I have been an environmentalist for over 40 years. As a natural resource professional, a primary goal has been to reconcile human uses of these resources with ecosystem protection. But, to be blunt, I have sometimes found the agendas of many self-identified environmentalists and environmental groups to be simplistic and often counter-productive. A case in point is the Alliance for the Wild Rockies’ (AWR) lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service to stop the Mission Project.
There are two types of error. One is doing the wrong thing. The other is failing to do the right thing. The first applies to past management of our forests. Fire suppression and historic logging practices have created terrible forest health problems and drastically altered fire behavior.
Our ponderosa forests are fire-dependent ecosystems. Historically, frequent low-intensity fires killed many seedlings and saplings and prevented the over-accumulation of fuels. This maintained the iconic “open and park-like” stands of old-growth ponderosa we see in historic photos.
Fire suppression greatly disrupts fire-dependent forests, allowing excessive fuel accumulation and far too many young trees to establish. Where once there were 15-25 mature trees per acre, there are now commonly several hundred stressed and stunted trees. The diverse ground-covering vegetation that provided wildlife forage is gone — long since shaded out. Streams that formerly flowed year-round are dry or a mere trickle in summer. When fire occurs, it can develop extreme behavior that kills entire forest stands and — as we know — threatens our community. The aftermath includes scorched, erosive soils that, on steep slopes, are prone to landslides. These often develop into destructive debris flows that scour canyons, wash out roads and houses, inundate floodplains and deliver massive quantities of sediment into stream systems.
This brings us to the second type of error: failing to do the right thing. It seems the goal of the opponents of the Mission Project is to enforce a hands-off management approach. That would be a terrible mistake. For existing overstocked forest stands, there is no natural pathway back to healthy ecosystem conditions. Without removal of excess trees and fuel, catastrophic wildfire will continue to destroy our forests and threaten our community.
I started my career as a forest hydrologist late in the battle between environmentalists and the timber industry over the remaining old growth forests.
At that time, the Forest Service was driven by timber industry interests. Collectively, we knew them as the Timber Beast. However, the Forest Service has undergone cultural and generational change. Their approach to land management has evolved. Plans are developed by capable, dedicated staff representing multiple disciplines and seeking good ecosystem outcomes. A good example is the recent work done in the Cub Creek drainage. Go look. We should give them credit for being good at their jobs.
The AWR lawsuit trots out the usual boilerplate arguments: the Mission Project will damage soils, increase sedimentation and raise water temperatures in streams, affect deer, wolf, lynx, wolverine, spotted owl and grizzly habitat. These points generally don’t hold up to scrutiny. AWR’s claim that the plan is not scientifically-based is simply false. The plan utilizes best available science. Furthermore, the project is supported by the Wilderness Society and the Nature Conservancy, who recognize the importance of restoring fire resilience to our forests.
Interestingly, the AWR argues that the Forest Service should consider the cumulative impacts from recent wildfires. They don’t, however, show interest in the risks to fish and wildlife posed by doing nothing (the “No Action” alternative). Realistically, extreme fire is the greatest risk to habitat and ecosystems, while forest thinning treatments have great potential to improve wildlife habitat.
The Mission Project is not perfect. As pointed out by the AWR, the Forest Service should commit to funding the proposed restoration and mitigation elements. That they cannot do so reflects decisions made far from here. This shortcoming should not prevent work to return forests to a fire-resilient condition.
And finally, there is the climate emergency. Forest fires are a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions. Conversely, an acre of healthy ponderosa forest removes about 4 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, annually. The 20-ton-per-year carbon footprint of the average American is offset by 5 acres of forest. With over 800,000 forested acres in the Methow watershed, managing these lands for health and fire resilience is the single most important local action to prevent climate collapse. It is time to stop fighting the timber wars of the 1990s. The “do nothing” approach is truly a formula for future catastrophes.
Gina McCoy, P.E., is a hydrologist and fluvial engineer living in Winthrop. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.