Wildfires burned more than a million acres across Montana this year, making it one of the most expensive fire seasons since 1999. While the smoke has cleared, the debate over wildfires and forest management is ongoing. Some Montana lawmakers are blaming what they call "environmental extremists" who've managed to stop some logging. But ecologists say it's more complicated than that. In an effort to learn how to live with wildfires, the Southwestern Crown Collaborative is one group trying to find common ground.
Tucked in the thickly forested valley between the Mission and Swan mountain ranges of western Montana, the small, tourist town of Seeley Lake feels tranquil after a dramatic wildfire season.
Along the main drag, locals are filtering into Pop’s Place for breakfast. The joint is decorated with deer mounts and fly-fishing art.
Tim Clark, the owner, says his business largely depends on summer tourism. He lost about two-thirds of his usual profit while the Rice Ridge Fire burned from July into September.
Clark lays the blame on environmental lawsuits that stop timber projects in national forests. In his view, logging is crucial for reducing flammable material in a forest and preventing large fires like Rice Ridge.
"I breathed air for 50 days that I’m probably going to suffer from for the rest of my life, and it all could have been prevented with forest management,” says Clark. “Loggers are probably the best conservationists we have. They don’t want to lose their livelihood, so they’re going to take care of their crops."
Just down the road in Seeley Lake is Pyramid Mountain Lumber. A worker in a skid loader there is moving a pile of freshly cut logs across the yard. The air smells like pine and shimmers slightly from all the sawdust.
This is the oldest family owned and operated sawmill in the state. There used to be seven mills in Missoula County. Now there are just seven left in Montana. Plant manager Todd Johnson says it’s also the largest employer in the community with about 150 employees, and he’d like to be able to hire more.
"We can put people to work on the ground, good paying jobs that are paying taxes in the community, have kids in this community," says Johnson. "It’s a resource that we believe is being underutilized. And you have to balance. We believe it’s out of balance."
Johnson says making it easier to log national forests, especially around communities, would support jobs and reduce the size and severity of wildfires.
"You’re never not going to have fires, but if you take away some of the fuel, you’re not going to have the large fires that we have," says Johnson.
A few miles northeast of Pyramid Lumber, one of the biggest fires of the year burned for three months, forcing the evacuation of most of the town of Seeley Lake. The lighting-caused Rice Ridge Fire burned 160,000 acres of mostly National Forest land, and its smoke made air quality hazardous for weeks.
Back at Pop’s Place, Tim Clark says the U.S. Forest Service did a good job protecting the community, but that they were held back by environmental lawsuits. He’s not alone in that opinion.
Rachel Cramer: How do you feel about Gianforte when he called out litigators as environmental extremists?
Tim Clark: My term is they’re environmental terrorists.
"We’re tied up in knots through extensive and ridiculous permitting processes, and frivolous lawsuits from environmental extremists," said Congressman Greg Gianforte at a press conference in August.
Gianforte called out environmental groups for stopping a logging project near the Rice Ridge Fire. The Stonewall Vegetation Project, Gianforte said, is exactly what Montana needs more of — cutting down more trees on national forests to reduce the size and intensity of wildfires in the state.
The Alliance for the Wild Rockies is one of the groups that sued to stop Stonewall. Mike Garrity is its executive director. Some of the land that was supposed to be logged in the Stonewall project area burned this summer in the Park Creek Fire, and tempers flared.
Garrity says it’s not uncommon for him to get angry phone calls and anonymous threats to burn down his house. But, he says, Stonewall would have violated the Endangered Species Act by destroying lynx habitat and that his group was only exercising its right to participate in public lands decision making through the courts.
"We sue to get the Forest Service to follow the laws that Congress passed and the president signed," says Garrity. "So because they’re losing in court all the time, it’s much easier for them to say, 'Well, it’s these radicals — or whatever name they want to call us — who are causing the problem.'"
Garrity says his organization does not oppose logging in general — particularly on the edge of a community.
"A lot of politicians or the timber industry have claimed we've shut down forests," says Garrity. That’s not true. We focus on the timber sales we think are really bad."
Stepping back from the politics and litigation, there are many misconceptions about wildfires and the role of forest management, says Andrew Larson, a forest ecologist at the University of Montana.
"I think one of the most important things people need to recognize, living in western Montana, is that we live in a flammable landscape," says Larson. "We need to expect fires to burn in places that we live, where we hunt, where we recreate."
Larson says fire is a key part of western Montana's ecosystems. For example, many tree species are adapted to release seeds only after a major fire. Fire also clears out thick vegetation, thereby allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor and support the growth of young trees.
But Larson says forest management — including some logging followed by prescribed burning — has a role to play in certain types of dry forests at low-elevations near communities. In low-wind conditions, this kind of management can stop or at least slow down the progress of a fire. Still, Larson says forest management is not supposed to prevent forest fires.
"So that’s a huge misconception," says Larson. "Very frequently, public figures will either make that statement or imply that when we manage forests, the outcome will be no fire. And that is absolutely not the case."
Disagreements over how to manage forests can be impassioned and angry. In 2009, a new effort to find collaborative solutions brought together a spectrum of people who care about the safety of their communities, jobs, and wildlife.
Jim Burchfield, a professor of forest social sciences at the University of Montana is part of it. Today he’s on a field trip with other people looking for common ground. A group of residents, scientists and conservationists are touring part of the forest the Rice Ridge Fire burned near Seeley Lake.
"It’s awfully easy to think of fire as being homogeneous, and it’s not," says Burchfield. "And I don’t think our response should be homogeneous either. That’s why these collaboratives are so interesting is that we get to think through some of the nuances of what we might want to do."
The Swan Range is covered in a brilliant display of green conifers and golden larch; creeping up from the valley is an amoeba-like patch of burned forest.
The people here are part of the Southwestern Crown Collaborative. An independent, volunteer-based project that works with the Lolo, Flathead and Helena National Forests on restoration plans, with the goals of reducing fire risk and boosting local economies.
Gary Burnett, a co-chair of the Collaborative, says it is a long, often challenging process, but –
"If we work at the edges, we just sit at the edges and argue with each other,” says Burnett. “And it’s not that those values don’t count at the edges, but we’re not getting work done. We’re not building trust. We’re not even necessarily being respectful."
The Montana Wilderness Association’s Zack Porter, also a member of the collaborative, says wildfires are sometimes used to promote political agendas and increase logging. But this group, he says, supports science-based decision making and local timber mills that care about stewardship.
"There’s a difference between that and going back to an era of timber harvest in western Montana that I really don’t think is something that most Montanans would ever want to go back to," says Porter.
Porter says many Montanans are still transitioning from the old ideology that no fire is a good fire. But that doesn’t mean that living with wildfires is easy.
"And if we are going to choose to live in this landscape for all of the things that we love about it, we are going to have to learn how to live with the other aspects that are less pleasant for us," says Porter.
After last summer, how to live with fire is something a lot of Montanans are talking about. There was a forum on that topic at the University of Montana last week. Phil Higuera, a fire ecologist at the university, said the question of how much forests should be managed versus left to “natural processes” is complicated by climate change.
"It’s not surprising if humans are increasing temperatures, then some degree of the wildfires that we have seen in the last 30 years have some human fingerprint on them," said Higuera. "And I think it forces us then to start to acknowledge that we need to take account for management actions we’ve done in the past. And think hard about what we value, why we value that, and how that varies across the landscape."
Higuera said that whenever values are involved, there will always be tension. At the moment, some lawmakers are trying to protect traditional industries and ideas about forest management. Some environmental groups are making use of long-standing environmental laws to protect what they value. Others are looking for ways to collaborate to help Montana find a way to live with fire.
This story came to us from Crossing the Divide, a cross-country reporting road trip from WGBH and The GroundTruth Project. Rachel’s on a team of five reporters exploring issues that divide us and stories that unite us. Follow their trip across America at xthedivide.org.