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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While the partners have tried to think strategically, the unwieldiness of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge forest and the whole system has worked against them.

They kept their core of negotiators small to make it easier to come to an agreement and bypass conflicts with some who were not at the table. That led to complaints about the process as well as the details of the agreement.

Kerry White, the head of Citizens for Balanced Use, a hard-line group for off-road drivers and other forest users, is one of the loudest critics. White, who calls wilderness "the landscape of no use," says the partnership's agreement would "devastate" communities that rely on motorized access in areas that would be designated wilderness. In the past, he's denounced environmentalists who want to restrict off-road driving as "eco-terrorists." Some other off-road driving groups adopt a similar tone. If they'd been at the negotiating table, probably there would be no agreement.

Several county commissions also don't like the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership's proposal; that seems inevitable, with so many counties directly affected by it. They want it scaled down to designate much less wilderness.

The most sweeping criticism comes from the left wing of the environmental movement, including the small groups that file the lawsuits against the local timber sales. They oppose nearly every aspect of the deal. It's just "a few multimillion-dollar conservation organizations that got together with a handful of timber mills," says Matthew Koehler, head of one of the lawsuit-filers, WildWest Institute in Missoula. His group, which consists of two part-time staffers, has recently gotten involved in some collaborative efforts for thinning forests near communities, but if he'd been at the Beaverhead-Deerlodge negotiating table, he says, there would be no guarantee of timber to the mills.

"(The partnership) excluded everybody else from their process," Koehler says. "They have an incredible amount of political influence and they did some political calculus to get some wilderness designated. I think public-lands management is more important than to have it dealt with like every other issue in this country -- which is basically ‘the haves' versus ‘the have-nots.' "

The forest's wilderness qualities actually make compromise more difficult. It already has two wilderness areas totaling 220,000 acres, and there's great potential for more -- two congressionally established wilderness-study areas that total 210,000 acres, plus 1.6 million acres of "roadless forest." The term needs to be in quotes, because there are more than 800 miles of roads in the "roadless forest" areas (many of those roads existed when the rule took effect in 2001). Off-road drivers are even getting into the wilderness-study areas -- that's why they're reluctant to compromise. At the same time, some ardent wilderness advocates think the partnership should've included more of those areas in the wilderness wish-list (more than a million acres were left out).

The King Kong of wilderness politics -- The Wilderness Society -- was also not in the core group of negotiators. That national group was reluctant to support some of the terms. So Anderson and some of his environmentalist partners traveled to Washington, D.C., and talked with that group's president, Bill Meadows. Meadows also came to Montana twice and talked with Anderson. Sen. Tester reportedly helped work out a compromise: He not only tuned the Beaverhead-Deerlodge proposal to be somewhat more appealing to The Wilderness Society, he also bundled the proposal with two smaller, similar Montana collaborative efforts, one of which The Wilderness Society had helped put together. That persuaded The Wilderness Society to support the package, insiders say.

Even some Montana Wilderness Association members don't like the deal. George Wuerthner, a longtime MWA member who served on the board in the 1980s, has hiked, hunted and fished in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge forest for more than 35 years. He believes that the partners "have the best intentions," but says that the proposed logging doesn't fit the forest's ecology. He and the other environmentalist critics cite science: Research shows that beetle-killed trees have great value in the ecosystem, providing habitat for many creatures from birds down to ants. Big stand-replacing fires are natural in lodgepole pines (the predominant tree in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge). So, they say, thinning makes no sense at all. They also think there is no such thing as benign logging and believe that the environmental movement should not be embracing the timber industry now.

"If (Montana Wilderness Association's leaders) would enter into this agreement saying, ‘We're advocating for wilderness, the timber industry is advocating for logging, we don't think logging is all that great, we don't think temporary roads are the same as no roads, we just want wilderness,' I could almost accept it," says Wuerthner, who has a master's degree in science communications and has written 35 books. "It sends the wrong message."

But some scientists say there's a new reason to thin the lodgepole pines -- to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires that would shock the ailing ecosystem and worsen climate change. The Beaverhead-Deerlodge partners cite many reasons for dramatic action, including the off-road traffic that increasingly penetrates "roadless forest." As that problem worsens, it makes achieving future wilderness designations even more difficult.

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