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A Battle for the Soul of a Forest

Rick Bass is the author of "Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had" and the forthcoming "The Hermit's Story." He lives and writes in Montana's Kootenai National Forest.

The little mountain known as Roderick Butte possesses a magical little forest, one of the rare uncut stands left in the lowest elevations of Montana’s Yaak Valley. Reefs of clouds drape themselves over its peak, and artesian seeps and springs percolate out of the steep east-facing mountain wall, home to sensitive and threatened plants. The cliffs blush with maple and larch in the autumn. Wild ducks nest in the hanging marshes, salamanders wriggle beneath rotting logs and the area is favored by one of only two breeding female grizzly bears known to be left on the entire 2-million-acre Kootenai National Forest. (I know of one old dead tree standing halfway up the mountain that is a territorial signpost for grizzlies, like some kind of bear-carved totem.)

An incredibly diverse flora clings to Roderick Butte’s steep face, which rises above the clear trout-filled waters of the South Fork of the Yaak: big Douglas fir, alpine fir, spruce, hemlock, cedar, aspen, cottonwood, larch, lodge pole pine, as well as amazing old white pine along the ridge. The mountain’s smooth uncut contours and dense blue forests are a visual reference, a landmark in the days of our lives around here. Nestled near the junctions of the Idaho, Montana and British Columbia borders, this mountain, and the ones around it, are more Pacific Northwest in nature than northern Rockies. This is the lowest, westernmost part of Montana. Lush and diverse--Montana’s rainforest.

All forests are supposed to burn from time to time. A healthy forest needs its occasional fires--to thin the weak and overstocked trees and recycle the forest’s nutrients--every bit as much as it needs its snows and rain. So, while it was alarming when nearly 12,000 acres burned in the Kootenai National Forest during the summer of 2000, it was not tragic. The tragic part is what might come next.

I belong to a conservation group known as the Yaak Valley Forest Council, a small--and extraordinarily moderate--collection of people who love this forest. Our group is made up of road builders and loggers as well as more traditional “tree huggers,” and we wanted to be involved in bringing the forest back after the fire. We deliberately refrained from involving the news media, choosing instead to focus on working at the local level to find common solutions to our concerns. We didn’t think it would be difficult. But then we hadn’t counted on the new mentality at the U.S. Forest Service.

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When forests burn, it makes sense to salvage the damaged trees for timber, as long as that can be done without entering our last few roadless areas or working in other fragile places that might have already been disturbed by the fire. Environmentally sensitive logging operations have utilized helicopters and have also harvested trees in winter, on top of the snow instead of on the ashen ground, which is vulnerable to slumping and erosion. Taking the burned trees, while leaving the strongest--the survivors--can be good forest stewardship, and can help reduce the accumulation of excessive fuel loads.

Forest management is complicated stuff, with many factors still unknown by even the experts, and particularly so in a changing climate. But the Bush administration, with the same all-or-nothing, bull-in-a-china-shop mentality it has displayed in the Arctic wilderness and elsewhere, seems not to grasp this complexity, nor does it seem interested in the opportunities for finding common ground with environmentalists and rural communities.

The Yaak Valley Forest Council wasn’t asking for anything radical. We supported the harvest of burned trees, where appropriate. Unburned trees we wanted left standing. In addition to being precisely the kind of trees whose genes should be passed along, these survivors serve valuable ecological functions in preserving soil stability and water quality. And they possess a breathtaking dignity, standing vibrant, green and strong amid a blackened landscape. We hired two independent ecologists, who found that about eight trees per acre survived the burn--generally the largest trees with the thickest bark. But the Forest Service is nevertheless advocating a giant clear-cut of more than 130 acres.

Although the Forest Service’s own rules allow for a formal appeals process for groups like ours, we elected at first to work more collaboratively. We approached the Forest Service, offered them our research--even offered ways of providing the same number of trees for logging without clear-cutting. And we were flatly turned down by the Kootenai Forest supervisor, Bob Castaneda. Now, as a matter of conviction, we are in the time-consuming and cumbersome process of formally appealing.

Our small battle for the soul of one small forest wouldn’t mean much but for what it reveals about the current administration’s approach to conservation. President Bush, let’s remember, made a campaign promise to put much of the nation’s 700 million acres of public lands “back to work.” Since taking office, he has pursued an aggressive policy of more logging, more mining and more drilling on the public wild lands. The new chief of the Forest Service, Dale Bosworth, has referred to requests by environmentalists as a form of “analysis paralysis.” The simple fact is, the new Forest Service views the land as there to serve industry’s short-term needs and desires--not as a sacred trust to be preserved and nurtured for future generations.

As we found, their ideology makes them unwilling to compromise, or better still to work together as a team. Once again, as in the days of Ronald Reagan and former Interior Secretary James Watt, the West is up for grabs. How inefficient--what utter waste--to be fighting over such scraps of ideology and treasured remnants of landscape, rather than focusing our energies in partnership with the Forest Service on less sensitive, and more productive, areas. Since Castaneda couldn’t find common ground with us, we’re left in what his boss might see as analysis paralysis.

But I have an idea. Chief Bosworth and Supervisor Castaneda, why don’t you come on out to Roderick Butte. Hike out across the disputed acres, and you’ll see something amazing: Some trees survive some fires. You won’t have to look it up in a book. You can walk out on the land and see it. If you hurry.


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