The Bitterroot Mountains rise up above the Bitterroot Valley in western Montana. Photo George Wuerthner 

Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest is proposing the Bitterroot Front Project (BFP), encompassing 144,000 acres. This action will impact an area more than four times the size of the 34,000-acre Rattlesnake Wilderness north of Missoula.

The Bitterroot Front Project will impact 144,000 acres in the foothills of the Bitterroot Mountains. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Bitterroot Front Project (BFP), the agency says, will promote “forest restoration” and reduce tree mortality from disease, insects, and fires. The way to accomplish this is through chainsaw medicine. Unfortunately, the proposal is based upon flawed assumptions and misguided policies.

Here’s a link to a video produced by the Forest Service to rationalize more logging. The video promotes a lot of misinformation about wildfire. In this video it  claims today’s forests are much denser than historic conditions due to fire suppression and other factors. However, that view is challenged by some scientists arguing that the methods used to deduct forest density are flawed.

Sprawl into the Bitterroot Foothills is driving the Forest Service logging proposals. Photo George Wuerthner 

The agency implies fewer trees are killed in areas with substantial logging, but it never counts the trees it kills with chainsaws. Recent studies suggest that more total trees are destroyed by thinning and fire than from fires alone if you include all the trees removed by chainsaw medicine.

Removal of these trees has substantial impacts on carbon storage and wildlife habitat and does not effectively preclude large blazes under extreme fire weather. Clearcuts within the Jocko Lake Fire by Seeley Lake. Photo George Wuerthner 

The snags resulting from a large blaze store carbon for decades, not to mention the charcoal in the soil, and roots, all of which also store carbon. There are still snags from the 1910 Great Burn surviving and storing carbon more than a hundred years after this 3.5 million acre blaze.

By contrast, logging and wood processing releases carbon immediately (i.e., climate-warming gases) into the atmosphere. Logging releases three times the carbon as a wildfire on a per-acre basis and ten times the carbon of wildfire and insects combined. By contrast, wildfires release a relatively small amount of carbon.

For instance, in Oregon, the most significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the state is the result of logging.

When the agency claims it will reduce wildfire by logging, it’s ignoring the best science that shows that active forest management INCREASES fire spread under extreme fire weather conditions. Another study  “found forests with higher levels of protection had lower severity values even though they are generally identified as having the highest overall levels of biomass and fuel loading.” In other words, logging forests actually promotes severe wildfires.

Here is “active forest management” near Darby, Montana that failed to halt the Rye Creek Fire. Photo George Wuerthner 

Why? Because when you open the forest through logging, it often promotes the regrowth of grasses, shrubs, and other fine fuels that sustain blazes. The lack of shade permits fine fuels to dry out, making them easy to ignite. Also, the open forest allows more wind penetration which favors fire spread.

The wind is the primary factor in fire spread, with 90% of the burning occurring during periods of high winds. And wind’s ability to spread and enhance fire spread is not linear; instead, it is exponential. In other words, a 20 mile an hour wind doesn’t just double fire spread over a 10-mile breeze but quadruples it. So you can imagine what a 50-60 mph wind can do.

Logging failed to preclude a high severity fire here along Rye Creek near Darby, Montana. The black stumps indicate trees removed “PRIOR” to the fire. Photo George Wuerthner 

Without wind, you don’t get much fire advance. But with wind, embers are tossed often a mile or more ahead of the fire front, starting new ignition zones. Lofting of embers by wind is why thinning, logging, and other “active forest management” fails to halt significant blazes.

Map of California’s Dixie Fire which charred nearly 1 million acres in 2021 overlain by past “active forest management” colored orange showing that extensive thinning and logging did not preclude the Dixie Fire’s spread, and may have exacerbated fire spread. Map Bryant Baker. 

For instance, both the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly a million acres, and the 400,000 acres plus Bootleg Blaze in Oregon raced through forests where as much as 75% of the land had been “treated” with active forest management—i.e., chainsaw medicine.

The effectiveness of prescribed burning is greatly exaggerated. During extreme fire weather, winds drive blazes over, around and through forests. Photo George Wuerthner 

Even prescribed burning is relatively ineffective when confronted by a wildfire driven by extreme fire weather. One critique characterized prescribed burning effectiveness as a watering can that pretends to be a river.

Here is a stand of ponderosa pine that was swept by a blaze in 2021. Note how savanna-like the forest stand is with widely spread trees, with a tree density that is less than most “thinning” projects. Photo George Wuerthner 

Furthermore, the FS implies that high severity fires where most trees are killed are somehow undesirable. Yet, more wildlife species are dependent on the snag forests that result from these blazes than the low-severity ignitions they suggest are desirable.

The snag forests resulting from high severity blazes are important wildlife habitat for numerous plants and animals. Photo George Wuerthner

However, many plants and animals live in the “fear” of green forests.

The snag forests that result from high severity blazes will have more bees, more butterflies, more fungi, more birds, more flowers, more fish, more bats, and more food for large animals like elk and deer. Some studies suggest the second-highest biodiversity found in a forest ecosystem is the snag forests resulting from high severity burns.

Flowers, along with insects, often increase after a wildfire. Photo George Wuerthner

That is why chainsaw medicine degrades rather than ‘restores” forest ecosystems. The problem with most Forest Service employees is they cannot see the forest (ecosystem) through the trees. Dead trees are critical to a healthy forest ecosystem. Ironically, dead trees are also less likely to support a major high severity fire.

The dried up bed of “Lake Powell” Utah photographed in March 2022. We are in the midst of the more severe drought in 1200 years. Photo George Wuerthner 

We are now amid the worse drought conditions in 1200 years. Does anyone think this isn’t the major factor driving large blazes? The idea that you can “restore” the forest to its “historic” condition is delusional. Those historic conditions do not exist anymore.

The warming climate is creating conditions that favor large blazes. I can guarantee if, by some luck, the climate were to suddenly return to another Little Ice Age, we would see few fires, no matter how much “fuel” (I call it wildlife habitat) was found in the Bitterroot forests.

The way to protect homes is not to treat the forest, but to treat the area immediately around the home. Photo George Wuerthner

To protect homes, start at the house and work outwards. Reduce the flammability of the home ignition zone. A recent study concluded that “Home ignition zone treatments provided the best predicted economic and performance outcomes per area treated.” Treating the forest more than a hundred feet from homes provides no additional benefit and only degrades our forest ecosystems.

In promoting chainsaw medicine, the Forest Service is like the old-time Snake Oil salesman who promoted magical elixirs to cure all ailments. Chainsaw medicine is today’s snake oil. Don’t buy it.

Fixed! Here is a Forest Service link for your comment.

About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

8 Responses to Montana’s Bitterroot Front Project More FS Snake Oil

  1. Laurie says:

    Aren’t we so fed up with these various government agencies that exist for (nearly) the sole purpose to support Big Logging, Big Oil, Big Ag, Big Chemicals, Big Trophy Hunting, etc! These agencies are infested with those special interests in their higher management positions. It is truly shameful and disgusting.

    • Chris Zinda says:

      This is core, an issue I wish GW would tackle more. The problem with our agencies is one of Public Administration, an entire field of work, and such in academia should find it ripe regarding public lands and their administration.

      Unfortunately, not many academics or “professional environmentalists” do; and, fewer have any government experience at all if they did. Therefore, they don’t know many questions to ask, develop hypothesis given to them by agencies themselves.

      As a poli-sci guy, Maughan should be able to appreciate this. My background is ed background both poli-sci and Public Admin and I and my spouse worked for agencies. I’ve often thought of docteral work in this area, but at 58 and no longer possessing efficacy, I prefer my garden.

      GW did a piece a year ago or so on State Colleges vs Universities. The indoctrination in each is a big part of the problem with agencies today.

      Another is burnout and cooptation, hostile places to the application of both law and science, anyone not adapting easily and quickly eliminated, anyone moral or ethical eliminating themselves from public service.

      I encourage GW to do more on how to reform our public land management agencies from the inside out.

  2. David says:

    Perhaps you could include some sort of action the reader could take to respond to your description of a particular problem in a particular region. For example, providing information on how to communicate to a specific U.S. Forest Service, BLM, or Park Service official.
    Thanks for all you do.

  3. Rich says:

    I posted this earlier on this site but it is worth repeating here. This is new research on the Oregon fires last year that again confirm What George has been writing for some time.

    https://www.pdx.edu/news/factors-including-extreme-winds-topography-and-vegetation-influenced-severity-burns-oregons

    “90% of the burning occurred during high winds,” said Dr. Cody Every, a Research Associate in the Department of Environmental Science and Management at Portland State and the study’s lead author.

  4. Rosemary Lowe says:

    Another disgusting example of the FS’s idea of “saving a forest.” Just as here in NM: the FS is pushing more “controlled burns” (currently several, out of “control”) burning thousands of precious forest, wildlife habitat. The real reason for this? Salvage Logging.

    Thanks for the excellent comments & for the photos! As Laurie says:” the sole purpose: to support Big Logging, Big Oil, Big Ag, Big Chemicals, Big Trophy Hunting…” It is, indeed, shameful.

  5. Deane Rimerman says:

    Thanks for your persistence George…

    So often foresters look at a regrowing forest decades after a clearcut and claim its ugly and unhealthy. Truth is the original clearcut is the true source of what’s ugly and unhealthy and their desire to “fix it” is much like a little kid who can’t stop picking at a scab, which can lead to a life long scar instead of recovery to healthy skin.

    But as always, the amount of time it takes grow a crop of forest to harvest takes so long, that there’s no feedback or basic accountability that farmers who harvest annually are strictly bound to. I wrote about this on a new website I’m working on: https://rfpf.org/2022/04/22/tree-farms-vs-crop-farms/

  6. Ralph Maughan says:

    I certainly agree, Deane.
    Other groups too like to use words from farming to justify their practices. Any agency or company in charge of growing something are prone to use farming metaphors, especially “harvest.”
    Even those where it should be clear there is no growing going on sometimes use these words like when a mining outfit might say “we are just harvesting the minerals the good Lord laid down for us.”

  7. Ida Lupine says:

    A bit off topic, but I couldn’t resist sharing. Wildlife report:

    We were out early this morning, driving in our neighborhood really, two lane road, when I happened to see something in the road up ahead, carrion maybe? Well guess who swooped in and picked it up? A bald eagle!!!

    Right in front of our car, but a safe enough distance away. Couldn’t believe our eyes!

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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