Taking control of the machine

Environmentalists and timber companies push big experiments in national forests

  • Iron Pine Logging uses a feller/buncher in the forest near Deer Lodge, Montana.

    Anne Sherwood
  • A worker at one of Sun Mountain Lumber's mills in Deer Lodge, Montana, passes by stacked lumber milled from locally cut trees.

    Anne Sherwood
  • Iron Pine Logging uses a feller/buncher in the forest near Deer Lodge, Montana, taking even small trees to the Sun Mountain Lumber mill

    Anne Sherwood
  • Sherm Anderson with some of his logging equipment

    Anne Sherwood
  • Eve Wills, courtesy Montana Wilderness Association

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No one has managed the national forests very successfully. For most of the last century, the Forest Service and the industry ran the system -- 193 million acres, mostly in the West -- like a timber farm. They suppressed natural wildfires and cut most of the big old-growth timber. Their mistakes provided environmentalists with an opportunity to push key forest-conservation laws through Congress in the 1960s and 1970s. Other competing interest groups, such as off-road vehicle drivers, have emerged to make forest management increasingly complicated.

Environmentalists have become the most powerful interest group in the national forests. They've protected more than 36 million acres of the forests as wilderness areas, and placed another 58 million acres more or less off-limits through the Clinton administration's "roadless rule." (That rule is still being hashed out in the courtrooms, but national heavyweights like The Wilderness Society keep up the pressure for its enforcement.) They also force the Forest Service and the other interest groups to run most proposed actions through detailed analyses of environmental impacts. That requirement -- as then-Chief Forester Dale Bosworth said in 2002 -- has led to "analysis paralysis."

Meanwhile, the national forests are a mess -- prone to record-breaking fires because of unnatural thickets and climate change, choked by insect infestations, weeds and regulations. The off-road drivers add to the chaos, claiming turf even in "roadless" forests, because the roadless rule doesn't limit their traffic. Many forest-dependent species are declining, and pretty much everyone agrees there's a huge need for some kind of "landscape-scale restoration" -- the new buzzword.

The Forest Service says 60 million to 80 million acres need restoration. But the agency seems to have trouble getting out of bed every morning. It suffers chronic budget crises and its top leadership has gone through unprecedented turnover. It's had four chief foresters in the last 10 years, including the brand-new chief, Tom Tidwell, who was just promoted to the job by the Obama administration. "Too many (in the agency) have lost the hope and belief that things can get better," Ron Thatcher -- head of the Forest Service Council, which represents 20,000 staffers -- told a congressional committee four months ago. "Such employees can become cynical and disengaged. …" Thatcher says morale is the worst he's seen in more than 30 years with the agency, according to the Washington Post.

The timber industry -- the traditional provider of equipment and manpower for lumber production -- is also needed now to do the forest restoration. But the industry is staggering, barely on its feet. Logging on Western public lands (including those under the Bureau of Land Management) has declined about 90 percent since the excessive cutting in the 1980s. Hundreds of mills have closed around the West, and the industry's capacity to process wood in the region has declined by 45 percent. Free-market capitalism caused many of the industry's problems, including heavy competition from Canadian and tropical forests and the housing market's collapse.

That's the context for what Sherm Anderson faces in Montana. Unfortunately, the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest is especially difficult to deal with: Originally two forests that were married in 1996 in an attempt to save money, it lies scattered in pieces over 18 mountain ranges, within the boundaries of no less than seven different counties.

Several small environmental groups still fight the timber war here. They've challenged nearly every commercial timber sale this decade. Not only has the harvest been reduced to a trickle, but more than 870,000 acres are infested with mountain pine beetles and other insects. Another 150,000 acres have been charred by recent fires, and those acres are getting very little reseeding and erosion control. A 240-acre salvage sale of beetle-killed pines -- in which loggers would walk in with chainsaws and cut only dead trees, with the logs removed by helicopter -- has been tied up in analysis and legal battles for more than four years.

The forest's staffing is down 30 percent since 2003, according to a "general management review" last year. There's a lot of turnover in district rangers and the top job, forest supervisor, has changed hands three times in the past four years. The review found "ongoing confusion because it's never quite clear how roles and responsibilities line up." Staffers quoted in it described the forest's leadership team as "dysfunctional" and plagued by "back-stabbing." There's "not enough commitment and follow through … No one is held accountable and the forest just continues to carry projects into the future," the review found.

There's a long list of local restoration projects that are needed to help wildlife such as native trout, wolverines and the occasional grizzly bear. Many areas in the forest have five miles of roads per square mile because of past harvests -- and that much access puts too much stress on wildlife, biologists say. "More than 140 culverts need replacing because they block fish movement. Stream channels need fixing and we need to get roads off streams," says Bruce Farling, head of Trout Unlimited's Montana council. Roads erode sediment into streams, and some local fish populations are dying.

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