Water overlooked in forest management

Water overlooked in forest management

07 September 2012

published by www.ravallirepublic.com

USA–   It is time to tell the truth about the Forest Service’s wildland fire suppression policy. Not only is it making the lives of Montana citizens miserable with smoke, definitely adding to health hazards, diminish recreational use of many areas for years. Most importantly, it flies in the face of the agency’s responsibility toward Montana’s most precious asset: water.

We have all listened to federal agencies state that the current wildfire situation we are experiencing is a result of “100 years of fire suppression” which has added to the forest health threats of overstocking, and bark beetle epidemics. This is a gross simplification and an incomplete presentation of the historical facts.

Noticeable in its absence is a founding statement to the Forest Service by President Teddy Roosevelt, who in 1903 unequivocally stated that his forest policy objective “… is not to preserve forests because they are beautiful, though that is good in itself,… but the primary object of our forest policy, as of the land policy of the United States, is the making of prosperous homes.” Roosevelt was Gifford Pinchot’s mentor, and it was effectively Pinchot and his successors who created the 10 a.m. fire containment policy after the big burn of 1910. Apparently the policy choice came down to minimize forest fires so that rather than burning the trees, they could be harvested.

In the regional aftermath of the 1910 burn, the Forest Service did embark upon an aggressive fire control policy, along with a concurrent expectation of timber harvest and vegetative management that would mimic natural fire. For roughly the last 40 years this has not occurred in adequate amounts through the landscape, and therein is the problem.

Federal land management agencies control all headwaters in Montana, yet there seems a disregard in those agencies for the fact that upon statehood, the federal government ceded the water from clouds to navigable rivers to Montana. The point is that the Forest Service is a late-comer in watersheds, and except for some specifically reserved federal water rights, they must adhere to Montana’s water laws just as any other upstream landowner with junior rights: they must not impact any down-stream users’ water quality, volume or timing of flow, and they have done this through the cumulative effects of their management. Whether it is from changes of policy, benign neglect, malfeasance, ignorance, or lack of financial appropriations, the Forest Service’s wildfire and timber management policies have dramatically impacted Montana’s watersheds, and the results cannot be dismissed as an Act of God.

Since the ‘60s, multiple USDA research reports have documented the ability to manipulate water flows through clearcut and other harvest prescriptions, as well as having pointed out burgeoning forest health risks due to the aging timber stands. Regardless, not a single Forest Management Plan acknowledges the agency’s subordination to Montana’s Law or its responsibility to the state and its water users, nor was the legal obligation to protect the state’s water rights ever used in defense of their proposed vegetative management projects.

Consider the economic impact to hay producers in the ag and livestock communities if they lose one or more weeks of the late summer irrigation season due to earlier runoffs from these burnt watersheds. Extra water volumes during the early spring floods do not help Montanans, or those who live downstream. The late season water flows are what is critical.

Due to the forest health conditions that have developed over the last 40 years that includes huge amounts of dead standing timber, one can conclude that a clearcut by fire is vastly more damaging to Montana watersheds than a harvest by chainsaw.




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