As predictable as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west, some people are again using wildfire season as an excuse for more logging and road building in our national forests.
And just like attempts in years past, such claims ignore the fact that many of the most significant fires threatening homes and communities are burning through heavily logged and roaded landscapes and even grasslands.
The Jocko Lakes fire near Seeley Lake has ripped through Plum Creek Timber Company lands that are among the most heavily logged and roaded in western Montana. Likewise for Montana’s largest wildfire, the Chippy Creek Fire north of Plains, burning on lands managed by Plum Creek, U.S. Forest Service, Montana DNRC and the Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
Furthermore, much of the total acreage burned in the northern Rockies isn’t even forested, such as the 653,000-acre Murphy Complex that earlier this year raced through southwestern Idaho’s sagebrush and grassland country with nary a tree in sight. Clearly more logging would have had zero impact on this, the nation’s largest fire.
It’s also important to recognize that fires are an important part of our fire-dependent ecosystems and with prolonged drought and record-shattering temperatures it didn’t exactly take a genius to see the potential for an active fire season.
Add to this millions of new homes built in the wildland urban interface, the fact that the West’s typical fire season has been extended nearly three months due to global warming and sprinkle in past – and in some cases current – land-management abuses and clearly we have all the ingredients for wildfire’s equivalent of a “perfect storm.”
In fact, as I write in mid-August, it’s amazing to see the success our firefighters have had keeping home losses in Montana remarkably low, and for that we all owe them our gratitude and sincere thanks.
While it’s no secret that national forest logging levels have rightfully decreased since the record high cut levels of the late 1980s – a direct result of the Forest Service and logging industry’s wholly unsustainable practices – the extensive ecological damage caused during the logging frenzy still remains on the landscape, having never been addressed.
For example, here in Montana we have 32,000 miles of roads on our national forests with a regional maintenance backlog of over $1 billion. An estimated 50 percent of riparian areas on national forests require restoration due to logging, road building, grazing, mining, and off-road vehicles and regionally the Forest Service estimates that 85 percent of culverts are currently impassible to fish due to mismanagement.
Fortunately, these problems create a tremendous opportunity. That’s why the WildWest Institute is working with community members, county commissioners and business leaders from Lincoln County to Lemhi County, Idaho, to help craft positive, sustainable solutions that create jobs in the woods restoring watersheds and forests while also protecting our communities from wildfire through careful and strategic fuel reduction projects.
Our efforts don’t end there though. This past year WildWest helped form FireSafe Montana, which serves as a clearinghouse for homeowners seeking information, resources and assistance on community wildfire protection. And for the past two years we have literally rolled up our sleeves and joined forces with the West End Volunteer Fire Department in DeBorgia for successful community wildfire protection workweeks that created defensible space around the homes of elderly members of the community and along key roads in town.
While some people will continue using every wildfire season to perpetuate the “blame game,” I’m confident that working together we can and will create jobs in the woods restoring our forests and watersheds and protecting our communities from wildfire.
Matthew Koehler is executive director of the WildWest Institute. Learn more at www.wildwestinstitute.org
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