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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The partners also say they know how to make a temporary road and then remove most or all of its impacts -- and that timber bosses like Anderson can be trusted to do it. "That's a tremendous breakthrough. The notion that we can enter a stand and do some treatment and then back out is an extraordinarily positive step for wildlife," says France of the National Wildlife Federation, who's an active hunter and angler and served on the High Country News board during the 1990s. "This legislation really does good things for wildlife, both for restoring landscapes and setting important precedents." He's particularly pleased with the limits on roads -- even existing road mileage will be reduced to less than 1.5 miles per square mile in "restored" areas -- as well as the large-scale environmental analysis and large stewardship contracts.

Anderson describes how he's learned to remove roads by re-contouring, reseeding and then leaving slash (logging remnants) to block ATV traffic. He says his logging crews would do a mix of "selective cuts, patch cuts, clear-cuts, salvage of blowdown or fire or beetle-kill." Patch cuts leave greener trees, he says, and there will be plenty of "snags" -- dead trees -- left standing for wildlife because so many trees are dead or dying. And he has a powerful argument on his side: "If we go away -- if this industry, our machines and our expertise, is gone -- nothing will be done in the forest. The Forest Service has no money or staff to do it."

What about the federal economic stimulus money -- hundreds of millions of dollars -- that Obama and Congress are injecting into the forests for roadwork and other restoration? It will barely scratch the surface of what needs to be done around the West, the partners say. Besides, they don't trust the Forest Service to spend that money wisely. Trout Unlimited's Farling, who worked for the Forest Service for most of the 1980s as a seasonal firefighter and wilderness ranger (he was also an HCN intern back then), says: "There's no more inefficient way to spend money than to give it to the Forest Service."

The partnership wants to build a platform for long-term funding of restoration through stewardship contracts -- a 10-year-old Forest Service program whose full potential has not been tapped yet.

The Forest Service will probably be the biggest obstacle. The agency's leaders express support for collaborative efforts, but that support is tested whenever collaborators try to override them. The agency is already resisting some terms of a separate 35,000-acre stewardship project that the Beaverhead-Deerlodge partners are trying to put together in the forest's "Eastside" area: The partners want 10,000 acres of logging or thinning there, and the Forest Service wants only 3,000 acres or so.

The partnership's main agreement contradicts the Forest Service's new plan for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. The "final" plan, which came out four months ago, calls for less logging and about 200,000 fewer acres in new wilderness areas, and has no requirement for 50,000-acre environmental analyses. It seems, in fact, like the epitome of "analysis paralysis" -- seven years were invested in the "final" version, and now it's been hit with nearly 60 appeals, mostly filed by off-road drivers. The Forest Service will probably take several more years to handle those appeals and come up with a final "final" version.

Tom Tidwell, who was only named chief on June 17, spoke with me a few weeks earlier, when he was still regional forester in Missoula. "These collaborative efforts are the best way to reach agreement on many issues," he said. But he went on to say he's concerned that the Beaverhead-Deerlodge deal hasn't been accepted by all the interest groups (as if that would ever be possible). And he wants to keep using established Forest Service planning and processes to accomplish goals. "We have laws and regulations in place to provide us with direction to develop forest plans and revisions," Tidwell says.

That indicates that the Forest Service will resist the partnership's guarantee of timber to the industry, and possibly other terms of the agreement. A staffer on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge puts it bluntly: The partnership, the staffer says, "is ugly for us."

Other attempts to override the Forest Service have struggled. More than 10 years ago, the Quincy Library Group, a pioneer collaborative effort focused on 2.4 million acres of national forests in northeast California, made a pact calling for more active forest management. In 1998, it even pushed a law through Congress. But the Quincy Group has gotten only portions of what it hoped for; it's still arguing with the Forest Service and entangled in lawsuits from dissenting environmentalists.

But the Beaverhead-Deerlodge partners hope to prevail over the Forest Service. There's a greater sense of crisis now, they say, and more interest in finding answers to important questions: Can lodgepole pines be thinned for restoration? Can temporary roads be rehabbed adequately? Can the Forest Service be kicked into gear like this?

The underlying question remains: Whether or not this particular partnership succeeds, just how much experimenting will be allowed in national forests?

There's a strong current in the environmental movement calling for more experiments. It includes the Three Rivers Challenge, which is part of Sen. Tester's legislative package. In that deal, environmentalists in northwest Montana followed the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership's model: They agree to guarantee the timber industry access to 3,000 acres per year in the Kootenai National Forest in exchange for 30,000 acres of new wilderness.

The industry is also seeking timber guarantees in Idaho's Clearwater Basin Collaborative, where it's negotiating with environmental groups that want wilderness designations in several national forests. The biggest experiment (in acres) is emerging in Arizona, where there's broad consensus that the Forest Service should gear up to do rapid restoration on a million acres of ponderosa pines in four national forests.

These kinds of experiments worry Martin Nie, a professor of natural resources policy at the University of Montana. In a recent study he wrote with graduate student Michael Fiebig, he says that the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership is part of a pernicious trend -- "place-based legislation" contradicting the traditional "umbrella legislation covering all national forests." If the "piecemeal approach" catches on, Nie says, it would increase the chaos in the national forest system. Not only would it trigger more lawsuits, it's unlikely to meet its timber-production goals or even to be adequately funded, in his view. But most of all, he worries that it could set a "dangerous precedent" by encouraging similar experiments in other forests. It's "the wrong tool for the right job," he says.

Nie wants Congress to pass a law that applies to all forests, setting limits and creating a standard framework "to begin a more deliberate and organized period of experimentation." Bob Ekey, head of The Wilderness Society's Northern Rockies office in Bozeman, Mont., also wants Congress to pass such a law.

"There's good energy in all these collaboratives popping up all over. And everybody is writing their own rules as they move forward," Ekey says. "We need some structure, some sideboards (and) policy pieces (from Congress). I'm not sure what that looks like. It would be great if Congress started holding hearings" to gather testimony about what's right and wrong with proposals like the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Partnership, he says. "We need to define restoration (and) to define collaboration."

When they ask for rules to govern thinking outside the box, however, people like Ekey and Nie sound like the Forest Service. They just want to create a larger box.

Sherm Anderson is a super motorhead. His logging fleet alone includes five feller-bunchers that roll on tracks while cutting trees, about 15 skidders and nine delimbing machines, plus a lot of big trucks. He has about a dozen personal snowmobiles, ATVs and Harley Davidson motorcycles. And he collects classic cars -- more than 60 of them, including a 1913 electric model. So when he says that the motorized recreation folks are getting enough terrain in the partnership deal, it has some impact, undermining the complaints of the hard-liners who want to drive everywhere in the forest.

Anderson is also a leader in the Mormon Church and the Republican Party, and served in the Montana Legislature in the early 2000s. He's on the board of directors for both a local museum and a local bank, and he's branched out into real estate, a construction business and a fitness center (a breakeven at best, but good for the town and his employees). He points to his ranch: 1,200 deeded acres on a bench above the town.

With dynamics like that, the Beaverhead-Deerlodge partners say they're changing Montana's whole political balance: Even if their agreement doesn't become law, they're laying a foundation for future deals on wilderness and other controversial issues. "This effort has brought us together in ways we never imagined," says Montana Wilderness Association's Baker. "The thing we give to them (the timber folks) that matters the most is ourselves -- our commitment that we will make these projects work. Everyone in the partnership has come to understand the importance of that." The science of lodgepole pine ecosystems -- logged versus unlogged -- is less solid than the relationships they've built.

Anderson drives me around Deer Lodge -- mostly dilapidated buildings whose businesses barely hang on. The only enterprise that seems to be thriving is the state prison. He points out some of his efforts to improve his community -- the fire station he built for a bargain price and a small decent-looking new subdivision. The main attraction is the museum, a wacky combo of the old territorial prison and more than a hundred classic cars, many of them on loan from Anderson.

At Sun Mountain Lumber, Anderson says he thinks that the housing market will rebound soon, which means he'll need more timber. He shows me how his skidders run on tracks instead of tires, with the drive gears above the tracks, "so the whole track floats on the ground, for less soil compaction." Even so, as the critics say, even the most careful logging has impacts. His environmentalist partners simply trust him to do his best.

Inside the mills, where wood and steel collide, it's incredibly noisy (which explains why Anderson has hearing aids in both ears). Raw logs slam into the sawmill and shriek through the blades, coming out as rough 2-by-4s that whine through the planer mill. Computerized scanners maximize the amount of lumber available from smaller trees. Men and women covered in sawdust move as quickly as the conveyor belts, operating controls and sorting the flow, diverting any flawed boards for more processing.

Most of the studs are loaded on rail cars and shipped out of state, to be made into buildings for people who have no idea of the work involved. The 2-by-4s that are not good enough to make an 8-foot-long stud (the standard minimum) rumble into the finger-joint mill for remaking. Anderson shows me how that works: The finger-joint machines cut good pieces from the flawed studs, make wedge-shaped cuts in the end of each piece, and then glue the pieces together to make studs at least 8 feet long. He grabs a finger-jointed stud and shows me. "It's stronger and straighter than a regular stud," he says, "because of the glue and you're alternating your grains of wood." The pieces fit together like a handshake.

Map: Shows the partnership's proposal and points of controversy

Related sidebar: Even hard-liners want to experiment in Arizona

Update: 2 more enviros sound off against the deal

More update: Ray's pix of Sen. Tester announcing his bill -- and a summation of the bill

More update: The former head of the Montana Wilderness Association, a timber analyst and a radio show weigh in

Source note: For the statistics on the shrinking timber industry and harvests in the West, I talked with Todd Morgan, chief timber analyst with the University of Montana's Bureau of Business and Economic Research, and Chuck Keegan, a longtime analyst who's (kind of) retired from the bureau.

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