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.