Chainsaw Medicine in the Gravelly Range (Greenhorn Vegetation Project)


The Gravelly Range is west of Ennis, Montana. Photo Georg Würthner

The 17,000-acre Greenhorn “Vegetation” project in the Gravelly Range of Beaverhead Deer Lodge National Forest (BDNF) is another destructive proposal aimed at providing timber for the logging industry and forage for the livestock industry.

Vegetation management is a euphemism for cutting down trees and burning sagebrush (to favor grasses for ranchers).

All of these “vegetation treatments” will degrade BDNF land and harm wildlife, including grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, moose, sage grouse and trout. The Greenhorn project is nothing more than another subsidy for the timber and livestock industries.

Domestic sheep grazing has a major impact on the ecological integrity of the Gravelly Range. Photo Georg Würthner

The BDNF says the forests within the project area are too dense due to “fire suppression,” but acknowledges that the natural fire rotation is more than two hundred years. Hence the forest density is natural as we have not had (if any) successful firefighting for more than 50 years.

Trees in the Gravelly Range that have been killed by bark beetles continue to store carbon and provide habitat for many wildlife species. Photo Georg Würthner

However, the forest service claims that if this natural density of forest is not cleared, the forest will die from the sky, forbid natural mortality factors such as drought, insects or wildfire.

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Despite this, we are told that they must cut down (i.e. kill) trees with chainsaws in order to improve “forest health” and “clean up the forest”. An image emerges of someone walking around with a vacuum cleaner and dust mob, cleaning up the mess that nature has created.

Using similar logic, maybe we should shoot people over 50 who could die from heart attacks, cancer and so on. Reducing the density of older people would definitely “improve” the health of our human population.

Well, I admit that we don’t know which people will die from these diseases any more than the forest service can predict which trees could die from disease or drought. Some people have genetic resistance to cancer or heart disease, but we don’t know what people we might shoot who have those genetic traits.

The forest stands of the Gravlley Range vary genetically in their resistance to bark beetles, drought and even wildfires. A lumberjack with a chainsaw has no idea which trees have these genetic traits. Logging thus degrades forest health. Photo Georg Würthner

Like humans, some trees have greater genetic resistance to insects and drought, and are better suited to surviving wildfire. But we do not know which trees possess such properties. Thus, non-selective tree killing degrades the health of the forest and reduces its ability to cope with changing climate.

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The BDNF also claims that thinning will reduce wildfires. But science shows that opening the forest canopy changes the microclimate, drying fuels and allowing more wind penetration – both of which have been shown to increase fire spread.

One cannot predict where a fire, insect, or other cause of death will occur. For example, in fires, the chance that a treated area will burst into flames is around 1-2%, but we will take the damage that comes from “vegetation treatments” on 100% of the area.

The BDNF proposes burning over 3000 acres of mugwort. Sagebrush has no adjustments to fire. The burning of sagebrush in this day and age, when we realize how critical sagebrush ecosystems are to numerous wildlife species such as sage grouse, is legalized vandalism.

Worst of all for the planet, deforestation and wood processing release far more carbon than wildfire. The tree stumps left behind after a wildfire store a lot of carbon in their trunks, roots and as charcoal in the soil. Even when insects, drought or fire kill the trees, they stay put and store carbon for decades.

In contrast, cutting down trees and processing wood releases much more carbon into the atmosphere. And when the Forest Service proposes to “save” the forest, they never count the trees they killed with chainsaws as a loss. However, research suggests that when trees killed by deforestation are combined with trees subsequently killed by wildfire or other causes, the total loss is much greater than either natural factor alone.

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Logging removes carbon from the forest and releases it into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. Photo Georg Würthner

The most significant source of greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon is the timber industry. It is even larger than all cars, airplanes and other means of transport.

Part of the justification for the project is that 70% of the project area is the Wildlands Urban Interface (WUI). But like everything the forest service does to streamline logging, they distort the definition of the interface. Fuel reductions no more than 100 feet from a structure provide no additional safety. In the meantime, the FS designates a WUI, often a mile or more from each home, so they can justify cutting down.

The way to protect homes is to avoid building them in fire-prone landscapes in the first place, and for homes already in such a location, reducing the structure’s flammability is by far the most effective treatment, not trying to to make them fireproof forest.

The chainsaw medicine is the problem, not the cure.

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