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I’ve been holding off writing anything about Senator John Tester’s Forest Jobs bill for a while. I’ve talked to many people, both supporters of Tester’s bill and those who have many questions about its implications. As most people in Montana know, Senator Tester combined three different logging/wilderness proposals formulated by collaborative efforts affecting all or portions of the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest, Seeley Lake District of the Lolo National Forest, and Three Rivers Ranger District Kootenai National Forest into one bill that will designate wilderness areas. But the bill also mandates a minimum acreage for logging, new ORV and mountain bike trails, plus some other tax payer supported goodies like the specific subsidy of a biomass plant for Pyramid Lumber in Seeley Lake. He then added some twists of his own. Unlike some of my friends and associates, I do believe there are some good things in Tester’s legislation and other things that I could live with if there were some modification of the bill’s language.

Perspective on the Tester Forest Bill

I’ve been holding off writing anything about Senator John Tester’s Forest Jobs bill for a while. I’ve talked to many people, both supporters of Tester’s bill and those who have many questions about its implications. As most people in Montana know, Senator Tester combined three different logging/wilderness proposals formulated by collaborative efforts affecting all or portions of the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest, Seeley Lake District of the Lolo National Forest, and Three Rivers Ranger District Kootenai National Forest into one bill that will designate wilderness areas. But the bill also mandates a minimum acreage for logging, new ORV and mountain bike trails, plus some other tax payer supported goodies like the specific subsidy of a biomass plant for Pyramid Lumber in Seeley Lake. He then added some twists of his own.

Unlike some of my friends and associates, I do believe there are some good things in Tester’s legislation and other things that I could live with if there were some modification of the bill’s language.

I get the sense that while the major themes of the bill are not going to be revised, the legislation is not set in stone, and some aspects could be modified.

In general, there are some who feel this bill should not pass because the bad provisions override the good. Others feel this is a train that has left the station, and the best that can be accomplished is to change or modify some of the worst language and terms. Still, those who want to keep this bill from passing might be prudent to at least point out the most troubling language and attempt to modify it in case their worse fears are realized. I wear a seat belt even though I try to drive so as to avoid accidents; likewise, critics might be wise to put together a solid critique of how the bill could be improved. And least we forget, the potential designation of 670,000 acres of new wilderness is nothing to sneer about.

Though some may disagree, I think Senator John Tester should be commended for trying to address some long-standing issues like wilderness designation. He could easily avoid controversy and take the path of least resistance by doing nothing about wilderness issues — as Senator Baucus has done for a long time now. So I commend the Senator for at least trying to get things moving and attempting to resolve long-standing issues like wilderness designation.

But like many others, I have a problem with how the contents of the bill were developed (with limited public input), as well as with the larger philosophical idea behind the bill that “locals” in Montana should have a greater say over management of national assets (like trees) than someone living in Florida or Wisconsin. I hope this collaborative quid pro quo approach does not become a model for future wilderness bills in Montana or anywhere else, though I have no problem with people trying to find common ground on things like wilderness designation if that can be achieved.

THE GOOD STUFF

Despite how it was created, there is some good aspects to this bill, not the least of which is the creation of more than 670,000 acres of new wilderness. Many of these areas — including the Italian Peaks, Lima Peaks, Snowcrest, East Pioneers, Centennial Mountains, Sapphires, and Roderick Mountain (Yaak) — contain some of the finest unprotected landscapes in Montana.

Based on the experience in other states, Congressional designation of wilderness areas today will likely lead to additional wilderness legislation down the road. I personally support the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Preservation Act (NREPA), which is far and away the best alternative for protecting Montana’s wildlands and wildlife. NREPA has been introduced into the House and each year inches closer to enactment. It’s possible that discussion of the Tester bill — whether it is enacted or not — can provide an opportunity for comparison between what NREPA could do compared to Tester’s proposal.

Another positive effect of this legislation — if enacted — is designation of wilderness areas including the Centennials, Lima Peaks, Italian Peaks and two small wilderness areas in the West Big Hole along the Continental Divide that will increase the likelihood that the adjacent Idaho roadless lands will also garner protection. (They definitely would if NREPA is passed).

One positive new twist of the Tester bill is that it also deals with BLM areas. Tester proposes wilderness protection for a number of BLM WSAs including the Centennial Mountains along the Continental Divide, a major corridor linkage between the Greater Yellowstone and other ecosystems to the west and north. Other BLM WSAs proposed for wilderness include the Blacktail Range, Ruby Range, Humbug Spires, and Farlin Creek.

Another positive aspect of the bill is that when any agency computes road density limits, it must include ORV trails as part of its total mileage. In some areas, there are actually more miles of ORV trails than logging roads, and this requirement could significantly reduce overall motorized mileage.

The bill also designates several hundred thousand acres of National Recreation Areas in the West Big Hole, West Pioneers, Northwest Peaks (Yaak), Thunderbolt near Helena and elsewhere. In some cases, there is a core “wilderness” component. For instance, in the West Big Hole, the Tester bill creates two small wilderness areas surrounded by the larger NRA and the same for the West Pioneers. The major reason for establishing NRA instead of wilderness in these areas is to permit snowmobiling, mountain biking, and ORV access.

While most of these areas are proposed for wilderness protection in NREPA, with the exception of the proposed 94,000 acres West Big Hole NRA, the other NRAs in Tester’s bill all specifically have language that bans logging. So if you add up both the proposed wilderness and NRAs with NRA logging bans together, you have nearly 900,000 acres off limits to logging. It must be noted that much of this acreage is high elevation forest and alpine terrain that would never be logged, but wilderness and NRA protection does preclude many other activities that can compromise wildland quality.

There are other parts of the bill that call for restoration of natural fire regimes, removal of roads and culverts, and so forth that will improve the ecological integrity of the areas affected. The bill’s language also directs the Forest Service to prioritize logging projects in areas where road densities exceed 1.5 mile of road per square mile of habitat, where habitat fragmentation is greatest, and so on. This directive, if followed, should focus logging in areas already degraded by past logging practices.

There is certainly more in the bill that one could highlight that are good provisions, but there are plenty of supporters doing exactly that now, including the Montana Wilderness Association, National Wildlife Federation and Trout Unlimited, as well as timber industry supporters. So I will mostly address the bill’s shortcomings and/or worrisome provisions.

POTENTIAL PROBLEMS

Beyond the issue of how this bill was created, there are aspects of the bill that deserve additional scrutiny. I make no claims that I am expert on the bill, though I have read through in an attempt to understand it. I may be misinterpreting things or overlooking provisions that would mollify some of my concerns.

In the end the parts I have highlighted may not be the problem I envision, or they may be easily rectified by some modest changes in the bill’s language. Still I want to draw attention to some issues to make sure they are not overlooked. These are in no particular priority order.

One of the problems with the bill is that while it establishes new wilderness areas, it releases a lot of currently protected acreage to potential new development. For instance, the bill specifically releases 76,000 acres of BLM WSAs. WSAs are supposed to be managed to protect wildlands values, so their release means they could be logged or leased for oil and gas development. I’ve hiked some of these released areas like Hidden Pasture and Bell/Lime Kiln Canyon WSAs south of Dillon, and they are wonderful open, rolling grasslands with pockets of timber that are not common in our wilderness system. At the very least, I would prefer to see that all the BLM WSA not designated as wilderness remain as WSA instead of released for development.

In addition, the Tester bill releases a significant acreage of the S.393 areas legislated by Senator Lee Metcalf efforts. For instance, the West Pioneers Wilderness Study Area set aside by the 1977 legislation is one of the largest unprotected roadless areas in Montana. Yet the Tester bill only designates slightly less than 26,000 acres as wilderness. Much of the remainder of this area is a proposed 129,000 acre National Recreation Area that would exclude logging, but losing more than 129,000 of WSA is very significant. The reason given to me for NRA status, as opposed to wilderness designation, has been the gradual incursion of these lands by motorized usage. Nevertheless, there is no reason why ORV trails and routes can’t be closed and wilderness established in this area. Wilderness designation for the entire West Pioneers WSA would be a huge improvement.

It is also disappointing to see 94,000 acres of the West Big Hole designated as an NRA as well instead of wilderness. The area clearly qualifies for wilderness designation. My understanding is that the NRA status is a bone thrown to local ranchers who want to be able to cut trees for fence posts, as well as ORV interests.

I have the same disappointment over NRA status for wildlands in the Yaak. The Northwest Peaks NRA was created again as a concession primarily to snowmobilers. There is so little wilderness in the Yaak and what little unlogged country that remains should be given maximum protection afforded by wilderness.

How much logging and where it can occur will be greatly influenced by the interpretation of one clause in the bill. There is specific language that says that all landscape-scale restoration projects (i.e. logging) must be done “consistent with laws (including regulations) and forest plans and appropriate to the forest type.” Proponents tell me this means that laws like the Endangered Species Act remain in force.

However, others who have reviewed the same language aren’t so sure that language is sufficient to guarantee that all existing environmental laws like the ESA applies to the landscape restoration projects mandated by the Tester bill. This is a key element because if the specific mandate for logging a minimum of a hundred thousand acres can override things like the ESA or other regulations, there is potential for greater long-term harm to our wildlands and wildlife.

If there is room for different interpretations, it is critical to get specific language in the bill that leaves no doubt about the application of the ESA, roadless rule, and so on to the forest lands covered in the Tester bill.

Another part of Tester’s bill bans the construction of any permanent roads in project areas, and requires that all “access roads” (logging roads) be reclaimed in five years and specifically requires restoration of road prism and removal of road crossings like culverts. This is a very good provision—if you are going to have logging at all and I applaud the proponents of the bill for putting in such specific language about road removal standards.

However, the language does allow for roads to be converted into ORV trails. So there is the potential for creation of miles of new ORV trails that would greatly reduce any positive effect from road closure (though road density limits will temper the total mileage allowed to a degree).

One serious and worrisome language is about consultation. The bill says that any dispute and/or appeal be resolved in the project area. This, if I read it correctly, could means that someone protesting a timber sale from eastern Montana might have to travel to the Yaak to settle a dispute, a cumbersome burden on appellants, not to mention someone living across the country. This could thwart public participation in forest management.

Moreover the language says that the parities who were involved in crafting the original proposals—meaning the timber companies and other–can provide input to the Forest Service, but does not guarantee similar input access from other members of the public. Again giving greater control and influence to local interests over the general public.

Another problem is the language for restoration on the BDNF. While any receipts from timber projects in the Blackfoot and Three Rivers areas must be used in that local area, receipts from the BDNF could be used anyplace in the country. This is a serious potential problem because the Forest Service might be tempted to expand logging on the BDNF to pay for improvements on other forests.

Furthermore, the money from these stewardship contracts can be used for things like putting in new toilets in campgrounds and picnic tables, as well as commercial timber harvesting, instead of removing logging roads and culverts as commonly portrayed by proponents. This is not to say that all funds will be used in this way, but the language does permit funds to be used in this manner. Given that closing roads is far more controversial, than say building some toilets or picnic tables in a campground, some district rangers might be tempted to use funds for such non-ecological “restoration” work.

The bill also authorizes a MINIMUM of 7,000 a year must be “mechanically treated” (euphemism for logging) and a MINIMUM of 3,000 acres a year on the Three Rivers Ranger District in the Yaak. Thankfully there is no acreage requirement for the Seeley Lake District on the Lolo NF. That suggests to me there is no upper limit on logging that could occur as now written. Though proponents assure me that it’s unlikely the Forest Service will offer more acres for logging, one can’t predict the future. A huge new housing boom or a decrease in Canadian lumber might prove sufficient motivation for additional logging.

An additional troubling clause says the authorization for the legislation terminates in either 15 years from enactment OR when 70,000 acres of land on the BDNF has been mechanically treated. The same clause applies to the 30,000 acres in the Yaak. This suggests that there is no real time limit on logging. If timber prices remain low for a decade, logging companies may wish to delay logging for years until prices improve.

And while the legislation mandates a specific amount of logging, there is no similar mandate for restoration. If the past is any indication, logging will occur, but much of the restoration will be not take place. This is particularly true for the BDNF. The BDNF is one of the least productive forests in Montana, and has consistently lost money on its timber program. How timber sales on the BDNF will generate enough money to pay for both the administrative costs as well as restoration efforts is not clear.

A minor issue is a provision specific to the proposed Snowcrest Wilderness that says that ranchers can use motorized access to preserve “historic access” ranching activities. I presume cowboys no longer ride horses, so must now be able to ride ATVs or pickups.

While the bill authorizes wilderness protection for a Quigg Peak and Sapphires, it only addresses lands on the BDNF portion of these roadless areas. It would seem to make sense to designate wilderness for the entire roadless portion of these areas now, irrespective of national forest administrative boundaries.

With regards to motorized use, the bill specifically directs the Forest Service to create new trails, particularly loop trails. How much this will expand motorized use in these areas is difficult to predict, but almost for sure, we will see more officially sanctioned ORV use. There is, however, specific language that limits ORV use in National Recreation Areas to designated trails and routes. And unlike language in the Boulder White Cloud proposed wilderness legislation for Idaho which forbids closure of routes without providing a similar mileage elsewhere, the bill specifically allows the Sec of Agriculture (i.e. the Forest Service) to close any motorized trail or route for resource protection or other reasons.

UNCHARACTERISTIC FIRE AND INSECT INFECTATIONS?

Another big problem I have with the bill’s language is that it suggests that most of the forests in the northern Rockies are ecologically degraded. Tester’s bill says that logging should be done to reduce “uncharacteristic wildland fire and insect infestations.” For the most part, except for areas that have been previously logged, I do not believe that the bulk of the forests in any of the forests addressed in this bill are seriously out of whack.

Some 99% of the BDNF, for instance, consists of higher elevation forests of lodgepole pine and other forest types that have not been significantly compromised by fire suppression. Lodgepole pine forests naturally burn at long intervals and often in intense large fires and/or are periodically attacked by bark beetles. Similarly much of the Yaak drainage on the Kootenai NF and the Seeley Lake District of the Lolo National Forest consists of lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, western larch and even western red cedar forests—all of which are not seriously affected by fire suppression.

Plus large fires and beetle outbreaks are critical to the long-term health of these forest ecosystems. They are adapted and depended upon periodic large infusions of dead wood. So I have serious reservations about the ecological assumptions and justifications guiding these projects. In other words, how can you “restore” something that is not seriously degraded? Thus the entire ecological justification for active management in these forests is suspect.

Another part of the Tester bill that I have a philosophical problem with is the direct subsidy of private companies. For instance, the public subsidy of a biomass burner for the Pyramid Lumber Company in Seeley Lake is one example. The justification for this biomass burner is partially due to the previous assumptions—that somehow the Pyramid Lumber Company will be doing us a favor by cutting all those trees that they suggest have grown due to fire suppression. But as I have previously suggested, most of the forests in the Seeley Lake area are likely not out of whack. But even if they were, setting a demand for biomass is risky and can lead to additional demands for logging well above the levels envisioned by proponents.We would be better off spending that money—if taxpayer money be spent-on closing roads and other actions that improves the forest ecosystem.

WHY DO TIMBER COMPANIES SUPPORT THIS BILL?

I have often wondered why the timber companies involved in these collaborative efforts are supporting the Tester bill. After all these timber companies are not necessarily wilderness advocates. There are several reasons why they support the Tester bill. One is the fact that most of the areas proposed for wilderness designation are not available for logging anyway–they are on lands too steep, there is not enough timber to warrant construction of logging roads, or they are off limits to protect wildlife, and so forth. So support of wilderness is no skin off their backs.

But there are other less obvious reasons why they support the Tester bill. The old saying, follow the money applies here. Not only are there direct subsidies to private business like the biomass burner for Pyramid Lumber, but passage of the Tester bill will create a strategic economic benefit to the participating companies.

One is that stewardship contracts as provided in the bill are typically not sought out by larger timber companies like Plum Creek. This means there is less competition for access to public timber and potentially even a reduction in price for trees cut under stewardship provisions.

Since the bill specifically calls for more logging of public trees within the sphere of only a few specific mills, it is not unlike a grazing allotment for ranchers who have a guaranteed supply of public grass for their livestock. It gives these mills a competitive advantage in the market place.

Guaranteed access to federal trees not only increases the value of these mills if the owners were interested in selling them (just as a ranch is worth more with a federal grazing permit), but it also means these companies can more easily borrow money from banks.

ADDITIONAL WILDERNESS THAT COULD BE ADDED

Senator John Tester is going to take some heat from all corners no matter how much wilderness he includes in his bill. As long as he is modifying some of the proposals, he might as well add in some additional areas with strong local support such as wilderness designation for the proposed Great Burn west of Missoula, the Rocky Mountain Front by Choteau, and the Scotchman’s Peak proposed wilderness near Trout Creek. Depending on the exact specifics of a wilderness proposal, none of these areas are likely to generate any more political heat than what is out there now.

There are good things in Senator Tester’s bill worthy of support. But there is much that needs to be altered or at least modified to improve this legislation by the bill’s supporters as well as critics alike if indeed this bill moves forward.

About George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner has published 36 books, including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy

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39 comments

  1. Good Article. I struggle with this issue, but for some different reasons: 1. I don’t like it when politicians require certain number of trees to be logged (the Forest Service should be making those decisions). 2. I live in Montana because of all the great surrounding. I hike it, camp it, and bike it. I’ve gone from a Wilderness Supporter to someone that fights “New Wilderness” all that I can. Wilderness is important – but not everywhere should be Wilderness. Wilderness is the “gateway” for losing rights. It starts with motorized equipment and bikes, and then it grows to “by permit only.” I truly believe Montana is one of the last best places – but partly because you can still explore Montana. We need to protect this special place – but more Wilderness just seems too extreme for me. (How about creating more customizable “Scenic” areas insead)??

  2. Ryan if you want less wilderness, head out east. There’s plenty of roaded lands out there. In fact, 95% of the country.

  3. Great essay, George.

    My contribution on-line about this bill has been essentially negative because it grandfathers livestock grazing which makes a number of the southwest Montana area not real wilderness despite what they might be called by Congress.

    However, if he included a mechanism to allow the buyout, retirement, some way of terminating the grazing leases, I would think this bill should probably become law.

    Otherwise, my position is that I don’t want any cow Wilderness areas.

  4. Ralph:

    That’s a very important point. I should have included the idea of permit buyouts as another factor that could improve this legislation if it does have political legs.

  5. From what I understand buy-out of grazing permits is what the NWF is seeking. Taking a privilege turning it into a right, like a guy renting property from you but when you want your property back it turns out that you have to pay him what he demands before he will leave. Privatization of public resources with a big cash pay-out to buy back that which was stolen.

  6. Wildness, wildlife corridors, water qualilty and quantity, climate change, self-determination, self-sustaining, are important qualities that should be part of any discussion of what to do with roadless areas. These were not as important to local collaborators as how to divide the land among user groups. Since Pinchot’s philosophy and utilitarian perspective became the law of the public’s land, we have avoided asking the right questions. The results have been inadequate to maintain the qualities that really matter most. So few people can even relate to nature anymore, it’s not at all surprising to see market-based bills like Tester’s getting support from all those loving what they see in their rear-view mirror. Maybe someday before it’s all (temporary) roaded and logged, we might finally give Muir and Thoreau a chance.

  7. Very thoughtful analysis. I agree that the bill might be a good starting point if it now is opened up to the kind of public input that was lacking from the back-room dealing that produced it. To facilitate this, I believe hearings in the field (yes, even in Missoula!) and in Congress are critical. I think that would result in addition of other Wilderness areas. I also think tweaking the language is imperative. E.g., the “mandatory cut” language not only needs to be consistent with other laws, it needs to be consistent with the Forest Act itself (i.e., consistent with providing biodiversity). In other words, it needs to be changed to “targeted cut”. I thought we had progressed beyond the “get the cut out” approach to forestry reflected in this language. This bill has lots of flaws that are directly attributable to the flawed process that produced it, but I tend to agree that such flaws could be remedied if it was opened up to meaningful public and Congressional hearings. This article and the comments already offered reflect that potential. If Tester tries instead to sneak this into an appropriations bill as a rider, without any hearings, then he is no better than Conrad Burns, who did the same thing with what had already been declared illegal logging in the Kootenai.

  8. Supposedly very subtle…I see all the NREPA supporters have lauded this version of events.
    Bottom line is still pretty simple. Make everything possible wilderness by whatever means, and let the bugs and fire take care of the rest.

  9. Hey Border:

    I see buying back grazing permits as a lot like ransoming hostages… a loved one (in this case a place) is saved for a price. The principles aren’t perfect, but it sure works. And unlike kidnapping, these lands can’t get grabbed again.

    Nothing in the legalities of how it has been working with the USFS creates a legal “right” to the grazing permit. There has been something like 600,000 acres of grazing permits “retired” by one-time payments from NWF to permitees. That makes a lot more places for species like griz to stay out of trouble with livestock, and that was the criteria by which most the acres were prioritized.

    How many acres have you saved from grazing?

  10. George:

    Thanks for putting this together. Two areas that have caught my eye as being left out of wilderness designation include 1) the portion of the BLM’s Blacktail WSA that abuts the proposed Snowcrest wilderness area and 2) the lands along the continental divide in the Centennials that is currently owned by the Agricultural Research Service. The first would include about 9 sections of federal BLM land and 1 section of the Blacktail Wildlife Management Area and the 2nd area includes about 16,000 acres of land that will essentially be surrounded by wilderness designation in Montana to the north and then Idaho to the south. The ARS lands shows up as a pinkish purple color on the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest map.

  11. I think it is best not to argue about “grazing rights” versus grazing privileges.

    It’s like “let’s not talk about why we are giving you money. Hopefully you will accept that offer, get wealthier, and take your livestock away.”

  12. Dear logger

    You are misquoting me. I said 99% of the BDNF is higher elevation forests like lodgepole pine and other species. I did not say 99% of the BDNF was lodgepole pine–though certainly much of the forest consists of lodgepole pine.

    However, the point I was trying to make is that there is little ponderosa pine which is the “classic” species that people suggest fire suppression has impacted.

    Doug fir is the major lower elevation forest species on the BDNF as I’m sure you know, but Doug fir tend to have longer fire intervals than ponderosa pine. And even among the Doug fir there is likely to be much variation. I’ve seen Doug fir at 10,000 feet that probably has longer natural fire intervals than Doug fir growing at lower elevations along Upper Rock Creek or the Big Hole River near Melrose.

    As I recall one study of Doug fir done near Butte found an average of 40 years between fires and as long as 80 or so. (I’m working from memory so those times might be off a bit–but I think they are in the ball park)

    And it’s hard to argue that fire suppression has radically altered these forests significantly since most people agree that prior to WW11 fire suppression was really hit or miss. So if we consider the post war years, we find that maybe 50-60 years have passed. For the Doug fir forests, perhaps one fire interval has been missed–if that.

    Of course, higher elevation forests like lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, etc. have longer fire intervals and likely have not been altered at all by fire suppression–if fire suppression is really that effective.

    Andrew Garcia in his book Tough Trip through Paradise describes passing through lodgepole forests of the Big Hole in the 1800s and finding it filled with dense forests.

    Another factor in some areas of the BDNF is past mining history. Miners cut and used a lot of trees–again creating younger forests that would not burn for a while. In areas like around Butte, Anaconda, etc. a lot of trees were cut. There are now even aged forests that have regrown since the mining days dominating some of the land in those areas.

    But the real factor affecting much of the forest composition on much of the BDNF is likely due to livestock grazing. Livestock removed much of the finer fuels, and gave competitive advantage to conifers. And since livestock grazing has been on-going in this region since at least the gold rush days (1860s) it has been affecting the forests for a longer time than fire suppression and is more likely the cause of fewer fires as well as changes in forest composition.

    A second issue is your assertion that somehow the million plus acres that burned in Yellowstone was somehow unique because there was no roading like on the national forests. The million acres that burned in Yellowstone was more likely a consequence of unique weather/climatic conditions. For instance, the recorded humidity during 1988 was the lowest ever seen since records were first recorded over more than a hundred years.

    As for the 5% of the BDNF being logged, that is somewhat misleading. As you apparently know, much of the forest is grassland, rock, etc. so logging 5% of the entire forest that has large areas without forest is much higher if you consider the percentage of forested area.

    But even if that were say 10% of the forest was logged, that would not seem like a lot to most people. But that is neglecting that the impacts associated with logging impact a much greater area than the immediate area logged. Many species avoid roaded areas

    In addition, the 5% is typically the most productive lands–the moister bottoms and valley locations that are the most critical for wildlife and fisheries. Saying only 5% of the forest was logged is like some rancher claiming that only 1% of the range is in poor condition–but if that 1% is the riparian habitat, that has a disproportionate impact on the land and its wildlife. Ditto for the 5% of the BDNF that has been logged.

    But the more important point is that the BDNF is a lousy place to have a timber program. The trees are slow growing due to high elevation, arid conditions, and short growing season. It’s a crime that even 5% of the forest has been logged.

    As for the forest being compromised by fire suppression, there is a big debate going on about this issue. Some are suggesting that many of the earlier studies on fire history perhaps misrepresent the real nature of the fire even in low elevation dry forests.

    Furthermore, the present condition of the forest may reflect more a period of cooler, moist conditions that prevailed from the 1940-1980s. The question is whether fire suppression was that effective or whether the climatic/weather conditions did not favor fire spread giving the impression that fire suppression was so successful. One has to wonder how a bunch of guys running around in the woods with shovels and on horseback could have radically changed fires while today with airplanes, helicopters, all kinds of satelite imagery, etc. we can’t control fires? And we are having big fires because of “fuels” as if the worse droughts in recent history has nothing to do with it.

  13. VT is fine, but it ain't MT

    George Wuerthner lives in Vermont.

    NewWest “is a next-generation media company dedicated to the culture, economy, politics, environment and lifestyle of the Rocky Mountain West.

    If NewWest insists on publishing opinions and commentary from contributors from outside the Rocky Mountain West and therefore *not* “dedicated to the culture, economy, politics, environment and lifestyle of the Rocky Mountain West,” (since nearly by definition dedicated people can be presumed to live in the community they wish to influence and interact with) please be sure to inform your readers of George Wuerthner’s place of residence.

    Thank you,

    NewWest reader

  14. Ryan Montana is only 3.5% wilderness hardly tghe majority.
    We need WAY MORE WILDERNESS IN MT to even make it somewhat balanced.

    Skinner enviros are not trying to make everything wilderness only areas that dont have prior denelopment of any kind and in a few cases to reclaim impacted areas as widlife corridords.

    Beetles and fires have everything to do with warmer winters and unatural fire suppression.

    Stop spewing your familiar lies and hate.

  15. …ain’t MT,

    Nativism for what purpose? To drown out debate. To be less informed? To “win” by eliminating any competing views? Residency may matter when voting for political candidates, but in an open forum to discuss important public policy issues, I’d say the more the merrier. And, I’d also say your interpretation of “dedicated,” is a stretch, and suspect. What’s your real agenda here?

  16. VT is fine, but it ain't MT

    as usual Steve “what’s your agenda?” Kelly, you would be pretty good in a debate against yourself, but the straw man you build isn’t me.

    “for what purpose?” you ask. For the purpose of an honest, open debate.

    It matters where George is from when commenting on a Montana Wilderness Bill. People ought to know.

    (… I’m sure you’d agree that it matters whether healthcare protesters are genuinely concerned, motivated into action by conspiracy beliefs regarding the President’s birthplace, or outright paid to cause a ruckus.)

    Bottom line, don’t be a jerk, not everything is an attack.

  17. Anonymous Reader: Your point on where George resides is still baseless. First of all, these are NATIONAL public lands we are discussing, they do not belong to Montana. Second, I am guessing that George knows the land a lot better than you, based on his life-long relationship to it. He was schooled here, and lived here many years, and is an avid hiker. Even now, he spends just about every summer out here, and I was just talking to him on my porch last week here in Missoula. So your point is really no more valid than “I have never seen Obama’s birth certificate,” because George knows Montana’s wildlands, and he happens to be a part owner of them (i.e., American public). For too long now, since Newt “do what I say not what I do” Gingrich, public debate has been debased by the conservative tact of attacking the person when you cannot respond to the merits of his/her argument.

  18. VT is fine, but it ain't MT

    Asking NewWest to include George’s state of residence on his commentary is an “attack”?! And a “baseless one” at that.

    Tom, Steve, you people are freaked out. The Right has you two on edge.

    By the way, why mention my anonymity? By your own reasoning, at least assuming I am an American citizen, I have every right to comment on all aspects of this story and issue. Might it, in fact, be your own needling attack on me? … Seems at least possible, Tom Woodbury. … As does the preposterous comparison of me to Newt Gingrich. … hmm, more “baseless attacks”? (What was that you said about Gingrich? … “do what I say not what I do” … right. looks like you’ve got lesson down.

    Now, while I concede that these are national lands, and that every citizen is warranted a say in their management, the practicality of matter is however that a large amount of deference has traditionally been given to the affected state’s congressional delegation (and thus, in a round about representative democracy kind of way, the people that live in the affected state).

    This tradition is, in my opinion, completely and justly warranted for reasons that I am sure I do not need to enumerate, even if you disagree with the principle. And, regardless, the tradition is not about to change, so it really is moot point to argue.

    As for George, and his Vermont roots: Whether he spends his summers out here or not, whether he hikes or bikes, or plays piano, the fact is, he is not from Montana. It is not from this community. The Senator in question does not represent his interest in Congress. … AND most relevantly, a publication “dedicated to the culture, economy, politics, environment and lifestyle of the Rocky Mountain West” ought to have the foresight to tell its readers when a contributer is not from the area it serves. It is a common practice in almost every publication to include a byline of relevant information. And that George lives in Richmond, Vermont is certainly a relevant piece of information.

  19. What Logger said.
    And George, I checked out Wildfire again today, primarily to get it off the “featured books” display, but also to refresh myself on what a waste of trees it is. Give my best to Doug Tompkins and tell him I look forward to the next work of yours he pays for.

  20. Dear Vt is fine

    I am not a resident of Vermont. My children live in Vermont. I visit them frequently. I own a house in Vermont so I have a place to stay when I visit my kids, but I also own a house in Montana so what does that make me? I’m actually a legal resident of Oregon if that makes any difference to you. However, I have been based in Montana for decades. I am in Montana now.

    But all that is all irrelevant really. The question is more about whether my perspective is well informed, and I will go up against anyone on that score.

    When it comes to Montana wildlands I’ve visited every major proposed wilderness in Montana including nearly every proposed wilderness in the Tester bill–Italian Peaks, Centennials, West Big Hole, West Pioneers, East Pioneers, Ruby Mountains, Humbug Spires, Electric Peak, Roderick Mountain, Tobacco Roots, Dolas Lakes in Flints, Lima Peaks, Mount Jefferson, Snowcrest, Sapphires, Stony Mountain Quigg Peak, Highlands, Lee Metcalf Additions, Anaconda Pintler additions, additions to Bob Marshall, Blacktail Mountains, additions to Mission Mountains, and a few others. They are all worthy of wilderness designation. I know these lands from first hand experience–that’s more than I can say for most of the critics.

  21. This whole line of questioning about who lives where is just a perverse lowlife distraction. The issue on the table is how to manage a certain set of federal public lands. Federal public lands belong to every American citizen equally, regardless of where they reside in America, and it is no business of any sick piece of undereducated shabby redneck cracker trash, regardless of where they reside, to question the right of any American citizen to voice his or her equally weighted and considered opinion of how federal public lands should be managed.

  22. VT is fine, but it ain't MT

    George,

    Nice of you to drop in. Thank you for attempting to shed some light on your place of origin. A byline including a small amount of information is customary, may I suggest that in future commentary you include one, possibly including a word about your connections to Montana? You could also include, for instance, just what it is you do, or have done. It would be welcomed.

    (By the way, you own a house in Vermont, Montana, and Oregon? My, my, you do get around.)

  23. George: thanks for all of your excellent articles. Aldo Leopold wrote: “the measure of a civilization is in it’s contrasts”. Aldo must be turning in his grave as he views the urbanization and industrialization of this country grind on, leaving less than 5 percent of the land in a semi wild condition….nothing more than fragmented atolls surrounded by a sea of humanity. If we can’t live on 95 perecnt of the most productive lands, how is the remaining 5 percent or less going to “save us”?

  24. Just get a job and quit whining. If you had worked as hard at educating yourself for realistic employment as you do at whining about how everybody has been mean to you, you wouldn’t have time to whine.

  25. Monty

    Thanks for your comment. Logging unproductive forests like the dry, high country of the BDNF is like robbing the kid’s piggy bank to pay the bills. If we are that desperate we are in a lot more trouble than anyone thinks. Better to learn to live within our means–better yet, not be as wasteful–so we don’t have to degrade our last wild places.

    Geo.

  26. To George & Logger: Given a choice among thrillcraft, mindless recreation use, mining & grazing, I will chose forestry over all of the latter. However, only if it is done in a rational manner that means forests are not highgraded, there is a sane road management policy in place, stop logging high elevation low productive sites and in terms of public forests, grow them on long term rotations…not market driven management & leave the unroaded areas alone (the vast majority of productive forests have previously been logged). But there is a new caveat that global warming has brought into play & that is forest carbon storage. Along with watershed protection, carbon storage may be the most valuable use of our forests.

    And Logger, it still comes back to the reality that “Mammon” the perpetual human growth and consumption machine cannot forever be appeased.

  27. I’m sorry if my tone has been harsh. I’m trying to get George, and Mathew, to acknowledge that I use timber, America uses timber, and yes, they use timber too. And yes, it’s a legitimate issue in Americans lives.
    How can you oppose an issue, without offering an alternative? Do you ever ponder alternative historic outcomes? Say it’s 1946 and the post war boom is starting. Where would YOU have gotten the timber that built your homes? What kind of society would you have wished upon the world? Germany,which is considered very green, logs 12 billion board foot today. So the smaller homes of Europe doesn’t seem to be your answer. Think about it.
    You can’t address a single issue, without considering all the issues it affects. This isn’t a single issue(environment) debate. What are you gonna change upstream and downstream. You want no logging(or very limited) on National forests, but where would YOU get the timber? From Canada? The reality is Americans use the same amount of timber now as before the “timber wars”, nobody changed their lifestyle for the environment-the very take it for granted hypocrisy I decry. All you did was move timber harvest from Montana to Canada. For every dying timber town in Montana, a timber town in Canada boomed. Realizing and acknowledging that there are legitimate issues(timber use) besides your own, is the first step towards compromise. It’s the first step to peace.
    — Monty, do you consider logging 5% in 50 years “high grading”? I wouldn’t consider logging 2.5% in ten years high grading. I think you represent the vast majority of environmentalists who are pragmatic and seek balance and proportion. I thank you.
    — High elevation dry forests? Don’t you get 20-35” of precipitation/year that increases with elevation between 5000’-9000’ elevation? I’ve seen the precipitation maps. I wouldn’t consider that dry. I’d call that pretty productive. If you talk of the spruce fir forests above 9000’-then I agree with you.

  28. I followed up the link to High Country News and Ray Ring. The publisher of HCN was here in Great Falls awhile back and spoke at a conference (it might have been the one dedicated to Joseph Kinsey Howard, or one more specifically about the environment and “development” – but we don’t have much of that, here!).
    I took some notes – I could probably find them in an hour or so, but suffice to say, I was appalled. His attitude was very defeatist and, on balance, very much for “compromise” rather than really saying anything “radical.” (Remember all those corporate and foundation sponsors!).
    People might think the same about New West, but your editorial policy and large readership and comments makes you one of the best venues to really discuss and work out “the big issues.” Good job! There is still “business with a social conscience” in Montana.

  29. Logger, thanks for the civil response. In westside Oregon,where I live, the federal forests contain 10’s of thousands of acres of low elevation productive 2nd growth Douglas-fir forests that are available to play a part in meeting this countries wood demand. All of the roads are in place. For example on the 1.7 million acre Willamette NF, the estimated net annual growth rate on 1.1 million acres (no esitmate for the remaining 600 thousand acres as it is in set asides) is about 500 million board feet or about 100 thousand truck loads of logs per year. For the previous 15 years the net havest rates have been about 50 million or about 10 % of the net annual growth. They don’t need to log the remaining “native” forests as there is more than enough 2nd growth. These forests can be managed under the standards and guidlines of the Northwest Forest Plan which is 2nd to none in protecting water & other values. I spend a lot of time hiking in these 2nd growth forests & believe that forestry, if practiced in a rational manner, will provide both amenities and commondities.

    But on to my primary point—that far too many people ignore. “Social Progress”–economic, political, cultural & such–rests under the assumption that the costs of “progress” are minimal when compared with the benefits. And it’s true, that civilization–in order to exist–needs to “exact a price upon nature”. But the question becomes “at what price” do the perceived short term gains lose out to the long-term unsustainable losses? The Pros of our modern civilization are well known but let’s list some cons: global warming, loss of bio diversity, ocean pollution, Three mile island, acid rain, Chernobyl, soil erosion, 13 of the 17 ocean fisheries are in decline and declining fresh water to name a few. In the 1990’s the world added another billion humans who “are exacting a price upon nature” and future generations will demand their piece of the pie. Every “natural system” on earth is in decline or is polluted.

    Opening up the remaining wild lands to development will only postphone the final day of reckoning.

  30. Monty,
    That 450 million feet a year is fuel. I’d rather it were boiler fuel, or wood products, but what do I know?
    And I must ask…with 600,000 set aside, why isn’t there any harvest on the “rest.” There is something you are not telling us here.

  31. Dave Skinner: Yes, I left some info out. On the 1.1 million acres, roughly 30% is Old growth, 30% is mature native forest and 40% is 2nd growth (these figures are rough as my memory is not what it use to be). Most of the net “annual growth” is concentrated in the 2nd growth. The primary reason that more of the “net annual growth” is not being logged is lack of funding. Local environmental groups, generally, support logging the 2nd growth so there is no political reason to not increase the harvest rates. And local federal representatives also support this BUT there has been no increase in funding as the current recession has dampened the demand for wood products.

    The Willamette NF is probably average in terms of productivity for westside forests in the Pacific Northwest. As an example, the “average” site tree on the Willamette NF attains a height of about 175 feet in 200 years while an average site tree on the Siuslaw NF (the coast range) is 245 feet. Westside Oregon & Washington are, indeed, in terms of termperate forests, the most productive, forgiving and charitable latitudes on earth. If you can’t practice forestry here, then where?

  32. Derek:

    I have been in the woods for a while, and just back where I can comment. Since you live near the Black Hills, I wanted to ask if you had seen Brown’s paper which found that most of the dense forests in the Black Hills were the result of higher precipitation and seedling survival than due to fire suppression as commonly assumed? Anyway, I can send you a link if you are interested.

    I wanted to respond to your comment about “sustainability”. Most foresters think of sustainability in economic terms. Providing long term supply of wood for the mills. By that definition than the minimal amount of logging that has occurred on the BDNF in recent years is “sustainable”.

    However, I have a different different definition of sustainability based on ecological sustainability. By that definition even the limited logging on the BDNF may be excessive. If logging is damaging streams, negatively impacting fisheries, wildlife, scenery, and so forth than it’s not sustainable.

    When it comes to the BDNF even 0.5% cut might not make sense. These other values are much more valuable than the timber cut there.

    Even the Willamette NF has been heavily overcut by that definition. That is why fish like bull trout, steelhead, and salmon are endangered in Oregon, including on the Willamette. Though I do tend to agree with Monty there’s plenty of second growth that can and probably should be logged since it will have less impact than trying to cut 8-10″ trees at 9,000 feet on the BDNF.

    The BDNF is not the nation’s woodbox. What it does best is produce clean water, fish,wildlife, and scenery. That’s what it does first class. As a timber producer it’s at the bottom on the chart. So why jeopardize these first class values to produce something that is marginal at best? Is that “wise use”?

    As for how and why are Americans going to get timber, keep in mind that we aren’t paying anything like the “real” price for our lumber. The real price would include the cost of damaged streams, loss of biomass, etc. etc. etc.

    You talk about the higher cost of timber production on federal lands–that is because the Feds do internalize (a little) the real costs of logging. State lands are notorious for ignoring these costs.

    If people had to pay the real cost for wood, we would probably waste a lot less of it. We probably would be recycling more paper. We probably be building smaller houses or with different materials.

    What environmental laws do is force timber companies to pay something of the real price–but only a fraction of the real price of logging.

    Geo.

  33. To George & Logger: 1988 was the last “big harvest year” on the Willamette NF when about 800 million bd feet was cut. I was not suggesting that the Willamette NF should harvest all of the net annual growth because humans need to become more conservative in our use of “Nature”.

    National forests should never be the “wood basket” of this nation as there are so many other values like watershed protection, species diversity, spiritual values & such. I am a member of a local “Watershed Council” & would never support logging if the federal watersheds could not be protected. Current federal contracts have a myraid of “environmental constraints” that protect water quality & nature provides–in westside Oregon– additional protection with the incredible vegetative growth rates. And as I already mentioned, other than short logging spurs on ridges, the vast majority of 2nd growth “logging roads” are in place and are “stabilized”. And most logging is with skyline systems with partial or full log suspension. The Willamette NF has not constructed a “full bench road”–the most likely to “blow out” for more than 20 years. And the FS is doing a much better job of closing logging roads post harvest.

    The greatest threat to water–other than climate change– in the Pacific NW is that we are turning our primary rivers into housing, farming, industrial & transportation corridors.

    To give context to myself, in the previous 14 days, I have hiked everyday on the Willamette NF viewing & enjoying 2nd growth, mature & Old Growth forests (I am retired). And in the last 40 years much of my time has been in the outdoors.

    One of my greatest issues is noxious weeds but fortunately–other than False Broom–most noxious are shade intolerant.

    George, in terms of below cost timber sales, what you write may be true for low productive forests. In late 1990’s, I checked on ten 2nd growth thinning sales (most marginal sales) on the Willamette NF where the bid rates ranged from $100 to $200/MBF (after logging & brush disposal costs were subtracted). At the time, the Willamette NF was receiving about $50/MBF for timber sale planning, layout & administration. This is just one small picture.

    Yes logger, the primary agent of change–other than humans–has been fire. For the Willamette–roughly, roughly–the 3 major fire events were 100, 180 and 260 years ago & some futher back. Much of the elk and deer forage has been lost in the previois 20 years so the FS in their thinning sales are cutting small openings to increase the forage. And I am a fan of this because I want more mountain lions.

  34. Logger:

    A lot of information there, and I appreciate all the details.

    Let me respond to a few things quickly. I can’t go point by point.

    In response to your query about more rain, well the answer is that yes, there has been more rain as well as less–at least for the Northern Rockies. I don’t know if it applies to the Black Hills, but at least in the NR, the period from 1940-1980 was cooler and moister than previous decades, and it has been drier and hotter the 1980s. And that moisture would favor seedling survival and of course reduce fire spread and result in less severe fires as well.

    That raises the point of whether fire suppression is really that effective or whether we were taking credit for putting out fires that for the most part would not burn much acreage anyway. Then the climate grew hotter and drier, and even with advanced fire fighting capabilities, we suddenly could not control fires.

    As for the Green Islands. I guess that it depends on the eyes of the beholder. Yes I have seen some green unburned clearcuts, but I have also seen many places where where clearcuts burned.

    But that is the same for unlogged forests as well-as you probably know. There are many places in Yellowstone where the fires did not touch. And many acres that burned. There was no logging to affect the burn patterns. So were all the green islands in Yellowstone young forests–no way. Fires have mosaics in their burns for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes the wind stops blowing just as it reaches a particular point and the fire skips that bunch of trees, and sometimes it blows right on through the trees–clearcuts or no clearcuts.

    Derek, just a few days ago I was in the Mill Creek drainage south of Livingston. Much of the drainage burned two summers ago. There has been a lot of logging in the drainage and the fire spread across that drainage regardless of past logging, and I have the photos to show where it burned through recent clearcuts as well as recently regrowing clearcuts, etc. But I can also show you at least one green patch of an old clearcut which did not burn as well–which would “prove” your point if you were with me. In other words, we could be in the same drainage and we would have examples to “prove” either our positions depending on where we happened to look.

    What i didn’t do is figure out what percentage of former clearcuts burned. But my recollection is that more clearcuts were burned than remained green.

    In other areas they have documented this. For instance in the Biscuit Fire of Oregon–the biggest in Oregon history, formerly logged/thinned areas burned more severely than unlogged areas and had a much higher tree mortality. The only treatment that seemed to work well in reducing fire mortality (if that should even be a goal–which I do not think it should be on most forest land) was a thinned area which had been prescribed burned twice after logging–and only a few years before the fire. That area had lower mortality than unlogged or logged.

    But that raises yet another point. Often the effectiveness of treatments declines rapidly. Even if thinning and burning does reduce fire mortaility–and let’s just say for argument’s sake it does, it’s effectiveness wears off in 10-20 years, and if you don’t retreat the area, you gain nothing.

    I know of one study in Yosemite in ponderosa pine forests that found within ten years of treatment, fuel loading was nearly equal to pre-treatment. There is good reason for this–since thinned forests obviously reduce competition and the remaining trees grow quickly, rapidly filling in the gaps and quickly replacing any biomass reduced by treatments.

    I’m ignoring your other points. I just don’t have time tonight to give your response the time it deserves. I’ll try to read it tomorrow.

    Again thanks for the lengthly and articulate response and information. It’s good to get an informed response. Got to go to bed now.

  35. Logger:

    I was a surveyor doing cadastral surveys for the BLM early in my life. Worked in Alaska, Wyoming and Montana. Good way to be outside.

    To answer your question, there are a number of species that depend on early succession to some degree. One is the Kirkland warbler in Michigan. It depends on young jack pine. And in the West, to a degree lynx is also dependent, but it is more complex. It also depends on older forests too. It likes to hunt the edges of young forests–but from the cover and security of the older forests.

    But there are many species dependent on burned/dead forests. The black backed woodpecker is one of the most obvious. But at least one study estimates that 2/3 of species depend on dead trees. For instance, I went out on a field trip with one of Montana’s leading experts on fungi. He says 40% of all fungi (mushrooms for example) in Montana are found primarily in burned forests. Another study that I just read found that 10% of all lichens are dependent and I believe it said, only found on dead trees. We are talking about hundreds of lichen species, not just a few.

    Then there are the subtle things. One of the things that is interesting is a study that found that grizzly bears depend on ants for their food in the summer. In years of bad berries, they get a lot of their energy from ants. And the the ants are dependent on dead logs. I’ve been photographing this all summer–logs torn up by bears. It’s a lot more common than you might think once you learn to notice it.

    Anyway, forests depend on major inputs of dead trees periodically. In other words, it doesn’t have to happen every year–and in fact does not. It’s more like a river that has a hundred year flood on occasion. Bug outbreaks and fires are the same kinds of events.

    That’s why I wouldn’t want to stop fires or bugs even if it were possible–which I do not think it is.

    Geo.

  36. Logger in terms of the Willamette NF, and the watershed I live in, elk numbers are lower than most want them to be. The FS is working with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to start creating more openings in the 2nd growth thinnings. Other wildlife habitat mitigation that the FS is doing include: “variable density” thinnings, leaving specified linear footage of course woody debris (down logs) that are of similiar size of the logs that are being harvested, snag creation and meadow burning to kill the conifers.

    Although 2nd growth wood is not of the quality of slower growing older “native forests”, their growth rates, are nevertheless impressive. Some 50 to 60 year old 2nd growth forests have average daimeters greater than 22 inches & are over 100 feet in height. Post thinning “green up time” is so rapid–10 or so years– that many forest visitors believe that the thinned 2nd growth are unthinned native forests. And along major highway viewsheds there are hundreds of acres of thinned forests that 99% of the public is unaware of.

    The politics of forest managment is fickle. “Clearcut” is like “Remember The Alamo”, them’s fighting words. At least in these here parts, regardless of science, the public thinks clearcutting is a “crime aganist nature”. And for this reason, the FS uses the term “opening” when proposing to create elk forage.

  37. Thanks logger, yes we have about”talked” this topic to death. It’s time to move on! But as the main news media ignores–for the most part–the subject of forestry & other such topics it is beneficial that New West provides a forum for people who care about this important issue!

  38. Logger, It is obvious that you know alot about the land. I wish more people would realize that Montana was doing fine without the “help” of eastern progressives. I have a lot of pride for my heritage and I believe in Wilderness preservation but I resent the fact that out of staters think they know everything and there is only one way to do things. I am worried the land here will not be properly managed and it will end up a tragedy for the rest of the world when our natural common resources are no longer available. I am all for logging as long as it is done responsibly and I am also all for less government regulations on the land. More power to local people means we get to decide what happens to the resources in our state and other people can work on improving their own states.

  39. actually backwoodshick

    my comments make complete sense yours are the ones that seem ignorant and are filled with h8ting

    Over 80% of mt residnets support roadless and over 90% of the american public

    the timber industry and others do lobby to keep even hemp illegal
    the boreal forest is being cut down at alarming rates due to restrictions on logging and demand here in the us

    The black hills are not a good palce to log period
    I see you havent answered anything about griz tracks

    so what about my comments are ignorant?
    what about yours are not?

    It seems you are the ignorant, cultist h8ter

    so foff you dumbass hick