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Know the West

More on forest power plays


Here are three more takes on experiments in running the West's national forests differently -- follow-up to my High Country News story, "Taking Control of the Machine."


Do I think the experiments will succeed? ... That question was posed by Colorado Public Radio host Kirk Siegler, when he interviewed me last Friday on KUNC in Greeley … I had to grin, thinking: Who can predict outcomes in our current political system? (The edited interview runs five minutes.)


Bob Decker, former head of the Montana Wilderness Association, has edgy remarks about wilderness politics these days ...

Decker ran the statewide wilderness group for 13 years, then stepped down in 2005 when the group's board of directors wanted a change. He'd gotten crossways with Montana's Congressional delegation -- the only path for wilderness designation. As the Helena Independent-Record reported, he was seen as "too confrontational." He isn't fond of collaborative experiments like the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership (covered in a colorful blog post -- "A farmer's wilderness deal" -- as well as in my story). He says they're a result of "the institutionalization of wilderness advocacy" by groups he calls "Wilderness LLC" (limited liability corporations). They present deals to the public instead of wilderness values, and they're interested in "money, power and the quest for consensus, instead of straight-on advocacy for protection of an area."

In the old days, the West's members of Congress -- like Montana Sen. Mike Metcalf and Idaho Sen. Frank Church -- took the initiative proposing big wilderness designations, and wilderness issues figured prominently in election campaigns, Decker points out. Now "we have no expectation that our Congressional delegation will lead us to a solution. Now solutions have to be resolved (by interest groups) and Congress just gets these packaged agreements."


Todd Morgan, a Western timber analyst, says we should make more effort to keep the industry operating in the national forests ...

Montana, for instance, has roughly the same number of mills (about 200) as during the 1980s. But the number of big mills in Montana (at least 10 million board feet per year) has declined from 36 to 17, says Morgan, who's with the University of Montana's Bureau of Business and Economic Research. The small mills use smaller trees to make products like furniture, posts and poles -- instead of lumber.

The annual harvest on Montana's federal land is down 88 percent, while the total harvest on all types of Montana land is down 68 percent.

Environmental restrictions are a major factor forcing the declines, in Morgan's view. "It's not because of lack of inventory -- the amount of standing timber in the forest. We're only harvesting one-sixth of the annual growth, and only one-fourth of the annual mortality."

Morgan goes on: "A lot of people are worried that Montana might go the way of Arizona (where the timber industry has shrunk to nearly nothing). If we lose that part of our infrastructure, and the skilled professionals that understand forest operations, it would greatly diminish our capacity to manage the forests. … It's incredibly expensive now to get forestry work done anywhere we might need it for ecological or social needs (such as reducing wildfire danger around communities). There's less infrastructure to do it, so it costs more or it doesn't get done. It becomes a downward spiral."