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Hidden Fire

The Hidden Fire burning in the Bitterroot National Forest.

Fall has arrived and so has the blame game for wildfires. Never mind that for thousands of years, fire has created healthy forests and diverse habitats. It, like snow, is an integral part of the Northern Rockies.

Montana politicians Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines converged on the Lolo Peak fire. Their message was clear: we’re not managing forests and radical environmentalists are using frivolous lawsuits. According to Daines, “If we don’t address the litigation issue, the frivolous litigation from extreme environmental groups — we’re never going to get ahead of this curve" (KPAX, Aug. 25). He also says, “If you do not manage the forests they become unhealthy” (Independent Record. Sept. 7). One can imagine just how unhealthy forests were 400 years ago without industrial logging and thousands of miles of roads cutting through them.

Since 2010, there have been 118 projects on the Bitterroot National Forest. These range from timber sales to grazing allotments. All required a decision document and all could have been litigated. Of the 118 projects, not a single one was halted by an environmental group or anyone else. That bears repeating: out of 118 projects, not a single one was halted. No log was prevented from coming off the forest. A homeowner litigated the Westside timber sale, not over timber, rather concerns for private property. That was settled and, as the Darby district ranger has said, “We wouldn’t have been able to implement it (the Westside Project) that quickly even without the lawsuit.”

Since the BNF began the objection process, there have been 41 people/groups submitting objections. Listening to our politicians one would believe that environmentalists were abusing the system. However, objectors include Ravalli County commissioners, homeowners, mountain bikers, OHV groups, environmental groups, local realtors, a state politician and many individuals. It’s a diverse group. All exercising their rights to question government. It’s the democratic process.

There have been about 88 objections over the years. Of those, not a single one resulted in any on-the-ground change for a project. That’s an important concept. Even when objections are filed, they don’t result in any on-the-ground alterations. The objections are overridden.

A letter in the Bitterroot Star (Sept 14) claims a Forest Service employee on the Stevensville District stated “environmentalists” had “thwarted” plans near Bass Creek. It would be nice to meet with this employee and the forest supervisor for clarification, as the data does not bear that out.

According to the BNF data, no project is being stopped by anyone, much less “radical” environmentalists. Objecting to government practices is part of the democratic process. We’re blessed in the U.S. that citizens can challenge the government. It applies to all, not just those we agree with.

It’s noteworthy the politicians didn’t mention human-caused climate change or building in forested areas. Scientists/Forest Service personnel know those are important factors. “Climate change has led to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970.... Increasing development in fire-prone areas also puts more stress on the Forest Service’s suppression efforts” ("The Rising Costs of Wildfire Operations," USFS, 2015, p.2).

Name-calling and alternative facts are common now but they don’t replace real facts/science. It’s fortunate we live in a country where we can challenge our government, no matter who we are. When people like Zinke, Gianforte and Daines accuse groups of stopping projects, they should include the data and the fire/ecological studies to back them up. The claims they are making are not true on the Bitterroot National Forest.

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Gary Milner is a longtime Bitterroot resident who's worked for the U.S. Forest Service as a wilderness ranger and trail worker. He's been involved with forest issues for over 15 years as an individual and as a member of Friends of the Bitterroot. He is currently a middle-school science teacher in Corvallis, where he's worked for the last 19 years.

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