Home Hacking South Plateau Timber Sale-Another Hack Job By Chainsaw Medicine

South Plateau Timber Sale-Another Hack Job By Chainsaw Medicine


Typical pole size of trees in the South Plateau “treatment” area. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Custer Gallatin National Forest (CGNF) proposal to log the South Plateau area bordering Yellowstone National Park near West Yellowstone is another example of the Forest Service’s quack chainsaw medicine policies.

The CGNF says the goal of the logging is to 1- to decrease insect and disease infestation; 2- to do commercial harvest, and 3- to reduce fuels in the WUI or Fuels Priority Area.

I don’t like to criticize the Forest Service or question their professionalism, but when they ignore the science time and time again, I cannot help but feel like they have no internal ethics.

The Forest Service is selling “snake oil.” 

The CGNF is like the old-time snake oil salesman selling a magic elixir—chainsaw medicine—that will cure the forest of perceived future ills.

Down logs and snags are critical to healthy forest ecosystems seen here in Yellowstone NP, but mortality from anything other than chainsaws is an anthema to the Forest Service . Dead trees are critical habitat for numerous plants and animals, plus provide long term carbon storage. Photo George Wuerthner

The fact that the agency sees insects and disease as a reason for “treatment” demonstrates its own ignorance of the forest ecosystem. Dead trees and snags are critical to healthy forest ecosystems. Some studies show that more species depend on dead trees than live trees. So how does killing and removing trees “improve” forest health?

The Forest Service uses euphemisms to deflect concern about what they are proposing. They call the timber sale “vegetation management and for “treatment” of up to 5,551 acres with “tools” like clearcutting—read logging. Another 9,107 acres would be “treated” by thinning (read logging).

Treatment means killing the trees. The use of the word “treatment” is no accident. The FS is suggesting the forest is “sick” and needs chainsaw medicine, or God forbid, it might die from insects (bark beetles), disease (mistletoe) or wildfire.

To permit natural evolutionary mortality to occur is not acceptable to an agency that sees itself as a handmaiden to the timber industry.

The Forest Service will add  56 miles of new roads to already dense road network seen above. Roads not only fragment habitat, but they actually enhance fire spread with the fine fuelds growing along the edges, not to mention that these open areas dry out soooner and act as wind tunnels. Photo George Wuerthner 

The entire “treatment area” is nearly 40,000 acres which will be fragmented by numerous clearcuts and more than 56 miles of roads in an area that is an important corridor connecting Yellowstone to roadless lands further west.

The additional roads and open forests will likely harm grizzly bears as well as other wildlife. Photo George Wuerthner 

Overall, 16,400 acres will be logged. To put this into perspective a football field is about an acre.

The logic of the agency goes something like this. The lodgepole pine trees that dominate the area are reaching an age where they “may” be susceptible to say, bark beetles, so they intend to “increase” forest health by randomly killing the trees with chainsaws.

South Plateau forest that the agency suggests “needs to be treated” to be healthy. Photo George Wuerthner 

Worse for our forest ecosystems, the Forest Service has no idea which trees have a genetic resistance to beetles, mistletoe, drought, and even wildfire. Its wholesale slaughter of the forest doesn’t leave much room for such considerations.

Using the FS logic, we should line up all the people over 50 years of age and shoot them, so we can “improve” the health of the local population who “may” die from cancer or heart attacks.

Furthermore, numerous studies have demonstrated that under extreme fire conditions (which are the only conditions where you get uncontrollable fires), thinning and logging increases the likelihood of fire spread.

We have many examples in Montana, including the Bitterroot Complex, Jocko Lakes Fire, Rice Ridge, and many others that have charred hundreds of thousands of acres that have been “treated” with chainsaw medicine and burned anyway when climate/weather conditions favored large blazes.

Area which Darby Lumber had logged prior to the Bitterroot Complex fires. Logging did nothing to halt fire spread, and in fact may have enhanced it. Photo George Wuerthner 

By contrast, between 1972 and 1987, Yellowstone National Park allowed 235 backcountry fires to burn without suppression. Of these fires, 222 burned less than a few acres, and all fires self-extinguished. Then in 1988, half of the park burned in a single season.

Wind-driven flames during the 1988 fires in Yellowstone. It was climate/weather, not fuels that drove the 1988 blazes. Photo George Wuerthner 

So, what was different? Was there more fuel in 1988 than in 1987 or 1986? No. The only difference was the weather. In 1988 the Park suffered the worst drought in its history combined with some windy days with low humidity and high temperatures which enabled the fire to spread rapidly across the landscape.


Previously thinned and clearcut area charred by the Dixie Fire which was the largest blaze in California in 2021. Much of the landscape charred had been previously logged or thinned. Note the blackened stumps in the foreground which indicates they had been logged prior to the blaze. Photo George Wuerthner 

It is weather, not fuels, that drive large blazes, an inconvenient truth that the agency continues to ignore because it won’t support its hack forest treatment policies.

Among the other incongruent ideas espoused by the agency is agencies’ definition of “wildlands urban interface,” which includes just about the entire Gallatin County.  Defining an area as WUI means the agency can avoid many environmental regulations and analyses.

Where wildfire near Lake Tahoe burned homes to the ground while green trees survived. The area adjacent to these burned structures had been “thinned” just six months before. What needs “treatment” is the home ignition zone, not the forest ecosystem. Photo George Wuerthner 

Of course, many scientists, including some of the Forest Service’s researchers, have concluded that logging more than 100 feet from home provides no extra protection against fire. However, the agency ignores these studies to justify logging.

All the agency is demonstrating is that it’s not interested in science or what is best for our forests but rather what is best for the timber industry. Chainsaw medicine is a quack medical procedure like bleeding a person to get rid of bad blood. The FS can do better and should.


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