TODAY'S MNA PRESS NEWS
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MIDDLE EAST FORK CONTROVERSY
by LETTER TO THE EDITOR
The Bitterroot National Forest’s proposed Middle-East Fork Fuels Reduction project seeks to, in part, return the area’s natural historic conditions. Debate continues on the relatively new science used in the current analysis, and while these discussions are worthwhile, a larger question needs asking: What do we mean way we say, “restore?”
Many new projects are proposed under the guise of restoration when, in reality, they are timber sales in disguise. Therefore, it is important that we have some discussion about restoration’s meaning. Usually it implies an effort to put something back the way it used to be; we think of cars or buildings. However, forests are constantly evolving, they are dynamic with fire and insects making up only a small portion of the story. So how do you restore something constantly in motion?
Current trends focus on bringing natural processes back to their historic patterns. A major problem with this approach is that today is not the same as it was a hundred years ago. It’s hotter, dryer and our landscape has been permanently altered. Looking in the rear view mirror and blindly driving forward should not be a general policy for our National Forests, nor should they be the setting for a grand experiment to see if we got it right. While historical data provides vital information, using it as a definitive objective for future conditions is fraught with too many uncertainties.
This is not a call to do nothing. Science, informed by past conditions, can tell us how much damage has been done to watersheds, soils, wildlife habitat and other forest components. Restoration should first focus on removing impediments to natural recovery such as culverts, roads and dams. In other words, restoration should first focus on activities that have the least amount of uncertainty. The Middle East Fork project does none of this and uses historic conditions as an excuse to harvest timber. Part of the current controversy stems from the Forest Service's claims of certainty.
The Forest Service states that its preferred alternative will move the landscape towards fire patterns that resemble pre-settlement times. But is this really restoration? There is no doubt that fire suppression along with cool wet decades have changed our forests, however, timber harvesting will not bring back the past. Restoration work needs to be comprehensive and include all ecosystem components, not just one or two variables. The Forest Service needs to acknowledge that the science is, in many respects, untested.
Restoration can happen on our National Forests and trees may be cut and sold in the process, but these activities need to take place within a regional and landscape level of restoration planning. Such a process must be unburned by the fiscal irresponsibility of the Federal Timber Sale Program. Restoration could provide many products, services and jobs, but it should not provide the cover for timber harvests. Logging is not restoration, and restoration is not exploitation.
University of Montana
Environmental Studies Graduate Student
500 Hartman A
Missoula, Mt. 59802