What environmentalists miss in forest health debate

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The recent “My Turn,” authored by Janet Torline and captioned “Forests threatened by federal proposal,” would have been more accurately captioned “Forests threatened by Kootenai Environmental Alliance.” I lost most of my respect for their organization when they began appealing all thinning and burn recovery projects. Many of their members seem to be paranoid. Our forestlands have far too many trees per acre to remain healthy. The climate is warming, bark beetle populations have skyrocketed and root-rot is a major problem in some areas.

Ms. Torline’s editorial infers that “fuels reduction,” “restoration” and “forest health” are all imaginary problems fostered by the Forest Industry; hogwash, these are real problems. Idaho National Forests have become overpopulated with various species of fir trees and Lodge-pole Pine. To avoid stress, Red and White Fir need considerable space between trees or they become susceptible to root-rot and bark-beetles. White Fir makes fine Christmas trees but their limb mantle extends nearly to the ground and when ignited by wildfire they burn like gasoline.

Our forests would be much healthier and easier to manage if the numbers of these trees were reduced by thinning measures and replaced with Ponderosa Pine, White Pine and Larch. The annual growth of these species is concentrated in their leaders and upper limbs, leaving the lower limbs to dry up and fall off. The end result is that the mature trees often have no limbs remaining on the lower twenty feet of their trunks, making fire management much easier. We purchased timberland in the Rathdrum area in 1999 and before thinning we were losing 15 to 18 trees per acre per year; today, after thinning and replacement the rate is one tree or less.

Ms. Torline condemns clear-cutting which does create unsightly areas in the forests. However, you either thin the overpopulated areas or root-rot and other diseases will decimate stressed areas, leaving no other option than clear-cutting. Mile after mile of uninterrupted forests are beautiful but impractical for fire control. Left unchecked, fire can race across timberland with intensities that actually burn the soil. Well placed, narrow, clear-cuts could provide buffer areas to slow the fires progress. There are forest areas where steep, rugged, terrain and lack of marketable trees makes thinning impractical, leaving only controlled burns as a means of forest management.

Forest harvest practices are much more sophisticated and environmentally friendly than decades ago, requiting fewer roads and skid trails. One machine can hold a tree vertically, cut it, lower it to the horizontal position and limb it , all in five minutes or less. A rubber tired skidder can bunch the limbs into neat piles; then pick up and carry a half dozen or more trees to a central loading deck with very little impact on the soil.

Far too much of the Forest Service’s budget is spent responding to litigation initiated by armchair quarterbacks who seem have little understanding of the complexity of forest health management.

Leonard Brant is a Post Falls resident.

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