Thursday, February 19, 2009

Bridger Teton Asks loggers for wishes

Bridger-Teton asks loggers for wishes
Letter links logging industry, local mills with health of national forests.

By Cory Hatch, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: February 18, 2009

Conservation groups say U.S. Forest Service officials should reconsider their attempts to attract logging interests to Bridger-Teton National Forest after three regional forest supervisors wrote a letter courting logging interests late last month.

The letter, signed by Bridger-Teton forest supervisor Kniffy Hamilton and forest supervisors for Shoshone and Caribou-Targhee national forests, is dated Jan. 28.

“In recent years, epidemic insect infestations and uncharacteristically large and intense wildfires have occurred, which threaten the health of our local forests, both private and public,” the letter says. “Budgets and environmental restraints have reduced the number of acres that have been treated, primarily on national forest system lands.”

“This has impacted the local wood products industry,” the letter says. “Several local mills have closed and the capacity to improve forest land health through treatment and utilize the wood fiber has been reduced.”

A questionnaire accompanying the letter asks loggers and wood industry officials about their current annual wood use, their potential annual wood use, the species of wood they prefer and the size of the material they prefer.

George Wuerthner, ecological projects director for the Foundation for Deep Ecology, said if the three forest supervisors really wanted to improve forest health, they would leave the forest alone.

“Basically, everything we do in forestry makes the forest more unhealthy, in my view,” he said. “It’s all designed to reduce the amount of biomass.”
Life from dead logs

Wuerthner said about two-thirds of all wildlife species depend on dead trees at some point in their life. Those species include a number of insects, cavity-nesting birds, bald eagles, pine martens, bats and salamanders.

“In Wyoming, martens are very vulnerable to cold,” he said. “It finds a pulpy, dead log to burrow into [when temperatures drop to extreme lows]. In areas where there are no dead logs, there are no martens.”

Ants that use dead and down trees not only provide an important food for animals such as grizzly bears and black bears, but also prey on insects that attack trees, Wuerthner said.

In streams and rivers, researchers have “found no upper limit” to the amount of wood that benefits life, Wuerthner said. “The more wood you have in a stream, the better it is for fish and aquatic insects,” he said.

He said there is also a misconception that beetle-killed trees contribute to more intense wildfires. While trees are slightly more flammable during the “red phase” of a beetle infestation, studies have shown that trees lose that flammability once needles drop off. A more important factor for big fires is persistent dry weather, which wipes out living trees and dead trees.

Wuerthner also said logging doesn’t work to reduce insect attacks.

“The level of thinning that you need to do requires taking between 50 and 80 percent of the trees out,” he said. “And the mortality of beetle-killed trees often doesn’t exceed 50 to 80 percent of trees.”
Exploring multiple use

Even if logging did work to promote forest health, Wuerthner said the associated impacts would likely negate any positive effects. For instance, logging roads not only contribute to soil erosion but also aid in the spread of noxious weeds.

“Typically, when you have a fire, you get an increase in sediment flow, but it rapidly goes back to the pre-fire conditions,” he said. “Roads never do heal. They are always putting sediment into streams. It breaks up the natural drainage flows.”

Jonathan Ratner, director of the Wyoming office of the Western Watersheds Project, said the Forest Service is behind when it comes to understanding the effects of logging on forest health.

“It is purely about this outdated understanding that the forests are way too dense and we need to cut, which is absolutely wrong,” he said. “What you have out there [after logging] are these vast monocultures of lodgepole, which are not only extremely flammable, but they produce almost nothing in terms of wildlife habitat.”

Ratner said some species such as Canada lynx and snowshoe hares benefit from younger monocultures of lodgepole pine.

Bridger-Teton spokeswoman Mary Cernicek said some areas on the forest have “extraordinary amounts of beetle-killed trees.”

“The Forest Service specialists acknowledge that a certain amount of dead and downed timber is needed to promote healthy life cycles and habitat for both plant and animal species,” she said. “However, if there is a way to benefit the wood products industries, keeping in balance with our multiple-use mission, the forest will explore that.”

Can America's West Stay Wild?

Can America’s West stay wild?

Policy on vast public lands has favored ranchers. Demographics and economics may alter that equation now.
By Moises Velasquez-Manoff

In 1993, Washington State classified its Columbia Basin Pygmy rabbit, a burrowing one-pound resident of sagebrush thickets, as endangered. Farming and other human activity had greatly limited the deep-soil habitat available to the bunny.

In 2001, the US Fish and Wildlife Service designated the rabbit, one of only two burrowing species in North America, as “endangered.” Alarmed by the animal’s continuing decline, that year state officials captured 16 rabbits and began a captive-breeding program to try to ensure the rabbits’ continued existence. By 2003, fewer than 30 rabbits lived in the wild, down from 250 in 1995. By 2004, they were all gone.

For many, the disappearance of this tiny denizen of sagebrush thickets is a cautionary tale. Captive breeding programs are a noble last resort, they say. But in this case, not enough was done to save the wild population, they charge. While several factors outside of scientists’ direct control contributed to the rabbits’ demise – disease, fire, loss of genetic diversity, and habitat fragmentation, in particular – one factor squarely within human control was not addressed soon enough: livestock grazing. Although the state had recognized the rabbit as threatened in 1990, cows weren’t taken from the state-owned Sagebrush Flat, the bunny’s last known home, until 2001.

Here, the tale of the pygmy rabbit intersects with a long-raging acrimonious debate in the US West. Just over half the land in the West is public land. And what are public lands for – the preservation of “pristine” nature or resource extraction?

Historically, management of these lands by state and federal agencies has favored resource extractors far more than conservationists would like. But as western economies change and demographics shift, this emphasis on extraction makes less and less sense, economists say.

Meanwhile, attempts to reintroduce captive-bred pygmy rabbits into the wild have so far failed. Of 20 freed in 2007, predators killed 18. Scientists returned the remaining two to captivity. With genetic diversity low, in 2005 scientists added Idaho pygmy rabbits, a close relative. The hybrid offspring were more robust. But in 2006, the last purebred male rabbit died. In coming years, scientists plan to attempt reintroduction of the hybrid rabbit, three-quarters native, again. But the pure Columbia Basin Pygmy Rabbit is now genetically extinct.

Did cattle push the rabbits over the edge?

Steve Herman, a biologist emeritus at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., says cattle may have pushed the animals over the edge. At the site, scientists observed trampled rabbit burrows and broken sagebrush, which the rabbit needs for both food and protection from predators. When cows were finally removed, “it was too late,” he says. “We’ve lost a life form, and it’s likely that our species [is] responsible.”

Matthew Monda, the Washington (State) Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) wildlife program director for Region 2, counters that although observers had noted trampled burrows and the rabbits were in obvious decline, there was no decisive evidence that grazing was responsible. In fact, he adds, since cows and rabbits had coexisted for perhaps 100 years to that point, some worried that removing cows might make things worse. WDFW initiated a study to determine “if the grazing that occurred on the area was good, bad, or ugly.” But when the rabbit populations declined precipitously, the study was halted and the cows removed.

Given the stakes, why not just play it safe? Mr. Monda turns the question around: What’s the most conservative choice, to remove cows and thereby change conditions, or to keep conditions the same and leave cows on the land? “What’s the right answer? I don’t know,” he says. But “for multiple generations, the area had been grazed. And it was the last place that had rabbits.”

Ranchers are bulwarks to development

Ranchers view themselves as natural stewards of the land. Who knows and cares for the land better than they do? Often abutting public land, working ranches are bulwarks against out-of-control development, say pro-ranchers. Subdivisions – further habitat fragmentation – are worse for endangered species than are cattle, they argue. In recent years, this historically polarized debate has seen what Courtney White, cofounder of the Quivira Coalition in Santa Fe, N.M., calls the emergence of “the radical center.” In an effort toward sustainability, “progressive” ranchers are seeking to apply lessons learned from ecological science.

But, say some, even if better management can diminish livestock’s harmful impact, cows, an exotic species, shouldn’t wander the semiarid western landscape for one simple reason: “There’s only so much biomass out there,” says George Wuerthner, coeditor of “Welfare Ranching.” “If the majority of forage is going into a cow, it’s not there for all the other life forms.”

The forebears of American cattle evolved in parts of Eurasia much wetter than the US West. They gather and loiter near water. Much of the damage caused by cattle, scientists say, is from their impact on waterways. They can denude riverbanks, leading to erosion and muddy water. The loss of shade-giving plants raises water temperatures. Native fish species that have evolved in clear, cold water may suffer. Nesting birds lose habitat.

Other species affected by cattle

Katie Fite, biodiversity director at West­ern Watersheds Project, a conservation group in Boise, Idaho, lists species that are among those negatively affected by grazing: the sage grouse, the willow flycatcher, the yellow-breasted chat. Reptiles and amphibians like collared lizards and spotted frogs also suffer, she says.

A 2005 report by the US Government Accountability Office found that grazing on public lands cost taxpayers $115 million yearly. Ranching critics say that the current grazing permit price – $1.35 per cow-calf pair per month – is at least an order of magnitude too low. This subsidy, they say, is greatly responsible for much of the degradation on public lands in the West. Humans get a little meat at the
expense of wolves, grizzlies, bison, birds, and trout – intact functioning ecosystems.

“We ought to leave the West mostly for wildlife,” Mr. Wuerthner says. “That’s where it does really well, and it can’t be substituted somewhere else.”

Others see a more complicated picture.

Rick Knight, professor of wildlife conservation at Colorado State University, Ft. Collins, says it’s not so simple. The fate of public and private lands are intertwined in the West. Whither goes one, so goes the other, he says. “If you want to save our natural heritage, you have to save both public and private,” Professor Knight says. “They are interlaced.”

Mark Brunson, a professor in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University, Logan, says that without low-cost grazing permits, many ranchers would go out of business. But it’s no throwaway subsidy. If done sustainably (as he and others say it can be), ranchers provide an invaluable service. They supply locally raised beef for a burgeoning locavore movement. Less tangible is the “living cowboy culture” they provide.

“The culture of ranching, which is also part of the American psyche, is also important,” he says.

Cultural heritage vs. land and species preservation

To many, this last argument falls flat. De­­structive professions shouldn’t be subsidized, no matter how iconic. If the concern is development, address it directly with zoning laws.

Demographic shifts long under way may change this debate. If the question is what the public values more – a working landscape or a pristine one – the “keep it pristine” camp is on the rise. (Disturbed by rapid development, even farmers and ranchers have begun to push for more landscape-friendly zoning.) Analysis of the past 40 years of economic growth show that preserving nature is the better long-term investment, economists say.

With its expanses of relatively pristine nature and a modern infrastructure, the US West is unique, says Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit in Bozeman, Mont. The region has long been a magnet for immigrants. But late-20th-century arrivals were not, as they once had been, mostly people seeking to work the land. Resource extraction, once a mainstay, is an ever-shrinking portion of western economies.

Profound economic, demographic shifts under way

Between 1970 and 2000, nonlabor jobs fueled 86 percent of this growth. Mining, timber, and agriculture (including ranching) contributed only 1 percent. Now, 93 percent of jobs in the West have no direct link to public lands, says Rasker. But wilderness areas, in conjunction with infrastructure like airports, correlated closely with areas that saw the greatest growth.

“The major contribution is that it creates a setting,” he says, and that’s what immigrants want. Conserving rather than exploiting nature makes more economic sense, he says. People move here to live near nature.

Land-management agencies have been slow to recognize the new role of unspoiled public lands as an amenity, he says. But they’re coming around. The marked “blue shift” in the politics of Western states in the recent election suggests a more conservation-minded public.

For Thomas Power, an economist emeritus at the University of Montana, Missoula, the puzzle is why the shift didn’t come sooner. He attributes the inertia to the nation’s love affair with the idea of ranchers.

“People move here partly to play out the fantasy of being a cowboy,” he says. “Rather than having attitudes different from long-term residents, they were trying to imitate or share in many of those attitudes.”

Wilderness Strategy Questioned

Wilderness Strategy Questioned
Is the future of Wilderness simply more of the past?

By George Wuerthner, 2-18-09
The Elk River, a famous salmon and steelhead stream, in Oregon's Copper-Salmon proposed wilderness. Photo by George Wuerthner.
The Elk River, a famous salmon and steelhead stream, in Oregon's Copper-Salmon proposed wilderness. Photo by George Wuerthner.

“Compromise is often necessary, but it ought not to originate with environmental leaders. Our role is to hold fast to what we believe is right, to fight for it, to find allies, and to adduce all possible arguments for our cause.“‘-- David Brower

Dapine Herling, President of the Montana Wilderness Association (MWA), recently submitted a guest commentary to NewWest.Net titled “Opportunity Knocks for Protection of Montana’s Forests and Water.”

In the essay Daphne suggests that the reason Montana had no new wilderness in decades is largely because environmentalists have failed to seek compromises and collaboration with wilderness opponents. I agree with Daphne that negotiation and compromise is always part of any political campaign. However, negotiating for one’s perspective and then having to accept compromised legislation as part of the political process, is different than advocating for a resource industry’s financial and other interests.

An example of recent attempts at collaboration by the MWA that goes over the line towards industry appeasement includes the Beaverhead Deerlodge Partnership, which the MWA, along with other environmental groups, has endorsed. In exchange for MWA’s explicit support for logging of hundreds of thousands of acres on the forest, including in roadless areas, representatives of the timber industry have endorsed wilderness designation of lands on Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest.

The Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Proposal near Seeley Lake, Montana is another collaborative effort that the MWA supports. It is less onerous than the Beaverhead Deerlodge proposal, but still includes the MWA advocacy for a revision of the Lolo National Forest Plan to facilitate additional snowmobile use, as well as the public subsidy of millions of dollars to purchase a biomass burner for Pyramid Lumber Company that may increase logging in the local area.

What is a wilderness group doing advocating for more logging, more snowmobiling or greater taxpayer subsidies to private companies? At times it appears the MWA is spending more of its time and energy advocating for expansion of resource extraction than promoting wilderness.

Daphne implies that such quid pro quo agreements are the only way to obtain wilderness designation. Yet among the many wilderness bills in the Omnibus Public Lands Bill before Congress, none, with the exception of the Owyhee Canyonlands legislation, has any significant quid pro quo trades of public resources and/or advocacy of exploitative industries by environmental organizations.

For instance, Daphne specifically cites the Copper-Salmon proposed wilderness on Oregon’s Elk River as an example of a wilderness proposal with wide spread support. It does enjoy diverse support, but based upon its wildlands values not because some industry will garner support for resource extraction. Indeed, the Copper-Salmon Wilderness is being promoted as an antidote to the logging, which has destroyed most of the coastal salmon streams--quite a different approach than the MWA appears to envision in Montana.

Another wilderness proposal mentioned by Daphne is the Owyhee Canyonlands in Idaho. While the Owyhee Canyonlands proposal has the support of the Idaho Conservation League and Wilderness Society, it is opposed by 80 other environmental group--not exactly a rousing endorsement.

Author and Idaho wildlands advocate Ralph Maughan, expresses the dismay that many have about the Owyhee model of compromise. He recently wrote on his web page: “I’ve never been much of an enthusiast for the Owyhee Country because my picture of it is scenic, vertical-walled deep canyons with piles of manure and cheatgrass separating them. With the passage of this “unique Idaho solution,” almost everything will stay the same. Apparently the “model for the future” is more of the past.”

And that is the problem many observers find with most collaborative efforts; they tend to maintain or strengthen the social, political and financial status quo.

As a member of the MWA for decades, a former MWA board member, and current supporter, I am not comfortable criticizing the organization. I have a lot of respect for its staff and board whose motives I do not question. Some of the MWA’s current proposals such as the Scotchman’s Peak effort led by the Friends of Scotchman are good models of how to further wilderness designation by strong advocacy for the land’s wild values without compromising other public lands.

Let’s leave promotion of logging, ORVs, grazing and other traditional resource abuses to their respective industrial spokespersons. Let’s “sell” wilderness on its own merits, not as trading stock to facilitate more resource exploitation of non-wilderness lands.

As David Brower admonished, compromise should not originate with wilderness supporters. Let us be the voice for wildlands protection, always willing to articulate the many values of wildlands. If compromise is necessary, then let the politicians propose it--that is what we pay them to do. It is their job to resolve the conflicts between competing interests. It is our job as wilderness proponents to advocate for wildlands.