Custer Gallatin NF Kirk Hill Project Another Boondoggle

The open canopy of this logging operation on Kirk will promote fire spread by enhancing wind penetration. Photo George Wuerthner 


I recently visited the Kirk Hill area in the Gallatin Range on the Custer Gallatin NF (CGNF) south of Bozeman. The CGNF had “thinned” the site as a fire prevention measure.

What the Kirk Hill site looked like before logging. Note the few “orange marked leave trees”. All other trees in this photo were removed by logging. Photo Nancy Schutlz 

The Forest Service seldom does commercial logging operations anymore. Instead, they term such tree removal “vegetative manipulation .” Yet what I saw looked more akin to a clearcut.

In many cases, the FS logged out the largest trees leaving behind much smaller less fire resistant trees as seen in the back of the image. Photo George Wuerthner

As I wandered through the cutting units, I saw that in many, many cases, the largest trees were removed, leaving behind the smaller trees. Logging the biggest trees is what “pays” for the project, we are told. But all such timber sales are money losers for taxpayers. Plus, the largest trees are also the most resistant to fires, which is how the project was justified.

The Forest Service and timber industry took the big trees, leaving much smaller, but less commercially valuable trees on the site–a big subsidy to the industry financed by US taxpayers i.e. you and me. Photo George Wuerthner

Worse for the effort to preclude fires, if that were your goal, opening up the forest canopy allows fine fuels like grass, needles, and small trees (which drive fires) to dry out quickly. It also permits the penetration of wind, which is the primary factor in fire spread. Large boles of trees like the ones removed do not burn readily, so you get snags after a significant fire.

This is a “sanitized forest” with no ground cover, no small trees, no snags –all of which are critical for a healthy forest ecosystem. Photo George Wuerthner

In addition to the enhancement of fire spread, the logging operation created several new roads known as pathways for the spread of weeds.

Colateral damage from logging roads includes its role as a major pathway for the spread of weeds. Roads also cut the subsurface water flow which funnels water on to roads increasing erosion. Photo George Wuerthner

And ironically, far more wildfires are started on or near roads than in roadless areas. So by building more miles of road, the CGNF is increasing the potential for a fire on the outskirts of Bozeman.

Logging roads also funnel wind, and thus enhance the spread of fires along the road margins.

Access along logging roads increases the occurrence of human-ignitions. Not surprisingly, more fires start on or near such roads. Photo George Wuerthner

The logging operation even cut the forest all around a pre-existing hiking trail, so now people can wander at their leisure through a clear-cut forest.

A hiking trail that now wanders through a logging project. Photo George Wuerthner 

Other negatives associated with the logging operation are the displacement of sensitive wildlife, the loss of dead trees (which is wildlife habitat), and carbon removal.

Tree removal substantionly reducs the carbon storage on the site. Photo George Wuerthner 

Recent studies show that if you count the trees killed by logging operations and any future fire, far more trees are ultimately killed than if you had not done any “vegetation manipulation.”

The reason the CGNF feels logging is necessary is due to climate change. Warming temperatures enhance the conditions that favor fires, including extreme drought, high temperatures, and higher winds. Yet logging and processing of wood contribute more carbon to the atmosphere than wildfires. In Oregon, for instance, a recent study found that wildfires contributed about 4% of the annual carbon emissions in the state, but the timber industry contributed 35%. Thus, the CGNF, by logging the Kirk Hill (and other areas), is contributing to greater global warming.

A slash pile the FS will burn, guarantting the release of carbon into the atmosphere, while the probility that a fire will actually encounter this logged area is remote-often less than 1%. The natural fire rotation in this area is often 50-100 years. So we get the carbon now when we need to preclude emissions when leaving the forest alone might store the carbon for decades. Photo George Wuerthner 

If the United States were serious about climate change, it would immediately halt all logging on the national forests and set aside all these forests as carbon reserves. Such a move would significantly reduce America’s global carbon contribution.

The FS logging juggernaut is driven by misinformation and old-fashioned ideas about fire prevention.

A wildfire will leave behind snags, down logs, and other structural component that are part of the biological legacy of the forest–logging removes them all. Photo George Wuerthner

Of course, even though the agency grudgingly acknowledges that wildfires are essential for healthy forest ecosystems, they still spend most of their staff and funding to preclude fires.

Forests are not “adapted” to chainsaw medicine. Logging mortality is unnatural.  It does not select the same trees for mortality as natural processes like wildfire, beetles, disease, wind-thrown, drought or other disturbance factors. Photo George Wuerthner 

Logging does not create “healthy forest ecosystems.” Natural mortality factors like bark beetles and wildfire leave behind a biological legacy in the form of down logs and snags. These physical features are critical to healthy forest ecosystems.

It’s time for the Forest Service to look beyond the trees and manage functioning forest ecosystems.


  1. Michael Kellett Avatar

    We need to expand Yellowstone National Park to include the Gallatin Range. This would end this kind of destructive logging projects. It would also phase out livestock grazing, protect wolves, grizzlies, wolverines, and other wildlife from trophy hunting and trapping, expand habitat where bison can roam without being slaughtered, avoid artificial wildlife “management” (i.e., logging) projects, and designate all roadless areas as wilderness to prevent the incursion of mountain bikes into roadless areas.

  2. John Shellenberger Avatar

    How sad. These photos should be sent to Montana’s Senators and Congressional Representative to show how much “improvement” means. It’s a travesty and shouldn’t happen again.

  3. Dave Nielsen Avatar
    Dave Nielsen

    G.W.: Remember, the Magpie is a magnificent wild bird!!!

  4. Deane Rimerman Avatar

    Hi George, huge supporter and sharer of all your writings! So grateful for how ever-present and consistent you’ve been at speaking the truth ever since I first started reading you in early 1990’s.

    I’m hoping we’ll have an opportunity to work together someday?

    I’m in Western Washington and currently working on a pilot project to demonstrate that with nothing more than a wheelbarrow size wood chipper, hand saw, climb gear and a pole pruner that you can create all the basic benefits a thinned forest provided without killing trees, just by branch pruning around areas where there has been natural windfall.

    Also started a multi-decade effort to write a textbook for forestry schools about all the reasons it’s good NOT to cut down trees because status quo forestry of today is the exact opposite of that:

    Get in touch and we’ll post anything you have to offer!

  5. Mike Higgins Avatar
    Mike Higgins

    This sucks! After 35+ years of trying to prevent this type of boondoggle, to see it continue is seriously sickening. How can we stop it???


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