Gov. Steve Bullock recently created the Montana Forest Action Advisory Council that is biased towards logging and is dominated by timber industry interests and supporters to “reduce wildfire risk.”
I don’t expect the governor to be an expert on wildfire or forest ecology, but it is clear from the makeup of his council that its primarily purpose is to justify logging under the mistaken view that “fuels” are driving our large fires.
The council's interpretation that wildfires are "harming" our forest ecosystems is not surprising given the timber industry representation. Council members include Pyramid Lumber, Sun Mountain Timber, Idaho Forest Group, Montana Logging Association, a private forestry consultant, and supporters of logging like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Intertribal Timber Council, The Nature Conservancy, county commissioners in forested counties as well as the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
Even though Bullock's announcement suggests it will be "scientifically rigorous," there are few individuals with any expertise in fire ecology and forest ecosystem function. Among the council membership names, most of whom I recognize, there is almost no one that has any special expertise in wildfire ecology except for University of Montana forestry professor Tom DeLuca.
The stated goal of the council is to reduce “harm” to our forests, which is extremely ironic since the most significant damage to our forests has been and continues to be from “active management” and logging practices.
Logging removes stored carbon. Logging removes biomass needed for wildlife habitat. Logging activity requires roads which are a significant source of sedimentation and the spread of weeds. Logging changes age structure and often species composition. Logging activity compacts soils. Logging disturbs sensitive wildlife from elk to grizzlies. And nearly all public lands logging loses money for taxpayers.
The driving force behind wildfires is not “fuels” as presumed by the implicit message of the council but due to extreme fire weather stemming from climate change.
Yet there are no climate scientists among the council membership. Nor are there any experts on forest carbon (except Deluca), sprawl, how to create defensible spaces and ecologists who recognize that large wildfires create biodiversity and maintain ecosystem health.
The best way to reverse climate change and hence reduce wildfire “risk” is to keep the carbon in the forest. Numerous studies demonstrate that logging releases far more carbon than intact forests. Even a burnt forest stores more carbon as snags, roots and charcoal in soils compared to thinning or logging the forest. But given the council makeup, I don't expect to hear this suggested.
Sadly, Bullock has missed an excellent opportunity to work to change public attitudes about wildlife and to implement changes that might promote healthy forest ecosystems and using forests for carbon storage to reverse climate heating to reduce “wildfire risk.”