Timber Wars Redux
A thinning project by the U.S. Forest Service about one-half mile off Highway 37, near Mac's Market. (Photo courtesy Jim Petersen)
| November 21, 2023 7:00 AM
Anusha Mathur’s Nov. 1 Flathead Beacon essay [The Yaak Valley is Ground Zero for Montana’s Environmental Future] was a jarring reminder that the timber wars of the 1980s are still with us.
The interchangeable anti-forestry narratives haven’t changed much since I first heard them in 1985: the old growth is almost gone, save charismatic megafauna, save endangered species, stop clearcutting, loggers are logging without laws and, more recently, climate change is real, climate deniers are wrong, the science is settled and where is the climate justice?
The Yaak Valley is one of many ground zeros is the long running and exceptionally well-funded political war to end all forms of science-based management on public forestlands in the United States.
I don’t know who provided the airplane that flew Mathur over the Kootenai National Forest. Maybe the same outfit that flew clearcuts in Western Oregon during the 1980s spotted owl wars.
There is an entirely different narrative that could have gone with the Yaak Valley flight. Had I been in charge we would have rented a Bell Jet Ranger so that those on board could have also spent some time on the ground.
We would have met at the Libby Airport, flown over the old J. Neils’ sawmill site southeast of downtown Libby, then headed north a treetop level, following the Pipe Creek Road 37 miles north to Yaak.
Fasten your seatbelts and put on your headphones. We’re lifting off now.
“That’s Swede Mountain beneath us. It’s a state-owned tract that overlooks Libby. Those are western larch trees down there. The state thinned them three years ago to protect homes in the area. The residual trees are growing faster now than they were before thinning because they have more growing space and sunlight.
“The overgrown forest to the north is Forest Service ground so dense it is difficult to walk through it. Lots of mistletoe. It’s dying and will soon burn. And that’s the old J. Neils’ mill site down there. Libby had a sawmill for more than 100 years. We’ll hover here for a few minutes so you can see how beautiful this valley is while I tell you about Libby’s’ sawmill history.
That’s the Kootenai River right over there. It’s one of Montana’s finest trout fisheries.
“Julius Neils bought the Dawson Lumber mill here in 1910. He also funded the town’s first hospital and started a local electric utility that generated its power from sawmill waste. Hundreds of local men worked in the mill or logged on company land.
“Neils merged with St. Regis Paper in the 1957; then St. Regis merged with Champion International in the 1984. Champion sold its Montana lands to Plum Creek Timber in 1993 and its Libby mill to Stimson Lumber Company.
“Stimson stayed until 2003 and would still be here if they could have convinced the Kootenai National Forest staff to sell them about 20 million board feet a year.
The forest grows more than 863 million board feet annually.
“Litigation was fast eroding the Kootenai’s historic timber sale program so the forest staff was hesitant to promise what it wasn’t sure it could deliver. We’ll talk more about litigation in a few minutes but now we’re going to head north across the river. I have something very interesting I want you to see.
“Right below us is a Forest Service thinning in an old clearcut. I think it was last thinned about 30 years ago. For comparison, look at that lodgepole thicket over there at the corner of Pike Road and Sheldon. The Forest Service thinning across the road would look the same if it had not been repeatedly thinned and burned.
Burning following logging reduces flammable woody debris and helps replenish soil nutrients while holding insect and disease infestations at bay. It’s a forestry one-two punch that’s been used on public and private land for decades.
Fine-tuned to fit specific on-the-ground conditions, objectives and goals, it’s called adaptive forest management.
“Now we’re going to head north toward Yaak. We’ll follow the same road that I drove to Yaak in 1968. Back then these forests weren’t as overgrown as they are today. There were many more vistas with expansive views of the valley and its surrounding mountains. Really pretty country.
“We’re approaching three restoration projects the Forest Service has started. They total about 163,400 acres which seems large but isn’t when you realize they only span about 7.4 percent of the Kootenai National Forest and will require about 30 years to complete.
By then, the first thinnings will be filled with trees 20-30 feet tall. The pattern that you see in these thinnings replicates natural burn patterns that were present here for thousands of years. The burns were not as intense as today’s wildfires because the forest wasn’t as dense so the chances of the fire jumping into the treetops was minimal.
“Anti-forestry leadership in Northwest Montana hates these thinnings and is working furiously to develop urban-based coalitions on the east coast that will join serial litigators to stop the projects. Climate change, old growth preservation and grizzly bear habitat are their main issues but what their opposition tells us is that they are fine with all the environmental damage wildfires will cause, but not fine with thinnings designed to reduce wildfire risks.
“That’s the gin clear Yaak River up ahead of us. It’s one of the finest cutthroat streams in Montana. My wife and I have fished it many times. Lots of old growth larch along the banks.
“We’ll be landing in clearing in a meadow up ahead and handing out box lunches and bear spray. After you finish your lunch, feel free to walk around, but take your bear spray and be back here at 2 o’clock. As we lift off, I’ll tell you a bit more about Kootenai wildfire risks.
Buckled in? We’re lifting off again.
“We’re headed back toward Libby and a couple of Forest Service projects that have been enjoined by a Missoula District Court judge who didn’t think the agency did an adequate job of explaining how its harvest plan would protect grizzly bears and mitigate climate change.
Black Ram spans 95,400 acres and Knotty Pine covers 56,000 acres. Together, about 6.9 percent of the Kootenai.
“Knotty Pine is inside a federally designated wildland urban interface area that holds about 1,600 homes. The risk of wildfire here is in 98th percentile. The only way to reduce this risk is to slowly and deliberately thin it.
“The judge gave the Forest Service two options: address his concerns or appeal to a higher federal court. I don’t know what they will do but I’m certain a canopy fire would destroy most of the area’s 1,600 homes in a matter of hours.
“Before we drop you off at Libby airport, I want to show you some amazing technology that outclasses notoriously inaccurate and often biased predictive forest models still in use. It was developed by Northwest Management, an Idaho firm we know well. It merges Light Detection and Ranging laser pulsing technology with ForestView, a single tree inventory system that Northwest developed.
“If the Kootenai National Forest used this system they could count every tree by height, diameter, species, spacing and volume. Overlaying the Forest Service’s wildfire risk maps would answer most of the judge’s questions, especially those involving carbon sequestration.
“As you depart the helicopter, we have a booklet for you that explains one way to increase the size of the grizzly bear gene pool, habitat and feeding area in the Cabinet-Yaak ecosystem. If you wish, you can fly the area with us next spring.
“Thanks for joining us today. Call or email me anytime. If I don’t know the answer to your question, I’m sure I know someone who does.
Jim Petersen, Founder and President
The non-profit Evergreen Foundation