Landscaping the National Forest …


The new puppy and I walk the same trail every morning, Suce Creek. It’s about a 15 minute drive from town, and the perfect morning walk. Up a steep little hill, down into a creekbottom, up again to the second creek crossing, and then a nice climb back up to the parking lot. It’s about three miles round trip, and there’s enough elevation to get a girl’s heart rate up, and plenty to keep a subadult puppy entertained while he gets his morning ya-yas out.

About a mile into the hike, you cross over into the Wilderness Area. I was once barked at by a very large bear who was standing on the game trail, standing just behind and above the wilderness area sign. He made a terrifying huffing sound while peering at us with his myopic eyes. My now-departed dogs were puppies then, and I remember being amazed that they came when I called them back. I think it was like the tone. Like when you yell at a kid about to run into traffic.

So this fall, as we’ve been walking the trail every morning, the Forest Service has been cutting down trees. Spruce trees, specifically. So that the aspens in that grove up at the top of the trail can supposedly flourish. Aspen groves, the USFS claims, are very biodiverse. This will be good for the area.

I’m sorry, but if there’s a better example of fiddling while Rome burns than this project, I haven’t seen it in a while. The drainage where I walk dogs was untouched by the big Pine Creek fire two years ago, but it sits on the same side of the Absaroka range. The USFS is cutting live trees one drainage over from a fifteen mile long swath of burned forest. A burned forest amid hundreds of miles of forest being decimated by pine beetles. They’re cutting live spruce and fir trees in a dead forest so that a few aspens can succeed. Aspens that would normally succeed firs after a fire — you know, like the one that has left most of the mountainsides facing the Paradise Valley brown with burned forest.

Now, I’ve worked for a large corporation for fifteen years, and I can totally understand the appeal of this project. It’s not very big, so getting funding probably wasn’t that hard. It’s completely quantifiable — count the trees, do some species surveys, then cut a quantifiable number of trees and come back a couple of years later to count the new aspens and do new species surveys. It’s not a bad project, it’s just a ridiculous one.

We’re facing climate change here in the Northern Rockies, a change that is largely responsible for the way that the pine beetles have devastated our forests. We’re living in the middle of tens of thousands of acres of dead forests, forests that by August are so dry they burst into flames at the slightest provocation. We could be in the midst of a deforestation like those that forever changed the landscapes of places as diverse as England and North Africa.

And what’s our local Forest Service office doing? They’re landscaping a 20 acre patch. They’re up there with chain saws and bobcats and a lot of very nice kids who are just happy to have jobs outside. I like our local Forest Service folks a lot. I don’t begrudge them their jobs, or even a project like this, but it’s insane. Really.

We’re up against  huge, terrifying, systematic climate change, and our government, one of the only forces capable of actually speaking to the problem, is still funding little landscaping projects like this one?

I don’t know what to say other than it fills me with despair. We’re fucked. It doesn’t matter if we encourage one 20 acre patch of aspen trees in Montana. The whole ecosystem is collapsing around us. As we watch. As we waste our time and resources on little projects like this one.

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