The recent media coverage of the effort to diminish or repeal the established roadless areas on the national forests need some clarification.
First of all, the suggestion that the only support for the establishment of 58 million acres of roadless areas came from environmental groups is false. Two surveys conducted by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Alliance found the roadless area protection was also supported by more than 80 percent of hunters and anglers.
Forest fuel buildup There is also a need to include science as well as historic facts in the discussion regarding the cleanup of our unhealthy national forests. At our latitude in the Northern Rockies, with little precipitation and long, cold seasons, forest growth will always be greater than forest decomposition. Consequently, there will always be a build-up of forest fuel — until fire removes it. That's how the system works. These forests in the Northern Rockies have been burning for thousands of years, and they will continue to burn when climactic conditions dictate.
Now let's skip to some history. Logging on the national forests peaked in 1987. If you recall, Ronald Reagan was president at the time.
Timber harvest peaked because on many national forests most of the timber growing sites that were suitable for sustained timber management had already been harvested. In addition, Congress passed laws that required the Forest Service to make some economic sense out of their timber management program.
We are now being told that environmental obstructionists are responsible for much of the present fuel buildup because they stopped so many timber sales and other stand treatment.
Less than 1 percent I recall Jack Ward Thomas, former Forest Service chief, stating that, if logging had continued at its peak level from 1987 until the present time, the increased activity would have affected less than 1 percent of national forest land. So much for that myth.
Thomas also said that during his tour as chief in the 1990s, Congress turned down a number of budget requests to fund more thinning and controlled burn activities on the national forests. The politicians stopped many more projects of this type than all the environmentalists put together.
With economic reasons no longer viable, we are now told that we must harvest because our forests are unhealthy. Sure, there are thickets and brush fields. They are part of a natural mosaic that is important for a variety of reasons including thermal cover and security for wildlife. They are not "unhealthy".
Granted, limited work can be done in some areas where there are housing developments near by. But nearly all of the so-called interfaces lie outside the roadless areas. Any forester knows that many forest habitat types do not lend themselves to this thin or burn treatment To apply this thin or burn treatment to lodge pole pine or spruce or alpine fir habitat types is, at best, inappropriate.
Potential tax subsidy The danger, as I see it, is that this "Unhealthy Forest" idea will be used as an excuse to log trees on all sorts of sites that are unsuitable for timber management and the American taxpayer will be saddled with another huge subsidy. The recent propaganda campaign sure seems to be pointed in that direction.
Perhaps it's time to place some responsibility on people who choose to build houses in forested areas. These forests will continue to burn periodically unless we eliminate them as natural forests.
The situation is similar to building a house in the flood plain of the river. It's called a flood plain because it floods. We should ask those who say poor management is the cause of catastrophic fires to explain the fact that in 1910 3 million acres burned in Northern Idaho and Western Montana in a matter of four days . Who permitted these forest fuels to build up? Who do we blame for 1910's unhealthy forests — the Indian tribes?
When climactic conditions become ripe for catastrophic fire, our forests will burn again. There will be always be fuel build-ups as a result of climate, maturing timber stands, insects, and disease outbreaks. Fire is part of forest succession. It is neither evil nor benevolent. We are dealing with 180 million acres of national forest, not a city park or someone's back yard flower garden.
John Gibson of Billings worked as a logger before working 32 years with the U.S. Forest Service. He has a degree in forestry from the University Of Montana.