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Greater Caution Needed Before Supporting Thinning, Biomass Projects

Fire suppression effects on fuels are likely exaggerated. Most forests types are well within their historic range of variability. Most of the acreage burned in fires annually is in forest types that historically experienced moderate to significant stand replacement blazes. Thus the idea that large fires that occur are the result of fire exclusion is inaccurate. There is new evidence that suggests that even low elevation dry forests of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir occasionally experienced large stand replacement blazes. The old model that characterized such forests as primarily a consequence of high frequency-low intensity blazes that created open and park-like may not be universally applicable. Thinning won’t significantly affect large blazes because fuels are not the major factor driving large blazes. Climatic/weather conditions are responsible for blazes. Large blazes are driven by drought, wind, low humidity, and high temperatures. These factors do not occur in one place very frequently. That is why most fires go out without burning more than a few acres. The probability of any particular thinned stand will experience a blaze during the period when thinning may be effective is extremely low. The majority of acreage burned is the result of a very small percentage of blazes—less than 0.1% of all fires are responsible for the vast majority of acres charred. Most fires go out without burning more than a few acres. Even if it were possible to limit large blazes, it would be unwise to do so since the large blazes are the only fires that do a significant amount of ecological work. Large fires are not “unnatural”. There are many species of plants and animals that are adapted to and/or rely upon dead trees and snags. There would be no evolutionary incentive for such adaptations and life ways if large fires were “unnatural.” Dead trees are important physical and biological components of forest ecosystems. They are not a wasted resource. Beetles and wildfires are the prime agents that create dead trees. Removal of significant amounts of biomass by thinning and/or logging likely poses a long term threat to forest ecosystems. Biomass energy is the latest threat to forest ecosystems. Logging/thinning is not benign. Logging has many impacts to forest ecosystems including spread of weeds, sedimentation of streams, alteration in water drainage, removal of biomass, and so on. These impacts are almost universally ignored and externalized by thinning/logging proponents. Alternatives to logging/thinning to reduce fuels that do not remove biomass and avoid most of the negatives associated with logging practices exist, including prescribed burns and wildlands fire. Reducing home flammability is the most economical and most reliable way to safeguard communities, not landscape scale thinning/logging projects.

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Biomass Energy: Beware of the Costs

After the Smurfit-Stone Container Corp.'s linerboard plant in Missoula announced that it was closing permanently, there have been many people including Montana Governor Switzer, Missoula mayor John Engen and Senator Jon Tester, among others who advocate turning the mill into a biomass energy plant. Northwestern Energy, a company which has expressed interest in using the plant for energy production has already indicated that it would expect more wood from national forests to make the plant economically viable. The Smurfit Stone conversion to biomass is not alone. There has been a spade of new proposals for new wood burning biomass energy plants sprouting across the country like mushrooms after a rain. Currently there are plans and/or proposals for new biomass power plants in Maine, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Florida, California, Idaho, Oregon and elsewhere. In every instance, these plants are being promoted as “green” technology.

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Lecture Highlights Divided Passions

Flushed faces and white knuckles abound, it’s safe to say that the 60 or so attendees at last night’s Northern Rockies Nature Forum “Healthy Forests: An On the Ground Look”? lecture care about Montana’s forests, logging, and the political processes synchronizing the two. Unsynchronized, however, and despite equally excited concern, was the four-person panel in the front of the room. Two environmentalists, one logger and one Forest Service employee talked apples and oranges to an audience with little patience for fruit salad.

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