Montana gets a taste of old-time logging

Massive salvage operations leave little for the birds


DARBY, Mont. - What's more important? Woodpeckers or textbooks?

Mark one up for education on Montana's Sula State Forest. Last summer's wildfires scorched 87 percent of the 13,000-acre forest, and since then, the state has made $3.5 million selling burned trees to lumber companies - money that will go to public schools (HCN, 4/24/00).

Some biologists and environmentalists say the state isn't leaving enough behind for woodpeckers and other wildlife.

Wood smoke filled the Bitterroot Valley for much of the summer as fires roared down from mountain ridges into the low-elevation ponderosa pine ecosystem. Besides charring more than 300,000 acres in the southern end of the valley, fires destroyed more than 50 homes and forced thousands of residents to evacuate.

This winter, the forests roared to life again as a horde of loggers salvaged 21 million board-feet of timber from the Sula. The buzz of 10 line machines, 25 skidders, 12 clippers, and the ubiquitous chain saws, couldn't drown out the thundering crash of the big trees as they hit the frozen ground. Up to 80 logging trucks a day rolled through the small town of Darby, Mont., to a nearby sorting yard.

Phase two will fire up this summer, as loggers remove another 5 to 10 million board-feet from the Sula.

"There's kind of a vibrancy you usually don't see, especially in winter," says Darby's mayor, Forest Hayes. No one in town seems perturbed by the noisy activity, he adds, "except those folks who think you shouldn't be doing anything in the woods."

The value of a burned forest

The few voices raised against the salvage operation haven't gotten much public attention, according to Doug Soehren with the local environmental group Friends of the Bitterroot. "It seems the timber industry, the state and the Forest Service have done a pretty good job in convincing the mainstream (media) that the economic issue of salvaging this timber is the most important issue."

But for environmentalists, there's more to this forest than board-feet. "If you're ever going to leave a forest alone to heal and ensure future productivity, it should be done after a fire," says Friends of the Bitterroot president Larry Campbell. "We've been successful in convincing people to protect green forests, but people see burned forests and think it's already destroyed."

Not so, says Mike Hillis, a biologist on the Lolo National Forest. Standing dead trees left after a fire provide valuable wildlife habitat.

"Snags are the most important tree for wildlife in the forest. Pileated woodpeckers will dig huge cavities in the snags, and lots of them, which are used by everything from pine martens to flying squirrels to flammulated owls. They need large larch or ponderosa pine snags. No other snags will do."

Yet per acre, state officials have opted to leave only two big standing dead trees. That's too few for the woodpeckers, says Hillis.

A different tack

Logging activity will also increase in the surrounding Bitterroot National Forest. Officials plan to remove up to 180 million board-feet of timber from 65,000 acres. The motivating force is not economics, but safety, says Stu Lovejoy, the Bitterroot's burned area recovery leader.

If loggers don't remove trees, "most of the standing dead trees will fall over and pile on the ground over the next 20 years," he says. "That wood will remain there until a fire comes along and burns it. We want to reduce those fuel loadings." Workers will leave five to 15 tons per acre of branches and treetops, lopped from harvested timber, on the ground to help rejuvenate the soil with nutrients.

While the Forest Service plans to leave more snags standing than the state has, environmentalists say the federal plan, too, is misguided. Campbell of Friends of the Bitterroot insists that the forests will be just fine without any help from foresters. He says snags don't present much of a fire hazard, but branches left on the ground will.

"You are setting yourself up for future fire problems," he says.

Snags also provide shade for regenerating seedlings, wildlife and fish, biologists say. When they fall and decompose, the dead trees recycle nutrients and fiber back into the soil. Fallen logs create natural dams that help prohibit soil erosion during heavy rains. Logging operations in burned areas, meanwhile, can make erosion problems worse.

Campbell says Friends of the Bitterroot convinced state officials to take a closer look at some of the effects of logging on the regenerating forest and wildlife. The state agreed not to log during mud season or cut trees within 50 feet of streams, but calls to leave more trees standing received scant attention.

"Unfortunately, concerns with wildlife don't generate the type of revenue the logs do," says state silviculturist Jon Hayes. "We're required by state law to make money off these lands. A lot of times we're not able to do the maximum for wildlife."

The author writes in Missoula, Mont.

You can contact ...

  • Jon Hayes, Montana state silviculturist, Southwest land office, 406/542-4300, ext. 4262;
  • Larry Campbell with Friends of the Bitterroot 406/821-3110;
  • Stu Lovejoy with the Bitterroot National Forest, Sula, 406/821- 3201.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Mark Matthews

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