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Proof of the power of science-based forestry

by By JIM PETERSEN Evergreen Foundation
| March 31, 2023 7:00 AM

John Bernard Leiberg was the first scientist to see the Lolo National Forest. Leiberg, a French-trained botanist, conducted a detailed resource inventory of what was then part of the 4.1 million acre Bitterroot Reserve between June and October, 1898.

His findings are contained in the U.S. Geological Survey’s 1899 report to Congress.

Leiberg reported that about 1.5 million acres of the Reserve had been “badly burned over the last 75 years, but that another 1.97 million acres was not burned and held trees of “considerable size and value.”

By species, Leiberg estimated that 27 percent of what he saw was Douglas-fir, 24 percent was ponderosa pine, 15 percent red cedar and the rest were spruce, silver fir, western white pine, western larch, hemlock and lodgepole pine.

The USGS reports constituted the nation’s first look at what the West’s great forests and rangelands held. Their purpose was to provide Congress and settlers with the best estimates of what was there that could be used to build homes, towns and businesses across the one-third of America that was still largely undeveloped. Manifest destiny writ large.

Although public support for western development was solid, there was great concern about a repeat of the exploitation of resources - timber especially - that had occurred earlier in the Northeast and the Great Lakes Region.

By 1899, the year Gifford Pinchot laid out the first federal timber sale in South Dakota’s Black Hills, Congress had already passed several laws aimed at corralling miscreant behavior, culminating in the 1905 Transfer Act, which moved the Reserves from the scandal plagued Interior Department to the Agriculture Department. The Reserves became National Forests and Pinchot became the first Chief of the newly minted U.S. Forest Service.

Pinchot spoke to the economic necessity of managing our national forests in his autobiographical Breaking New Ground, published shortly after his 1946 death.

“Without natural resources life itself is impossible,” he wrote. “From birth to death, natural resources, transformed for human use, feed, clothe, shelter, and transport us. Upon them we depend for every material necessity, convenience, comfort and protection in our lives. Without abundant resources, prosperity is out of reach.”

My, my, how times have changed.

The new Lolo Forest Plan revision speaks to diversity, inclusion, social justice, wilderness and wild and scenic rivers, but not a peep about the economic importance of the Montana and Idaho timber industries or the wildfire/ forest health pandemic that grips national forests in both states.

I’ll skip the economic and social stuff because I know others won’t. But I refuse to whistle past the graveyard the Lolo is becoming. You can drive in any direction from Missoula and find visual proof of the power of science- based forestry: The late Steve Arno’s silvicultural research at Lick Creek, near Hamilton; the beautiful groves of ponderosa and larch on the back side of Seeley Lake; the park-like stands on ponderosa on both sides of Highway 135 north of St. Regis; and the thinnings my friend, Tim Hancock is doing on private land near Ravalli.

Far more trees are dying on the Lolo Forest today than when Leiberg saw it in 1898 because there are too many for the carrying capacity of the land.

The solution to this environmental injustice is simple: thinning and prescribed fire, thinning and prescribed fire. Repeat in perpetuity.

Why on earth is the Lolo staff ignoring this? Has anyone on the Planning Team read the Montana Forest Action Plan that the Forest Service helped develop and signed? It doesn’t look like it.

Jim Petersen is founder of the nonprofit Evergreen Foundation.