Can massive clearcutting and bulldozing hundreds of miles of roads at a cost of hundreds of millions “restore” the Medicine Bow National Forest and protect surrounding communities from wildfire? Although the answer is a resounding “no,” that’s the misguided theory behind the huge Landscape Vegetation Analysis (or “LaVA”) project the Forest Service approved this month.

The LaVA project authorizes logging and road building for the next 15 years across 288,000 acres—nearly the size of Grand Teton National Park—in southeastern Wyoming’s Snowy Range and Sierra Madre. Contrary to statements issued by the Forest Supervisor Russel Bacon, clearcutting over 86,000 acres on top of heavy-handed industrial logging on another 150,000 acres won’t restore the forest. And constructing another 600 miles of roads on top of nearly 3,000 miles of roads already crisscrossing the forest is the opposite of restoration.

The Forest Service calls these roads “temporary,” but the agency will allow the roads to remain open for up to eight years. It will then take decades for soils and vegetation to recover. During that time, the roads will fragment wildlife habitat and threaten streams and native fish with sediment. The LaVA project was already on dubious legal footing with officials in the Forest Service’s regional office questioning proposed logging inside identified roadless areas. In response, Supervisor Bacon withdrew 123,000 acres of roadless areas from the project area in his final decision, but powered forward with the remaining logging and roadbuilding.

As we enter the height of this year’s wildfire season, the agency is once more playing on people’s natural fears to justify intensive logging that will damage crucial fish and wildlife habitat, including habitat for Canada lynx, a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. While wildfires can threaten homes and certainly change forests, they are also a natural part of how forests function. And recent studies show the kinds of industrial logging the Forest Service has approved for the Medicine Bow National Forest may do little to reduce fire risks.

Statements suggesting that landscape-scale logging is going to prevent wildfires are misleading at best, and at worst, could lull homeowners into complacency if they fail to fireproof their homes and carefully manage vegetation right around their properties. How well buildings are fireproofed and how vegetation within one hundred feet of structures is managed has by far the most impact on whether or not a structure will burn. On the other hand, studies clearly show that logging miles away from private property does not significantly reduce fire risk to that private property.

The bottom line is that the LaVA project is an ill-conceived logging scheme that ignores the agency’s own admission that, “wildfire management is complex. It would be a bold statement to suggest that large wildfires would occur more often under the no action alternative and impact more wildlife habitat.” The Forest Service further admits that “the interaction of western bark beetles, fuels and fire in forest ecosystems is inherently complex and much remains unknown…. Additionally, differences in the physical environment, stand conditions, the amount and distribution of available fuels, and weather make ‘one size fits all’ management approaches ineffective.”

Yet one size fits all management is exactly what Supervisor Bacon just authorized.

Rather than addressing head-on the growing uncertainty about the alleged benefits of logging to reduce the risk of wildfires, the Forest Service either ignored conflicting science or eliminated reference to it altogether. Sweeping science under the rug won’t make this project work better or make nearby communities safer. By failing to face facts, the Forest Service will be flushing tens of millions of taxpayer dollars down the drain while destroying wildlife habitat, streams, and the scenic beauty of unique wild places. The better approach is to identify true restoration needs such as increasing wildlife habitat security by removing unnecessary roads, stabilizing eroding stream banks, and preventing the spread of noxious weeds. At the same time, the Forest Service should help residents effectively fireproof their homes and manage vegetation in the areas surrounding private property, actions that will offer better protection than logging and clearcutting hundreds of thousands of acres across the forest.

Connie Wilbert, Director of Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter, lives in Laramie Wyoming and works on public land, wildlife, and energy issues across Wyoming.

Adam Rissien, Rewilding Advocate for Wild Earth Guardians, lives in Montana and works throughout the intermountain West.

(1) comment

KLankford

As one who had spent over 60 years in Laramie and incurring many trips to the Medicine Bow Forest, it is natural to have an element of fear over the multi-use agenda of the Forest Service. I too felt that the world was being extorted for commercial means when the bend in the road opened up into a clear cut forest. Logging trucks and logging companies were working in many areas, multiple sawmills existed in Laramie, Encampment, Saratoga employing thousands of people. I came across a book giving the history of the Medicine Bow forest going back to early statehood in Wyoming. Within that book, I seen areas void of trees, which was the same areas I thought to be pristine virgin forest while I hunted. Only then did I come to the realization that my thinking was short lived. The MedBow is a reoccurring resource that has and will serve many purposes not only in my lifetime but for centuries. I have seen major events within the forest that ARE only temporary, clear cuts, beetle epidemic, floods, and fires.

The beetle epidemic cause major destruction in this ecosystem. While the epidemic ran rampant, several areas survived with little effect. These majority of these areas were former clear-cuts that now have grownup from seeds to the new forest of the upcoming generation. Most of the damage occurred in areas that was unharvested in the past generations due to major agendas and organizations campaigning heavily AGAINST commercial use of the forest in the 60's-70's and 80's. Being faced with the devastation from the beetle kill, the Forest Service had major issues cleaning up the effects as no commercial business existed anymore that could help with the cleanup for resources and safety, as needed for the Snowy Range Highway corridor especially.

As logging succumbed to public opinion 40-50 years ago which left many areas to be uncut due to constant reviews, lawsuits and the like, an estimated 80% of the forest is now downed and possibly wasted, especially if the Forest Service action plan is further stalled by environmental groups crying that the sky is falling which is evidenced within this article. It is my belief that many of these environment groups are getting huge legal fees paid for by the Equal Justice Act so they and their legal teams are in an effect being paid by the Federal Government while suing the Federal Government. (https://www.foxnews.com/politics/environmental-groups-collecting-millions-from-federal-agencies-they-sue-studies-show).

So I support the Forest Service's plan to deal with nature and the drastic effects of the epidemic. They need not delay whereas the forest can get back into a prime condition, one that I have seen and one I will never see again in that my lifetime is too short.

Kenny Lankford

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