, the agency chose to fight (HCN, 4/23/01: The Big Blowup).

The Forest Service was again teetering on the cusp of change in 2000. For years, agency staffers and the General Accounting Office have cautioned Congress that dousing fires has only made the West's woods more flammable. Last summer's fires finally convinced lawmakers that throwing billions at firefighting is fruitless without sweeping forest restoration.

This year, Congress has allocated $1.9 billion to the Forest Service's National Fire Plan, including $200 million for fire prevention and forest restoration. Over the coming 15 to 20 years, if Congress keeps the money flowing, the program could treat 45 million acres of Western woods - mainly at low elevations close to towns and homes.

The infusion of money signals a huge push for the Forest Service. Over several decades, the agency has slowly moved away from its role as a timber provider, and toward a mission of preserving forests and restoring ecosystems. Under former Chief Mike Dombeck, the agency protected about 60 million acres of roadless forests from logging and road-building and steered timber companies clear of old-growth trees (see story page 12).

But after years of overcutting and bad accounting, the Forest Service and the timber industry will have to convince American citizens that they can once again be trusted with the public trees and the taxpayers' money. The greater challenge, however, will be to create a new vision for the public lands, a vision based on ecological restoration rather than ruin, and one that includes not just healthy forests, but healthy rural communities.

With almost $2 billion to show its stuff, the agency is under the microscope like never before. In the National Fire Plan, some environmentalists see nothing but another excuse to cut trees. Congress, always fickle with funding, is under heavy pressure from President Bush, who has already targeted the Fire Plan for a $500 million cut in his 2002 budget proposal. Forest officials, meanwhile, are anxious to prove themselves.

"This is a huge undertaking," says Lyle Laverty, the agency's new fire czar and the mastermind of the Fire Plan. "This is not a timber program in a fire suit."

The Intermountain West will be the Forest Service's main proving ground. Most of the money will go to the region. A big chunk of it will go to funding crews of firefighters, hotshots and smokejumpers - the sexy, though some would say futile, side of fire management (see essay page 16). Some of the money will also go for rehabilitation work on forests that were burned last summer - planting grass and trees and controlling erosion and noxious weeds.

But the most fruitful work will occur in the field of preventing fire. Some of the prevention money will go toward working with private landowners to make their property fire-safe, and helping communities on the forest edges to develop fire-smart building codes. Most of it will go toward restoring forests to something of their natural condition. Forest managers will focus on four treatment areas: the wildland-urban interface, readily accessible municipal watersheds, areas inhabited by endangered or threatened species, and forests that are already healthy but need some maintenance to keep them that way.

What, exactly, is the problem? Scientists say it's not fire, per se, but the condition of the forests. Fire is an integral part of every forest - even catastrophic, stand-replacement fire. Every hundred years or so, crown fires burn many higher-elevation ecosystems dominated by lodgepole pine, true fir or spruce. Except for smoke clogging nearby valleys, the fires seldom cause much concern because they are so far from communities.

Last summer was different. Stewart Richter, a ranch hand in the Bitterroot Valley, watched the Sula Fire burn a mountaintop lookout before swooping down through lower-elevation ponderosa pines to the ranch where he works. "It looked like rocks rolling downhill," he says. "Soon the lower fields caught on fire, and then some hay bales that weren't even close to the fire."

A healthy ponderosa pine forest wouldn't burn like that. The trees would stand well-spaced, with few small trees and little brush growing beneath them. Fires would stay close to the ground, burning brush and seedlings but not many large trees, which are protected by thick, orange-brown, puzzle-patterned bark.

But about 90 years ago, when the Forest Service decided to fight every wildfire, it effectively canned nature's janitor. Most ponderosa pine forests have missed three cycles of cleansing low-intensity ground fires. With drought, hot weather and wind last summer, fire found a smorgasbord of fuel in the overgrown ponderosa pine forests. Flames climbed from underbrush to tightly packed young trees to the tops of the tallest pines. Huge old yellowbellies burned and died.

This type of conflagration is avoidable, but making a ponderosa pine forest safe from catastrophic fire is no small task. In the early 1990s, Forest Service silviculturists Mike Ablutz and John Anderson conducted an experiment on the Ninemile Ranger District on the Lolo National Forest west of Missoula. In tight, doghair woods, which had been logged about 50 years earlier, workers picked the healthiest tree at the center of a fourteen foot radius - preferably a big ponderosa pine or western larch - then cut down every other tree that was smaller than five inches in diameter at breast height. That included brush and saplings that reached up to their kneecaps. Here and there they left a thicket standing to provide cover for wildlife.

It was hot, dirty and dangerous work. Even protected by plastic safety plugs, thinners' ears continued to ring with the whine of chainsaws long after they got home. Occasionally, a worker would catch a tree out of the corner of his eye as it crashed to the ground, hitting so close it blew the dust off his boot tops.

But when finished, the workers walked back through a forest full of light, where trees would grow faster and fire would have a tougher job climbing off the ground. The work also benefited wildlife by stimulating grass and browse. Two years later, firefighters would set prescribed burns, hardening the resin at the boles of the trees. When a tree died, the snag would stand for a longer period, providing homes for woodpeckers and other wildlife.

The experiment attracted scant attention beyond the Lolo Forest, but the upcoming fuels-reduction projects will resemble the Ninemile experiment, with some variations. Across the West, planners hope to treat about 2.5 million acres a year, woods packed with as many as 700 small trees per acre.

At that rate, says Lyle Laverty, it will take at least 15 years to make a dent in the problems created by 90 years of fire suppression. Agency scientists report about 48 million acres of forests that formerly experienced low-intensity fire are now in danger from catastrophic crown fires because of the heavy fuel loads. This summer, crews will start work on thinning projects that have been in the pipeline for years. New projects must still undergo environmental review, so the Fire Plan won't really get off the ground until the summer of 2003.

As fire czar, Laverty will have to make sure Congress keeps the money coming. Testifying at House and Senate committee hearings in March, he said that Congress must continue to fund the fire prevention program even though it will likely see few visual results this year. The program will be a success, he says, if "we can say fire is working in the ecosystem."

While restoring doghair forests will be time-consuming and tedious, it could be a financial windfall for the economically depressed rural West (see story page 10). Federal agencies are already hiring thousands of new workers and contracting out even more work to private companies.

That's good news for loggers, says Patrick Heffernan of the Montana Logging Association. In western Montana alone, 15 mills have closed since 1988, putting about 1,500 people out of work. "If there are work opportunities, there are all sorts of different people in the logging industry who are willing to do the work," he says.

Others hope that new markets for the small-diameter timber will lead to a resurgence of local lumber mills. Many mills in Idaho and Western Montana are already geared up to handle small-diameter logs, according to Stefany Bales with the Intermountain Forest Association, which represents more than 30 mills and private forest owners in the Northern Rockies (HCN, 5/8/00: After the fall).

"These guys have seen the writing on the wall for quite some time," she says. "There are mills up and running that can handle that stuff."

Things are also gearing up far to the south, in New Mexico's Catron County, home of the Gila National Forest. A few years ago, the Catron County Citizens Group began working with the Forest Service on a blueprint to thin ponderosa pine. "The projects are driven by habitat improvement," says the group's director, Bob Moore. "The level of logs going to the mill will be in response to forest restoration activities."

Moore's group should be ready to roll on the 11,000-acre Sheep Basin Project in the Gila National Forest this summer. The plan calls for firefighters to burn about 5,000 acres and loggers to thin about 2,000 acres. Seventy-five percent of the trees coming out of Sheep Basin will measure less than 12 inches in diameter. The rest will be in the 12- to 16-inch range.

To process the logs, the county bought the old Stone Container Mill in Reserve, N.M., and the citizens' group worked closely with the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis., to develop a small-dimension lumber operation. One mill will lathe 5- to 9-inch diameter logs into 'uniform cylinder products' such as fence posts and railings. Another will remove bark and taper 7- to 12-inch logs for post-and-beam construction and landscaping. Logs of 12- to 16-inch diameter will be milled into beams. Other wood will become paneling, molding or pallets, while sawdust and chips will be processed into building material or mulch.

The Forest Service is currently doing environmental studies on other projects in the county, including the 120,000-acre Negrito Ecosystem Analytic Area, also in the Gila. Moore envisions local workers thinning 2,000 acres a year countywide, generating 5 million to 10 million board feet of lumber each year. At that rate, he predicts, it will take more than 50 years for loggers to work their way across the county for a first thinning.

It's not going to make anyone rich, says H.B. "Doc" Smith, a researcher at Northern Arizona State University in Flagstaff, where another ground-breaking forest restoration movement is under way. Since 1998, the Grand Canyon Forests Partnership, a coalition of government agencies and local environmental groups, has been carrying out an experimental program to restore pine forests and reduce fire danger (HCN, 3/1/99: Working the land back to health). But making the investment now will save taxpayers billions over the long haul, he says. "We've got about 30 years or less to begin to affect the forest and be able to have it recover without spending an enormous amount of money putting out fires and rehabbing areas that have just been burned."

But environmentalists like Sam Hitt, recently retired head of Forest Guardians in Santa Fe, N.M., (HCN, 4/23/01: An unabashed moralist bows out) see a pot of lead, not gold, at the end of this rainbow.

"This is another excuse to do commercial logging," he says. "It's not about protecting communities or reducing the fire threat to humans. We're talking about doing commercial logging way out in the boonies when we should be doing the work around homes. In some places, they will turn the forest into virtual clear-cuts."

Chad Hanson, a Sierra Club director and one of the authors of the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act, agrees. "The bottom line is that the Forest Service's rhetoric about fuel reduction is just the latest euphemism for business-as-usual timber production on national forests," he says. Hanson, a leader in the "zero cut" campaign, says the Forest Service will continue to disguise timber sales as restoration projects until commercial logging is banned on the national forests, and logging subsidies are redirected into a true ecological restoration program.

Greg Aplet, a forest ecologist with the Wilderness Society in Boulder, Colo., is concerned that the National Fire Plan gives the Forest Service too much leeway to approve timber sales. The plan contains no specific prescriptions or maps, he says. "It really is a wide-open proposal," he says. "There are no sideboards to it."

Other environmentalists seem ready to cut the agency some slack. As long as thinning is focused "in people's backyards," says Matthew Koehler of Native Forest Network, based in Missoula, Mont., "I think it's something the environmental community can live with."

The Montana Wilderness Association has already endorsed a number of projects that include fuel reduction, road restoration and timber harvesting, says director John Gatchell. "Thinning can be a useful tool in some specific conditions, generally low-elevation, previously logged and roaded areas," he says.

Chris Wood, formerly senior advisor to Chief Dombeck, adds that unlike the Salvage Logging Rider of the mid-1990s, which allowed logging sales to skirt environmental oversight (HCN, 7/22/96: The salvage rider - down, but not quite out), these projects must pass muster with all current environmental laws and regulations.

"We don't want to let the treatment be worse than the disease," says Wood. "There will be no work in roadless areas and you won't see us cutting down any old-growth trees to pay for it. Congress told us to work with local and regional people, avoid controversial projects and cut only small-diameter trees. We're telling our people that this money is not to be used to put up new timber sales."

But some forest managers are grumbling about having to spend much of the new money on complicated environmental assessments to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. On the Lolo National Forest on the Montana-Idaho border, for example, the agency will spend about $600,000 for an environmental assessment to restore 50,000 acres that burned there last summer.

"I believe you can write an environmental analysis to death and not end up improving the quality of a decision," says Dale Bosworth, who has just been bumped up from regional forester for Region One to forest chief (see story page 3).

Has the Forest Service really transformed into a restoration machine? Greg Munther, an environmental consultant and 32-year agency veteran, is cautiously optimistic. Under Munther's tenure as the Ninemile district ranger on the Lolo Forest, the district's timber harvest decreased by almost two-thirds.

"We looked at where the timber program was taking us," Munther says. "When we identified where the large timber was, we always went back to the same areas. We would have had to put clear-cuts next to clear-cuts." Munther took the issue to his boss, Forest Supervisor Orville Daniels, who agreed to reduce timber harvests across the forest for ecological purposes.

Munther has seen similar changes agencywide, where he says former Chief Dombeck's emphasis on watersheds, wildlife and recreation "jibes with what the general public wants for the forests."

He acknowledges, however, that Dombeck ran into scattered resistance within the agency. "We saw what happened with the Salvage Logging Rider, where in some places it was stretched to the limits of credibility. A few managers used it to get back to the normal way of things, to get out the cut. Basically, the agency is staffed with a lot of really good people, but sometimes its momentum seems to get misdirected in certain localities. A few rogue units can undermine the credibility of the whole agency."

New Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth, sees it a little differently. "There has not been a lot of active resistance to this change from timber to ecosystem restoration. We have a broad spectrum of viewpoints within the agency and I think that is good. I don't apologize for using that natural resource (timber), but a timber target is not driving the Forest Service."

While some fear the Bush administration will try to steer the Forest Service back toward wholesale extraction, Bosworth and others say the new mission is ingrained in a new generation of foresters.

"A lot of us turned that corner a decade ago," says Steve Slaughter, a silviculturalist on the Lolo National Forest. Part of the public mistrust or misconception arises from the fact that the Forest Service speaks an antiquated language, he adds. "We're still giving timber targets in millions of acre-feet instead of acres of restoration," he says. "But our projects are all based on restoration. The harvest is only a byproduct of ecosystem restoration."

Still, whether or not the Forest Service can continue down this new road it has mapped depends largely on keeping the attention of Congress. The fires of 2000 convinced Congress to fund forest restoration and the National Fire Plan provides a blueprint, but without consistent funding, neither the agency nor the private sector will be able to hold their new course. The irony is that it may take more summers like last year's to keep fire and forest restoration on the front burner.

The author writes from Missoula, Montana. Darren Samuelsohn, who covers environmental issues for Greenwire in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

YOU CAN CONTACT...

  • Lyle Laverty, 202/205-1657;
  • Chad Hanson, Sierra Club John Muir Project, 626-792-0109, chadhanson@juno.com;
  • Bob Moore, director of Catron County Citizens Group, 505/539-2745, bmoore@gilanet.com.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Mark Matthews