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Sierra Magazine
Field Truths

A walk in the woods shows that "salvage logging" is just another way to cut and run.

by Rick Bass

It's late August in northwest Montana. We can feel autumn hanging just beyond the day, a week or two away--maybe three. But soon. Flickers move through the woods ahead of us. It's been only a year since fires moved along this flank of Gunsight Mountain, but the undergrowth is green and lush. The huckleberry bushes--many of them chest-high--hang heavy with purple fruit. Moving up an old game trail, we stain our clothes brushing against the ripe berries, and our hands and faces soon take on the same purple coloration. It's a cool morning. There's a lot of wildlife sign--deer, bear, moose, elk.

My two friends and I stop often and examine the maps that show where the "salvage" clearcuts are planned. We have come to field-truth U.S. Forest Service claims that portions of this roadless area have been devastated by a nearly total sweep of high-intensity fires. We believe their maps at first, and keep trying to reposition them to give the agency the benefit of the doubt--but it soon becomes evident that the maps are, at best, simply wrong. Up near a ridge, for example, we do finally find a stand that has burned intensely, as the map indicates, but it could not be slated for harvest--the trees are only about 12 feet high, and as thick as your wrist. They are growing too close together, which is one reason they burned, and burned hot.

We move higher, to the ridge itself, and then laterally, into the heart of what the Forest Service has labeled the red zone: the burn of greatest intensity. The landscape folds and twists--rock slopes, creeks, seeps, springs--and at times, only a year after the fire, it is hard to tell there has even been one. Giant larch and fir tower above us, a lush, cool canopy sending down a pleasing mix of sun and shadow: old growth. These are immense trees, and even more amazing, they are immense at an elevation of 6,000 feet. Sometimes you'll still find a stand like this down on the valley floor, around 3,000 feet--but almost never this high, where the growing season's so much shorter, and the conditions so much harsher. As these trees have earned a place in this world, they have set up relationships that we do not understand yet, at this or any other elevation: the interplay of the thin soil, insects, bacteria, temperature, moisture, wildlife, and wildfire. We can feel the unnameable quality of this forest, however--its complexity. The difference between this unroaded, uncut forest and one that has been entered and logged is not subtle.

This was a zone of cool fire, if any--patchy mosaics of charcoal lie beneath the leafy huckleberries. Occasionally we'll cross a zone of moderate-intensity burn, where some young fir and thin lodgepole and spruce burned underneath larger trees--but there doesn't seem to be enough timber up here to justify building roads up this steep rocky slope. Logic doesn't matter here at present, though. Logging will happen anyway, due to the Salvage Logging Rider of 1995.

Congress--reading the invisible ink used to draft the Republican Contract on America--had timber- industry lobbyists write the bill for them. It purports to promote "forest health," but is being used in places to enter unprotected wilderness. The rider eliminates environmental appeals of illegal logging in public forests. And while it applies only to "salvage logging," traditionally understood as the harvest of dead or dying trees, industry lobbyists have expanded the definition to include virtually any tree in the forest.

Because the outlandishness of this proposal would not have allowed it to pass on its own--not even in this anti-environmental House and Senate--the bill was tacked onto the end of the 1995 Budget rescissions bill. President Clinton initially vetoed the bill, but then a month later changed his mind and signed it.

Since then wild places across the country have begun to crumble. Places that were already endangered are now exposed to a savage lawlessness undreamed of by even the greediest timber boosters. Congress demanded that the Forest Service more than double its planned salvage cut by the end of 1996. Environmentalists have filed at least 16 lawsuits to try to stop the agency, but federal judges have ruled against them in all the cases heard so far.

Near my home in northwestern Montana's Yaak Valley, six salvage sales are planned in the roadless areas of Kootenai National Forest. More than 8,000 acres will be logged, more than 200 miles of road built or reopened. Prime grizzly bear recovery zones will be entered. Knapweed and other noxious invasives can then spread into these logged areas like wildfire, displacing the native grasses that elk rely upon. At least 18 clearcuts in excess of the former size limit of 40 acres are planned, with some sprawling across hundreds of acres. Most taxpayers don't know it, but nationwide they will be paying more than $1 billion for this assault on their forests.

We pass through a little one-acre patch of hot burn. Fifteen, maybe 20 good sawlogs are standing--trees that are dead or will die. The ash is deep here, and the slope is very steep. If logging occurs here, heavy erosion will surely be the result. If the snags are allowed to fall on their own, however, landing downslope, wind-gusted, they will act as small dams, as strainers of sediment, and will slow erosion. They will hold the ash and fragile soil in place, and allow new seedlings to regenerate.

We enter a stand of the rarest of trees--old-growth high-altitude lodgepole pine, which survived this fire. These trees have the genetics of winners. They've survived beyond their years--avoided bug infestations, and evaded the infamous fire of 1910, as well as the blaze of 1994. They've lived up here at the top of the world, immersed in the glories of natural selection, and now we're going to come along and erase all that work, all that grace, all that meaning.

The giant trees clutch little pockets of soil on the steep slope. If we cut them at this elevation, there will not be enough soil for regeneration. I have seen too many other areas in the Yaak clearcut in places like this, and know what the results will be: moonscaping.

We stop by a creek that the fire burned across and gather a backpack full of fist-sized mushrooms, chocolate and apricot-colored in the sunlight. We sit in a shaft of sunlight, on a newly burned log resting among the rocks, and share lunch. We keep trying to believe that there has been some mistake--that we are on the wrong mountain, that the satellites got it wrong. The immense trees--many of them untouched by fire--sway above us.

Below, three men are moving among the old giants with cans of spray paint. We're surprised. We didn't know anyone else would be up here. We watch as they mark an occasional tree with blue, indicating (in the Kootenai, at least) that the tree should be saved. Theoretically they will not be "clearcutting" if one or two healthy trees are left behind; the remaining tree, or trees, will continue to drop seed cones, saving the expense and effort of tree-planting.

The men do not see us. We watch them for a while, then announce our presence. "You missed some," my friend Steve says. The men are churlish, sullen. They want to know who we are and what we're doing in the woods.

My inclination is to tell them it is none of their business--that I'm a citizen out here on the public lands-- but Steve tells them that he's a wilderness advocate and that he came out here to see what was going on.

"We've got to get to work," one of the men grumbles as they drift away. They do not spray any more trees to be saved. They do not even look at any more of the old giants, and we know then that the bottom line, the answer to the equation, has already been filled in by the timber companies--we need this much wood from this sale for it to be economically feasible--and these men are merely juggling things to make sure that answer, that volume, is achieved.

We gather huckleberries. We hike home--worried, sickened. The day blossoms beautiful around us, but what is being done to our home, and to our country, erodes and endangers our diminishing capacity for joy.

Off the mountain, I go to meetings with environmentalists and loggers to try to come up with solutions. The gatherings we've had so far don't mean a thing to Congress, or to the Forest Service, or to the multinational corporations that are cutting. The meetings have all the durability of spider webs. But we keep having them. Hopes and dreams will not go away.

To find out more about salvage logging in our national forests, see Logging Without Looking.


Rick Bass is the author of a collection of wilderness essays, The Book of Yaak, to be published by Houghton Mifflin in October. Just before this issue went to press, Bass reported that the supervisor of Kootenai National Forest canceled the proposed Gunsight Mountain roadless "salvage" sale to protect grizzly bear habitat. Other areas on the chopping block--in the Yaak and across the country-- have not been so fortunate.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact sierra.magazine@sierraclub.org for more information.


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