Groups Blame Forest Service Policy for Mega-Fires

By Beacon Staff

Current forest management policies are causing annual catastrophic fire, and resulting in negative economic, environmental and health effects for Montana residents, according to several former government agency employees and two area citizen groups.

At a public symposium last Sunday at the Flathead County Fairgrounds, about 60 people gathered to hear five presenters – three of them current or former employees of the U.S. Forest Service – speak on topics ranging from the history and policy decisions of the Forest Service to adverse health effects and increased fire intensities. The Flathead Business and Industry Association and the Big Sky Coalition, a group that bills itself as “Environmentalists with Common Sense” and advocates thinning practices on national forest lands to reduce fuels, hosted the presentation.

“Simply continuing to fight these unnatural high intensity fires while ignoring the things that have caused or led up to them is not the way to go,” Sonny LaSalle, executive director of the coalition and a Forest Service retiree, said. “It’s more cost effective to maintain a forest than to continually fight these mega-fires.”

Jack Ward Thomas, a retired Forest Service chief, began the symposium with a detailed history of the Forest Service, describing how political and social changes in the country have led to a muddied purpose for the agency and large decreases in logging. Thomas encouraged people not to “glorify the past” or “continue to pick the scabs of old wounds,” instead advocating communication outside the court system, where the Forest Service is at a financial disadvantage and projects are frequently held up.

Changing climate, drought conditions, a lack of thinning and maintenance in the forests and decreased road access for firefighters have all combined to make it harder to contain wildfires and have led to a fire season that’s 78 days longer on average, two fire management officers said.

“It used to be that 10,000 acres was a really, really big fire and you could work your whole career without ever seeing one top 20,000,” Dave Bunnell, a retired Forest Service fire management officer, said. “Now, 10,000 acres is just a spot fire off something like Chippy Creek that nobody even cares about.”

Longer fire seasons and bigger fires mean adverse health effects for those breathing smoky summer air, including increased heart and respiratory troubles, according to Dr. Mark Jergens from Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital in Hamilton.

The Big Sky Coalition advocates developing industries for alternative green energy sources, including biodiesel and ethanol, for the logging byproducts. “Things may not return to what they were, but we can build a new economy around logging, while reducing large fires.”

The coalition and local business association will host another symposium at the end of the summer.

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