MISSOULA – Two environmentalists, one Bitterroot logger, a district ranger and nearly 100 people interested in information about the Healthy Forest Restoration Act created a dynamic mix of opinions and views pertaining to land management at a public forum Tuesday night.
They all came together at the University of Montana for a Northern Rockies Nature Forum, which is sponsored by the Native Forest Network and the Environmental Action Community, both environmental organizations in Missoula.
Four speakers presented views on the act, which passed Congress in 2003. The idea of having a diversity of views and speakers was to enable a broad-based discussion, said Matthew Koehler, director of the Native Forest Network and speaker Tuesday night.
The forum started with Missoula District Ranger Maggie Pittman explaining the governmental policy that led up to the passing of the act.
The fires of 2000, which burned strong and hot in the Bitterroot Valley, led to the federal government passing the National Fire Plan, Pittman said.
This plan put focus on enabling homeowners and communities to find ways to treat fuels in the Wildland Urban Interface, she said.
Following the National Fire Plan was President George Bush’s Healthy Forest Initiative, which gave the Forest Service new tools in the way of new categorical exclusion authority, Pittman said. The idea behind the new tools was to expedite some of the smaller hazardous fuels reduction projects and restoration work.
However, those categorical exclusion authorities were recently overturned by a U.S District Court judge in a case in California. The Forest Service is appealing the decision.
After the Healthy Forest Initiative, came Congress’ Health Forest Restoration Act, she said.
This is a piece of legislation that would allow the Forest Service to stay focused on the over-arching goal of restoration, Pittman said.
Projects done under the act’s authority are different from other Forest Service projects.
It basically allows us to analyze fewer alternatives, she said.
But the act also directs the agency to facilitate public involvement at the beginning of the project, rather than after it’s been developed, Pittman said.
Jeff Juel, director of the Ecology Center, an environment protection group in Missoula, spoke next and his view of the HFRA was much different than Pittman’s.
Juel also started with a history lesson and he focused initially on logging.
After World War II, the Forest Service was guilty of what he called a conspiracy of optimism. They thought all the needs of the growing country could be met by products off the National Forests, he said.
Multiple Use became a buzz-word, Juel said.
He continued on to tell a tale of mismanagement by the Forest Service and an exploitation of the nation’s forests by the timber industry, which continued until the late 1980s.
Then pressure from the public and environmental organizations turned the tide and the amount of logging on the National Forest went down, according to Juel.
But with the Bush administration, the tables have turned once again, he said.
Now the Forest Service is using terms like healthy forest and restoration to promote logging, Juel said. And policy, like the HFRA, is used to push a fear of natural processes like insect infestations and wildfire.
The underlying message is be afraid – don’t trust the natural world, Juel said.
Bitterroot Valley reforestation logger, Craig Thomas, spoke next and again gave a different view of the restoration act.
The act was not a Bush administration move, but a Congressional move with bi-partisan support, Thomas said.
It’s a good law that focuses on the health of the forest. If the focus was logging, the Forest Service would be pushing to get the timber out and that’s simply not happening, he said. Very little of his work is done on Forest Service land.
But the restoration act instructs the agency to do something about the health of the forest, Thomas said. It’s a task foresters, like himself, are ready to tackle.
Basically what I try to do is put the forest first, he said.
Thomas pointed to work he recently did on the Patty Canyon Ecosystem Restoration project, in which large trees were left and smaller trees were cut. The project created a thinner and more natural ponderosa pine stand, with minimal negative side effects.
In the end Thomas expects to make about $5,000.
This is not a big profit sale, he said.
He showed pictures of the project to the crowd and encouraged them to go and see the project for themselves.
If you want to go see if I’m telling you the truth … and then he gave directions to the sale, which is in the Patty Canyon area just southeast of Missoula.
Koehler was the last presenter and while the other three took about 15 minutes a piece, he extended his presentation twice as long and didn’t relinquish the microphone until an audience member asked him to.
Koehler’s presentation focused on the Middle East Fork Hazardous Fuel Reduction project, the first HFRA project on the Bitterroot National Forest.
The project was announced about a year ago and has generated a lot of controversy between the environmental groups, like the Koehler’s Native Forest Network, and the Forest Service.
Koehler discussed his frustration with the agency’s preferred plan for the project, which would focus logging and fuels treatment on more than 6,000 acres.
He accused the Forest Service of using restoration as a disguise for logging old growth forests.
We see 3,000 acres of primarily old growth slated for industrial logging, he said.
The land in the East Fork drainage, south of Sula, has been heavily logged in the past, Koehler said. If a project is really to promote a healthy forest, it should consider the cumulative effects of logging. The agency isn’t considering this in their alternative.
But the environmental groups are considering the effects of past logging in their alternative to the project, which calls for fuels work on about 1,600 acres in the same area, he said.
About 600 acres of the work would be focused on the land within 400 meters of the structures in the Middle East Fork community and the rest would be thinning and some commercial logging adjacent to that area, Koehler said.
The idea that the environmental groups are against doing any work is absurd, he said.
No one’s saying that we can’t do something to reduce fuel, Koehler said.
Martin Nie, professor at the University of Montana School of Forestry, moderated the discussion and after Koehler finished his presentation, Nie turned to the crowd for questions.
Alex Sienkiewicz, a graduate student in the School of Forestry, asked the panel to define some of the key terms he kept hearing tossed about – terms like restoration, healthy forest and catastrophe.
Members of the panel struggled with a specific answer, so Sienkiewicz clarified.
These are terms people toss around when debating National Forest issues, and they’re used in way that almost assumes average citizens understand what they mean. But in general people don’t understand that these terms mean different things for different interest groups, he said.
So where does an average citizen go to make sense of all this? Sienkiewicz asked.
When Pittman has to explain the hot-button terminology, she said she tries to use laymen’s terms.
When people ask me things, like what do you mean by restoration – I speak to balance and health, she said.
For Juel restoration is about getting back to something more natural – removing human caused impediments to natural processes.
But it’s a difficult task to use terms that are accepted unilaterally. When you look at the world today, it’s hard to imagine a culture or lifestyle that’s sustainable, yet that’s what we should all be pursuing.
But what is sustainable on a land base that’s already been cut over? Juel asked. How can a human community sustain when the ecosystems they depend on are falling apart?
I know I’m asking more questions, he went on in response to Sienkiewicz, but that’s the best I have.
Missoula forester, Matt Arno, asked Juel if he would be comfortable with any fuels treatment on the landscape.
Juel said he would be comfortable with some mechanical fuels treatment, but he would want it to begin where it would be most effective – close to homes.
It’s important to help people feel comfortable with their surroundings, he said. Extending the fuels treatment out beyond the area around the homes would should be done cautiously, Juel said.
But the best thing about the last five years of federal policy and legislation concerning forest health is that people have more interest and energy about learning and participating in what’s happening on their National Forests, Pittman said. And though the debate can be complex, it is continuing to keep the forest health in the public’s eye.