Bitterroot National Forest Timber Sale Trojan Horse

The proposed Darby Lumber Timber Sale Phase Two on the Bitterroot National Forest is a Trojan Horse being implemented under the guise of  “forest health” based on numerous false assumptions. The proposal displays the Forest Service’s Industrial Forestry bias and its subterfuge of science.

The timber sale is being litigated by the Friends of the Bitterroot, in part, because the proposed logging will increase logging road densities above the Forest’s own elk security cover limits.

The public no longer gives the agency a “social license” to simply give away public logs to private timber companies like Pyramid Lumber in Seeley Lake at a loss to taxpayers, so both the Forest Service and the owners of lumber mills have to come up with another excuse for logging.  They now disguise the purpose of logging by suggesting the cutting of trees will “improve” forest health.

A complete ecological accounting would demonstrate that logging always impoverishes the forest ecosystem. It’s just the agency ignores most of the real ecological costs and exaggerates the public benefits.

The FS asserts that the forest is “unhealthy” and at risk of death from wildfires and bark beetles. That is like saying that an elk herd is unhealthy because wolves kill some of the animals. Bark beetles are “keystone” species that research demonstrates increases biodiversity in the forest. Similarly, wildfires are among the most important natural processes creating and enhancing wildlife habitat in our forests.

Live trees, particularly in a drought when fires occur, are more incendiary than dead trees because they have the fine fuels of flammable, resin-packed needles and branches, which are what burns in a blaze.  That is why most wildfires occur in green forests and also why you have snags after a fire-the main tree bole typically does not burn well.

This is not hidden science.

For instance, when I Google bark beetles and wildfire, the very first article that comes up says: “ We review the literature on the efficacy of silvicultural practices to control outbreaks and on fire risk following bark beetle outbreaks in several forest types… to date, most available evidence indicates that bark beetle outbreaks do not substantially increase wildfires ..”

The second Google article listed says: “Another new study published by the Ecological Society of America titled “Does wildfire likelihood increase following insect outbreaks in conifer forests?” by Garrett Meigs and co-authors conclude that bark beetle outbreaks do not lead to greater likelihood of fires.”

In addition, even more, research shows that high-severity blazes typically occur under extreme fire weather, where research again suggests, logging and other “vegetation treatments” like prescribed burning are ineffective at halting wind-driven fires.

The Forest Service displays its Industrial Forestry bias when it asserts that some trees are “slow” growing and that logging will increase “vigor.”  Ecologically speaking, slow-growing trees have denser wood, which means they rot slower, and last long after they die. This means they function longer in the forest ecosystem providing wildlife habitat, storing carbon and providing the slow release of nutrients into soils. Thus slow-growing trees are more valuable to “healthy” forest ecosystem.

Many plants and animals live in mortal fear of green forests. Dead trees are essential habitat for many species of wildlife. Some 45% of birds use down wood or snags at some point in their lives. A recent study by Dick Hutto at the U of Montana found that many bird species occur at higher densities and numbers in severity burnt forests.

When snags fall into streams, they create important aquatic habitat for insects and fish. Down wood hides small mammals and amphibians, is home to insects like native bees that are important pollinators and sustain nutrient and carbon storage. Removal of trees also can reduce hiding and thermal cover for elk. Logging disturbance contributes to the spread of weeds and loss of genetic diversity in forest stands.

Logging roads, even “temporary” roads provide increased access for ORVs and dirt bikes, further decreasing wildlife security. And the FS does not “restore” road contours or road lens which results in increased soil erosion, clogging streams with more sediment.

Logging destroys all of these important attributes and much more, hence impoverishes the forest.

Pyramid Lumber’s Gordy Sanders believes the lawsuit is an examples of “how the courts are being used to not manage our forests.” Apparently, Sanders thinks it’s OK for the Forest Service to violate the law and ecological science if it sends more publicly subsidized logs to his mill.

Instead of hiding behind the false assertion that they are improving forest health, the agency would be far more honest if it merely said it was going to cut trees to appease uninformed politician demands, as well as subsidize local timber mill owner bank accounts. Of course, the public might not support logging forests just to enrich timber mill owners and their shareholders, especially at the expense of the forest ecosystem.


  1. Frank Robey Avatar
    Frank Robey

    Thank you George for another great article showing how the US DeForest Service likes to tromp all over science in their urgency to log, log, log.

  2. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    We should have a national law that would compel government land managing agencies to report the changes in ‘Net Primary Productivity’ of vegetation every year. This would establish trend data to show what was really happening to forest and range lands in pounds per acre. Pounds per acre is something that most people could understand. Then we would know if the management of public lands was contributing to less productivity or more. And more carbon storage or not.

    Basic ecological common sense ( a rare commodity these days) dictates that enough organic matter must be left behind to recharge the soil. Grazing Example: In annual grass land about 500 pounds per acre of mulch should be left behind to recharge and hold the soil in place. This amount of organic matter left for the care of the soil will produce next years standing crop of around 2000 lbs/acre. It has been my experience that around 80% of ranchers consider leaving mulch behind a waste of forage. So they graze it down to 100lbs/acre which is essentially shooting themselves in the “hoof” because the land will then only produce around 500-600 lbs/acre if that. The same principle applies to forest lands but the numbers would be much different of course.

    To make matters worse herbicides are used to stop competition between ‘non-economic’ species of plants and the few species that have ‘economic’ value in the current capitalistic system. Nutrients do not build up. The vegetative complex comes closer to a disease prone mono-culture and productivity is lost. And most everything above the primary production level in the food web suffers. It is a no win situation.

  3. Cynthia Muscat Avatar
    Cynthia Muscat

    It isn’t only federal lands. I live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. There is a private logging company making a horrible mess of my area. He is asking property owners to let him log their private properties. He clear cutting s leaving approximately 4 feet of tree. This is while city of Gig Harbor gave permits to chop down miles of trees for development of housing. The bats are gone. There were 100s now I don’t see them. You could hear frogs in the spring time. Breaking my heart.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      I hate hearing these things. Depriving people of their right to the benefits of nature (as well as other creatures) ought to be an actionable crime. People in generations to come won’t know what they have missed, like many today, which further worsens the problem. 🙁

      1. Ida Lupine Avatar
        Ida Lupine

        ^^sorry, hearing about these things, logging, endless development, cutting down trees. Love hearing the frogs and look forward to it in spring. 🙂

  4. Mike Sandford Avatar
    Mike Sandford

    Cutting wood for local use is an ancient industry that will always be necessary. Regulations are in place to protect the next generation on public forests. Litigating the sales is a poor way to help the forest. The cycle of life includes death by one way or another. Most local people would like to see wood used in society rather than wasted

  5. Kelly Hockema Avatar

    Hmmmmm… So, how does the author propropose the Forest Service survive without revenue from timber sales? The local school districts and county Rd department’s also receive a cut, 25% of gross scale. Question; should (our) forests be managed? As far as industrial forest comparison? Check out what has happened since “spotty” was listed as endangered! Weyerhauser, Plum Creek, and all the big boys have went to 30-40 yr rotations on their regenerative cut. Mass clear-cuts west of the rockies and the small guy, sawmill, logger, trucker, Rd builder die on the vine. The USFS used to sell to small business, (small business set a sides) to enhance rural community’s wealth & lifestyle. Look at current timber inventory’s and tell me their is no room for responsible harvest.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner