South Plateau Timber Sale-Another Hack Job By Chainsaw Medicine

Typical pole size of trees in the South Plateau “treatment” area. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Custer Gallatin National Forest (CGNF) proposal to log the South Plateau area bordering Yellowstone National Park near West Yellowstone is another example of the Forest Service’s quack chainsaw medicine policies.

The CGNF says the goal of the logging is to 1- to decrease insect and disease infestation; 2- to do commercial harvest, and 3- to reduce fuels in the WUI or Fuels Priority Area.


The Forest Service is selling “snake oil.” 

The CGNF is like the old-time snake oil salesman selling a magic elixir—chainsaw medicine—that will cure the forest of perceived future ills. If they were practicing medicine we would sue them for malpractice.

Down logs and snags are critical to healthy forest ecosystems seen here in Yellowstone NP, but mortality from anything other than chainsaws is an anthema to the Forest Service . Dead trees are critical habitat for numerous plants and animals, plus provide long term carbon storage. Photo George Wuerthner

The fact that the agency sees insects and disease as a reason for “treatment” demonstrates its own ignorance of the forest ecosystem. Dead trees and snags are critical to healthy forest ecosystems. Some studies show that more species depend on dead trees than live trees. So how does killing and removing trees “improve” forest health?

The Forest Service uses euphemisms to deflect concern about what they are proposing. They call the timber sale “vegetation management and for “treatment” of up to 5,551 acres with “tools” like clearcutting—read logging. Another 9,107 acres would be “treated” by thinning (read logging).

Treatment means killing the trees. The use of the word “treatment” is no accident. The FS is suggesting the forest is “sick” and needs chainsaw medicine, or God forbid, it might die from insects (bark beetles), disease (mistletoe) or wildfire.

To permit natural evolutionary mortality to occur is not acceptable to an agency that sees itself as a handmaiden to the timber industry.

The Forest Service will add  56 miles of new roads to already dense road network seen above. Roads not only fragment habitat, but they actually enhance fire spread with the fine fuelds growing along the edges, not to mention that these open areas dry out soooner and act as wind tunnels. Photo George Wuerthner 

The entire “treatment area” is nearly 40,000 acres which will be fragmented by numerous clearcuts and more than 56 miles of roads in an area that is an important corridor connecting Yellowstone to roadless lands further west.

The additional roads and open forests will likely harm grizzly bears as well as other wildlife. Photo George Wuerthner 

Overall, 16,400 acres will be logged. To put this into perspective a football field is about an acre.

The logic of the agency goes something like this. The lodgepole pine trees that dominate the area are reaching an age where they “may” be susceptible to say, bark beetles, so they intend to “increase” forest health by randomly killing the trees with chainsaws.

South Plateau forest that the agency suggests “needs to be treated” to be healthy. Photo George Wuerthner 

Worse for our forest ecosystems, the Forest Service has no idea which trees have a genetic resistance to beetles, mistletoe, drought, and even wildfire. Its wholesale slaughter of the forest doesn’t leave much room for such considerations.

Using the FS logic, we should line up all the people over 50 years of age and shoot them, so we can “improve” the health of the local population who “may” die from cancer or heart attacks.

Furthermore, numerous studies have demonstrated that under extreme fire conditions (which are the only conditions where you get uncontrollable fires), thinning and logging increases the likelihood of fire spread.

We have many examples in Montana where the forests were treated with chainsaw medicine, including the Bitterroot Complex, Jocko Lakes Fire, Rice Ridge, and many others that have charred hundreds of thousands of acres and burned anyway when climate/weather conditions favored large blazes.

Area which Darby Lumber had logged prior to the Bitterroot Complex fires. Logging did nothing to halt fire spread, and in fact may have enhanced it. Photo George Wuerthner 

By contrast, between 1972 and 1987, Yellowstone National Park allowed 235 backcountry fires to burn without suppression. Of these fires, 222 burned less than a few acres, and all fires self-extinguished. Then in 1988, half of the park burned in a single season.

Wind-driven flames during the 1988 fires in Yellowstone. It was climate/weather, not fuels that drove the 1988 blazes. Photo George Wuerthner 

So, what was different? Was there more fuel in 1988 than in 1987 or 1986? No. The only difference was the weather. In 1988 the Park suffered the worst drought in its history combined with some windy days with low humidity and high temperatures which enabled the fire to spread rapidly across the landscape.


Previously thinned and clearcut area charred by the Dixie Fire which was the largest blaze in California in 2021. Much of the landscape charred had been previously logged or thinned. Note the blackened stumps in the foreground which indicates they had been logged prior to the blaze. Photo George Wuerthner 

It is weather, not fuels, that drive large blazes, an inconvenient truth that the agency continues to ignore because it won’t support its hack forest treatment policies.

Among the other incongruent ideas espoused by the agency is agencies’ definition of “wildlands urban interface,” which includes just about the entire Gallatin County.  Defining an area as WUI means the agency can avoid many environmental regulations and analyses.

Where wildfire near Lake Tahoe burned homes to the ground while green trees survived. The area adjacent to these burned structures had been “thinned” just six months before. What needs “treatment” is the home ignition zone, not the forest ecosystem. Photo George Wuerthner 

Of course, many scientists, including some of the Forest Service’s researchers, have concluded that logging more than 100 feet from home provides no extra protection against fire. However, the agency ignores these studies to justify logging.

All the agency is demonstrating is that it’s not interested in science or what is best for our forests but rather what is best for the timber industry. Chainsaw medicine is a quack medical procedure like bleeding a person to get rid of bad blood. The FS can do better and should.



  1. Jeff Lonn Avatar
    Jeff Lonn

    “Forest health”, “treatment”, “prescription”–the Forest Service acts like they are doctors who are going to fix the sick forest. If they were doctors, they would be quickly sued for malpractice. And how did the forest get sick? It must have been under their care.

  2. Michael Kellett Avatar
    Michael Kellett

    We need to add surrounding national forest lands to Yellowstone National Park. This would end destructive logging and livestock grazing, prohibit hunting of wolves, grizzlies, bison, and other keystone species, and phase out most of the logging road system which is causing road kill of numerous wildlife species.

    1. Jeff Lonn Avatar
      Jeff Lonn

      Good idea except that logging is now going on in national parks, Yosemite and Lassen NPs for example. Of course the trees are a lot bigger (more profitable)there.

  3. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    I truly cannot believe that logging is being allowed now in the National Parks!

  4. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    I should add, when they talk about using ‘the best available science’ to make these decisions, that’s when I start to hear alarm bells. The science they use is convenient to them.

    It’s like the plan for offshore wind in the Northeast, how they are going to use the ‘best available science’ to protect the population of 340 right whales (and dropping) and threatening all other marine life, all the while having the perfect utopian answer to all our energy problems and climate change.

  5. Mike Higgins Avatar
    Mike Higgins

    Keep hammering, George!

  6. kendall derby Avatar
    kendall derby

    Is there ever a project that you do like? On a project of this size the road contribution is unimpressive. These trees are going to die or burn or what ever! You can try to guilt us for breathing but it makes you seem foolish. with the growth occuring in the Greater Yellowstone what specific steps do we need to employ. Work carefully and focus? Then we will see you as effective and not just ranting. This project is not one that I fear.

    1. Ed Loosli Avatar
      Ed Loosli

      Kendall::: Every logging project in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem should be feared. The entire 7+ million acres of PUBLIC LANDS surrounding Yellowstone Nat. Park are critical to its survival and that of its wildlife. These National Forest and some BLM lands should be proclaimed as the Yellowston National Monument, which would protect it from future logging.

    2. Maggie Frazier Avatar
      Maggie Frazier

      or “whatever”? Did you read how many miles of NEW roads they plan? FIFTY SIX miles. On top of the already many miles of roads thru this place.
      A place of wildlife habitat – WILD life.
      So logging is just a way of preventing trees from dying or burning or “whatever”?
      Really dont see any attempt to guilt you for breathing – only an attempt to stop more influx into wild areas.

    3. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      But that’s the thing – we never do work carefully and focus. Promises, promises – but then there’s always some fool starting a wildfire who ignores the promises out of selfisness, and/or poaching wildlife, breaking all of those promises and assurances we continue to get, but never deliver on. Only more destruction and continued creep into undeveloped areas.

      Now not even the National Parks are safe!

  7. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    I just received notification that the FS has decided that there will be “no significant impact” in grazing cattle in the 2 allotments where the sheep were just removed – because of impacts with wild bighorns! Good to know. Read some of the comments (mine was there) & only 31 people commented – altho I assume there were many who clicked on form letters. Which I guess the FS like the BLM, considers as one letter no matter how many they receive. Shameful.

    USDA Forest Service Bridgeport Southwest Rangeland Project Update

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      It’s sad that these are not important issues to many. I just read where a bighorn was shot from the road and just left! Domestic sheep present a disease threat to the bighorn sheep too and do cattle? Such beautiful and our native animals, it’s a shame:


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.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

George Wuerthner