The message of trees marked in blue

 

In late December, just after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated protection for all of the roadless national forests we have left in the West, I walked up Deadwood Ridge in southern Idaho to see what we'd saved.

The trail climbs through a ponderosa pine forest that continues to evade logging. Back in 1996, it was targeted by the Salvage Rider, thanks to Congress, that negated public review and environmental laws. But the Forest Service made a major tactical error: It marked the trees to be cut with bright blue paint.

That allowed conservationists the chance to take dozens of citizens, TV, radio and newspaper reporters, congressional staff and various Forest Service staffers up this trail to see 40-inch-in-diameter, orange-barked, fire-resilient ponderosa pine giants. There they stood, magnificent and ringed in blue paint.

Ponderosa pine evolved to withstand flames passing below and around them. On Deadwood Ridge and in other old growth stands, trees stand far apart in open grassy slopes, with limbs beginning 30 feet above the ground. The big pines told the story of ecology losing out to logging, and people could see the loss for themselves.

Blue trees also funded what turned out to be an effective set of pit-bull activists with a legal bent, the Idaho Sporting Congress. The small group won $26,000 in legal fees after showing that the $450,000 the Forest Service spent marking 86,000 trees -- both big trees and small -- committed resources before an official decision.

Six years later, all the marked trees remain, their paint flaking off. Some trees have died, becoming snags and wildlife habitat. Over time, more trees will die and fall into the river, providing habitat for fish, while others will rot into the ground and add nutrients to the soil. This is the place where the Forest Service once expected to log 20,000 acres out of 50,000 acres of this remnant forest and haul out as much as 50 million board-feet. That's the equivalent of 10,000 truckloads.

Only public outrage and the promise of lawsuits stopped logging here and elsewhere in the roadless forests of the West. Wildlife and fish studies, economic analyses and public opinion polls all showed greater benefits for leaving forests as forests. Except for what logging does to boost local economies, forests left intact always bring greater benefits.

The closest sawmill to Deadwood Ridge, at Horseshoe Bend, relied on old-growth timber. It closed in 1998. The area's biggest sawmill, at Cascade, which depended on clearcuts, closed in 2001. Most, if not all, of the timber workers at these mills would have preferred another six months on the job. But this leads to an obvious question: Is it worth it to log the last roadless forests?

It's hard to find anyone who thinks so. At a sawmill that closed in northwest Montana late last year, one operator finally owned up to the crushing market conditions he was facing. He said he had no leeway to hang on for another year, much less establish sustainable practices.

It is well established that the Forest Service loses money on virtually every roadless timber sale. Other kinds of losses are the damage to streams and erosion of security for wildlife from new roads, and the recreation opportunities displaced during logging, which some say are lost forever.

Meanwhile, on Deadwood Ridge, it's no secret that wildfire is coming; the question is when. Do we light it ourselves or wait for lightning or human error? If we'd spent the hundreds of thousands of dollars on prescribed fire at Deadwood, instead of on its failed logging plans, we'd be far safer.

Maybe we could even have agreed to remove brush and small trees if we weren't fighting over logging the giants. But prescribed fire wasn't considered a viable alternative on its own. When the cut was jettisoned, good planning went out with the bad.

These roadless protection issues go beyond this place; they've become another political ping-pong ball. The Bush administration has shown that it won't embrace roadless protection by choice; it will chip away at what we have left with a "balanced approach" that allows so-called temporary roads and thinning. But continuing outmoded practices to maintain political support from an industry in decline is not a fair trade for mismanaging our intact forests.

It's time to move on, farther up the trail.

John McCarthy is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He lives in Boise, Idaho, and directs policy for the Idaho Conservation League, which intervened in court as a supporter of the Clinton administration's roadless rule.