North Bridger Forest Health Project: A Timber Sale Scam

The northern end of the Bridger Range is proposed as wilderness by some organizations like the Gallatin Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance. Photo George Wuerthner

I recently visited the North Bridger Timber sale (euphemistically called the North Bridger Forest Health Project)  on the Custer Gallatin NF outside of Bozeman, Montana. Like so many timber sales today, the proposal was justified based on “improving” forest “health” and reducing the chance of “wildfire.”

Amazingly the Forest Service claims that if they don’t log the forest (killing the trees with chain saws), the trees will die from root rot, beetles, and other “calamities” In other words, death by chainsaws is acceptable, but mortality by natural agents is not.

Logs stacked for transportion 115 miles to Sun Mountain Mill in Deer Lodge, Montana. Photo George Wuerthner

Killing trees because they “might” die is analogous to killing people at 40 years old because they “might” die from a heart attack or cancer.

Larger trees are being cut and removed from the forest ecosystem, removing much of the carbon from the site. Photo George Wuerthner 

Most of the trees being cut are larger-diameter individuals. If you were logging for precluding wildfires, you would leave the larger trees since they are the most resistant to wildfire. They are also the most important to wildlife. But they are also the most desirable to the timber industry giving an indication of what the real purpose of the “forest health” project is about. It’s improving the “health” of the timber industry, not the forest.

The problem is that the Forest Service can’t see the forest through the trees. Green trees are desirable to the timber industry, but dead snags from fire or bark beetles are critical to “healthy forest ecosystems.”

Logging reduces the “snag” habitat on a site, and degrades the forest ecosystem. Photo George Wuerthner

Indeed, the snag forests left after a major fire harbors greater biodiversity than almost any forest habitat. After a major fire, there are more fish in streams. More bees. More birds. More fungi. More flowers. More small rodents. More food for elk to grizzlies.

Aspen regrowth response after a fire. It doesn’t require logging to regenerate. Photo George Wuerthner

In typical Forest Service fashion, as they emphasize the need to restrict wildfire while at the same time saying they must log to promote aspen regeneration. Aspen is one species that sprouts after a fire, so the best way to “restore” aspen is to permit wildfires to occur. But this goes against the Forest Service entire “control” mindset. Only chainsaw medicine is allowed to “restore” forests.

Logging leaves behind much fine fuel surface debris which actually promotes fire spread. George Wuerthner

The timber sale includes logging part of a roadless area proposed for wilderness designation and creating “temporary” roads. It will remove carbon from the site and open the area to greater human access displacing wildlife.

Also as I have written in many other places, thinning forest doesn’t preclude fires under extreme fire weather, and all large fires are burning under such conditions.  Climate warming is driving large blazes, not fuels.

Worse for the public is that the North Bridger Timber sale is nothing more than an effort to subsidize and channel public forests to the private timber industry, while the taxpayer foots the bill.

Several groups sued unsuccessfully to stop this sale, including the Alliance for Wild Rockies, Native Ecosystems, Cottonwood Law Firm, and Gallatin Wildlife Association as an amicus supporter. But since the Forest Service did almost no environmental review of impacts, it instead used the dubious “categorical exclusion” to avoid public scrutiny.  Cottonwood Law Firm is arguing the case is before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal.

Deforestation paid for by taxpayers  and with the approval of “green” groups. George Wuerthner 

This timber sale, like many in Montana, is supported by so-called conservation organizations. For example, the North Bridger “deforestation sale” is endorsed by  Custer Gallatin Working group which includes the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, The Wilderness Society, and Winter Wildlands. (Note I tried to contact all three groups for comment but received no response when I was finishing this piece).

You would think these groups would want greater accountability from the Forest Service, and oppose money losing and destructive timber sales. One wonders if the people who work for these groups lack in-depth ecological understanding, or maybe they lack ethics. I like to think they are basically good folks who simply do not understand ecology enough to ask the right questions or demand better responses from the agencies. At the very least, they could remain neutral and not be giving their tacit approval to forest destruction.

Whatever the reason, supporting what is ostensibly a commercial timber operation that destroys forest ecosystems is disingenuous at best. I imagine most people contributing their hard-earned dollars to these organizations think they are acting in an honorable manner.

What we need are people who speak for the forest, not the forest industry. Sadly most of the larger conservation groups in Montana have lost their way, and see their mission as collaboration rather than ecosystem protection.



  1. cynthia brown Avatar

    This type of logging is destroying the eniroment and well
    as removing carbon didxiode fr om the land an we don’t need that. The trees that should be left are being destroyed because they are large and remove carbon dixole
    from the air that we breathe

  2. Linda Avatar

    There’s a lot of science backing up the fact that trees communicate with each other in a forest. I can only imagine what they would say when they see their neighbors getting killed. I wish there were more tree advocates to lobby against all this destruction. Yet we are all complicit when we buy wooden products like tables and chairs. Lumber to build houses and hard wood floors. I wish we were better at making the connections between dead tree=new wooden table like many connect dead, suffering cow=hamburger. We are such a destructive species.

  3. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    “The timber sale includes logging part of a roadless area proposed for wilderness designation and creating “temporary” roads. It will remove carbon from the site and open the area to greater human access displacing wildlife.”

    Forest health project? Deliberate fraud, self-deception, or both? 🙁

  4. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    I’m really concerned as well about how the 30 x 30 Wilderness plan is being twisted and circumvented to suit human activities too, it’s shocking.

  5. Monica Siegel Avatar
    Monica Siegel

    Yes logging should be stopped. The purpose for what they saying because is might be disease. That is not true . we are detroying nature and Wildlife it so 😥. Where in all this is justice.

  6. Susan Avatar

    If fire resistance is the goal, mimic an intact ecosystem. Logging destroys countless species besides the tree trophies that are removed for profit. The result is disaster for the environment.

  7. Nancy Ostlie Avatar
    Nancy Ostlie

    What a travesty that we are losing old growth trees for timber company revenue, when best available science clearly indicates we need to save them for biodiversity. See also Chad Hanson’s new book “Smokescreen.”

  8. Beeline Avatar

    Trees are still considered to be a ‘resource’ by the governmental/corporate complex which means that in the current economic system they are not worth anything until they are cut down and pushed into the chain of production.

    There is little significant consideration for the CO2 captured, oxygen produced or soil held in place in our economic system. Pretty stupid since oxygen is required for life on the planet. The whole system is riddled with hypocrisy, pseudo science and inequity but the government continues to subsidize it which is a rather insane path to follow. A path to inevitable breakdown which we are now experiencing.

    So do we let the desert builders win or do we kick them in their political butts?

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      Kick. I just read the piece about the continued destruction of sagebrush too.

  9. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    I agree with Ida – Kick!!


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