Fire, fuels, logging and politics

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When Barack Obama took office during a massive economic crash, his Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel said “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” and used the occasion to ram through massive changes in government. Republicans were livid.

Yet today, many of those same Republicans — now joined by “Democrat-lite” Jon Tester — are trying to use the same tactic to piggyback off this summer’s fires and log the hell out of our public lands. This is based on the repeatedly documented false assumption that fires are mostly driven by the amount of forest fuels. In reality, extreme fire years like 2017 are primarily caused by high temperatures, drought and wind.

In mid-September, Dr. Tom DeLuca, dean of the University of Montana Forestry School, noted that while thinning could “reduce the severity” of fires, “on windy, hot days, a fire will carry right through that understory or in those crowns regardless of whether it’s been thinned or not.” In response, Rep. Gianforte, who likely doesn’t know a fir from a spruce, disagreed because he once saw a fire drop into the understory as it reached a managed forest.

In addition, a 2016 research report by actual forest scientists looked at 1,500 fires on 23 million acres of Western forests between 1984 and 2014. Contrary to claims by Sen. Daines, Rep. Gianforte, and Sen. Tester, they found that forests with higher levels of protection and less logging had lower severity values even though they had the highest levels of biomass and fuel loading.

Finally, the U.S. Forest Service’s own “Living With Fire” publication finds that fire in dense coniferous forests spreads at 15 acres per hour; in open pine stands at 150 acres per hour; and in clearcuts at a whopping 650 acres per hour. So much for fuel loading being the problem. Time and time again for more than 20 years, actual research/facts have shown that extreme fire years are driven by prolonged heat, severe drought and high winds — not fuels.

So why are Daines, Tester and Gianforte so adamant in trying to sell us on the “snake oil” of fuel reduction if it’s not the problem. First, because it lets them suck up to the logging industry and keep those campaign donations flowing. Second, because it lets them con us for votes by providing a phony solution to fires, and promises of “good payin’ jobs” — although most Forest Service timber sales lose money — your money. And third, because it gives them the chance to try and gut environmental laws that protect our water, air, and wildlife habitat so “Logging Without Laws” advocates can have another shot at your public lands, for their private profit.

To make matters worse, Daines and Tester both know they’re lying about fuel-loading and environmental litigation being the problems. They told the same lies last year and were publicly rebutted by forest scientists and the conservation community with actual facts. But when your real goal is to harvest the public’s forests, harvest dollars to stay in power, and harvest votes from suckers, what’s a little lie now and then?

Peck is a resident of Columbia Falls.

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