BOULDER, Mont. -- Lodgepole pine trees have seen better days in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.
The 3.3-million-acre forest in southwest Montana has suffered one of the worst infestations of mountain pine beetle in the Northern Rockies.
More than half the trees in the forest's Boulder River basin have died or are succumbing to the rice-sized insects that bore through their fibrous veins, leaving a nasty blue fungus in their wake.
Some of the younger trees have survived by pitching the bugs out of their bark using a gooey yellow sap. But the older trees, many of them approaching a hundred years, have had no such luck.
The trees have taken on a rust-red hue that has become all too familiar in the West. The trees will eventually lose their needles, wilt and turn a deathly gray. Lacking vertical roots, they will either topple with the next burst of wind, or worse, supply dangerous tinder for wildfire.
The pine beetle owes its success to a combination of warmer winters -- caused, some say, by a man-made warming climate -- and densely packed, even-aged stands of trees that have enabled beetles to easily fly from tree to tree.
But while beetles, and wildfire, play an important ecological role in the Rocky Mountains, a coalition of conservation groups, outfitters and timber companies say the outbreak offers an opportunity to fix years of environmental harm.
The groups proposed a plan that would combine mandatory timber harvests, forest restoration and new wilderness. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), introduced the proposal as the "Forest Jobs and Recreation Act" in summer 2009 and again in 2011.
Tester's bill would fast-track the use of "stewardship contracts," which allow the Forest Service to sell some of the dead and dying trees to timber companies to help pay for important restoration work.
"The receipts from the sale of timber can be returned to do other resource work," said Dave Myers, supervisor of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge. "That work can be done beyond the timber sale area. I can address a watershed issue in the next watershed if I want. It's a pretty cool option."
The Forest Service, while stopping short of endorsing the Tester proposal, said it supports the bill's vision and that its timber mandate is "ambitious, but sustainable and achievable."
And there's no shortage of restoration work to be done.
In addition to beetle impacts, miners as early as the late 1800s have dredged the forest's rivers and scattered tailings along their banks, threatening to leech heavy metals into streams.
More recently, motorists have carved out miles of illegal off-highway vehicle trails, spreading weeds and causing sediment to run off into waterways critical to cutthroat trout.
Fallen trees also threaten sedimentation. Some have tumbled onto power lines, while others have forced the closure of half a dozen campsites.
"There are some real opportunities," said Bruce Farling, executive director for Trout Unlimited in Montana. "If you can take the value of those trees and reinvest them using these stewardship contracts, we could get more done on the ground for everybody."
Of course, timber harvests are never an easy sell in a state where disputes over natural resources spark political firestorms.
Some environmental groups in recent years have expressed concern about impacts to species like grizzlies, raptors, elk and birds and have successfully challenged logging proposals in federal court.
"A lot of the challenge is beating back challenges, doing paperwork," Farling said. "It's been going on so long now that there's a culture in the [Forest Service] that you just talk to people and a lot of them seem to have just given up."
Meanwhile, timber jobs in Montana have shrunk significantly over the decades. The state's last pulp and paper mill, Missoula's Smurfit-Stone Container Corp., closed its doors a year and a half ago, laying off more than 400 workers.
The wood-products manufacturing industry today comprises 17 percent of Montana's economy, second only to oil and gas, according to Sherm Anderson, owner of Sun Mountain Lumber Inc. in Deer Lodge. A decade ago, wood products were at 35 percent, and 20 years ago they were half of Montana's economy, he said.
The situation led to the unlikely alliance of conservation groups including Trout Unlimited, the Montana Wilderness Association and the National Wildlife Federation and timber companies including Sun Mountain, Pyramid Mountain Lumber and RY Timber Inc.
Tester's bill, which nearly passed the Senate as part of an omnibus spending package last December, would require the Forest Service to harvest timber on at least 100,000 acres of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Kootenai national forests over the next 15 years. Revenues must be used to obliterate unneeded roads, remove invasive weeds or conduct other restoration work.
For conservationists, the bill would also create nearly 700,000 acres of new wilderness, the highest form of public land protection, where motorized travel and industrial development is barred. An additional 370,000 acres would be designated as recreation areas where current off-highway vehicle use would be guaranteed to continue.
But the measure has splintered the environmental community, with some arguing that Congress would be setting a dangerous precedent by mandating logging on national forests, a role that has historically fallen to Forest Service biologists through collaboration with the public.
The bill would also streamline the appeals process for timber sales and force judges to consider the balance of harms of a project rather than environmental impact alone, provisions to make obstructing projects more difficult.
Some county commissioners, particularly in southwest Montana, have also warned that the bill could divert revenue that schools receive from traditional timber contracts. Tester's camp contends that the Secure Rural Schools program -- an alternative for counties, but which expires soon -- has provided far more revenues than timber.
The bill has also angered some in the ranching community who argued that new wilderness could hamper their access to water infrastructure on mountains where they graze their cows.
While the bill contains language guaranteeing rancher access, critics say the measure adds another layer of red tape on top of already burdensome regulations from the Forest Service and U.S. EPA.
Tester said the proposal forces everyone to compromise, but that all Montanans stand to benefit from new timber jobs and wilderness that will serve as magnets for hunters, hikers and anglers in southwest Montana.
"Wilderness designation does not end grazing at all, never has, and if I have my way about it, never will," Tester said in a recent interview. "This is pretty spectacular area. If you can keep it in this kind of a land-use situation for decades to come, you can imagine it's only going to become more and more sought after."
Tester, an organic farmer from northeast of Helena, said the bill was so close to passing at the end of last Congress that he "could taste it."
But the bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) continues to oppose the bill's logging mandate. The bill appeared to gain momentum at a committee hearing in May, which drew surprising support from the leader of a ranching group in Montana (E&E Daily, May 26).
A bigger challenge will be getting the bill through the GOP-controlled House. Critics include Republicans who opposed restricting access to public lands, as well as Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont), who is challenging Tester for his Senate seat in 2012.
The impasse means Tester may have to attach the bill to a must-pass piece of legislation, a tactic he said he is willing to try again if it gets the bill to the president's desk.
The proposal is right for Montanans, Tester said, regardless of whether its passage costs him re-election support.
"I'm not running for this office to lose, make no mistake. I'm running to win," he said. "But if me passing this bill means losing this election, I want it to pass tomorrow."
Gordy Sanders gazed at a broad valley of bear grass, lodgepole and ponderosa pines south of Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness, one of the state's largest roadless areas. Waterfalls cascaded down snow-capped mountain peaks under overcast skies.
The view wouldn't be so spectacular if it weren't for the work of his timber company nearly 10 years ago.
Sanders is resource manager for Pyramid Mountain Lumber, a family owned board mill in Seeley Lake that employs about 150 people and produces more than 3,000 niche timber products, Sanders said.
Because it is small, Pyramid is able to cater its work to a variety of forest regimes, Sanders said. During harvest, machines known as "feller bunchers" maneuver through stands, grasp trees, slice them at the stump and place them gently onto landing areas. The work is light on the land and typically includes restoration work, he said.
"We were the stewardship company before stewardship contracting was piloted," he said.
Nearly a decade ago, Pyramid won a contract for the Clearwater Stewardship project, which allowed the company to selectively thin trees over about 600 acres while reinvesting the proceeds into forest work.
The company helped remove, resurface or reroute dozens of miles of roads. It also built new stream passages for endangered bull trout and installed 18 vault toilets in campgrounds to protect water quality, among other projects.
Workers also thinned a small stand of trees along a Forest Service road to improve the mountain views for visitors.
"This whole area is occupied grizzly habitat, lynx, wolves, bull trout, cutthroat trout," Sanders said, waving his arm across the wild expanse. "That's why the [area] is a pretty good model of what can be done."
Today, bear grass dots the landscape where industrial timber machinery once rumbled -- a sign that the soil was not harmfully compacted. Lodgepole pine saplings are beginning to emerge from a former landing area that housed freshly cut logs.
Legacy roads that ran dangerously close to streams have all but disappeared with the growth of new trees and brush. Their roots help anchor the soil from the stream.
Sanders said he hopes the Tester bill will allow companies like his to begin similar projects on the Kootenai and Beaverhead-Deerlodge.
While nearly 70 percent of Montana's forested lands are federally owned, Pyramid gets less than a quarter of its supply from the federal estate, Sanders said.
"What's difficult with the Forest Service is the process they have to go through," he said. "They're basically crafting a Ph.D. thesis for every environmental impact statement they write."
The Tester bill would encourage the agency to craft larger, landscape-scale timber and restoration projects, which would improve regulatory efficiency, Sanders said. Project reviews currently take up to three years.
"When they have to write a 900-page document that's absolutely bullet-proof in court, that's a big deal," he said. "It's extremely difficult. ... Natural resources just aren't that black and white."
Grizzly, goshawk concerns
Critics of the Tester bill say the proposal sends the wrong message that politicians in Washington can dictate where and how the nation's forests are harvested.
Some environmental groups warn that accelerated logging will lead to the extinction of grizzlies in the Kootenai and could imperil the goshawk, which often nests in the snags of beetle-killed trees in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge.
In addition, the bill would release nine Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management wilderness study areas, including some protected by former Sen. Lee Metcalf (D-Mont.), into permanent motorized recreation areas or release them for development.
George Nickas, executive director of the Missoula-based Wilderness Watch, said he believes many environmentalists have reservations about the bill but are reluctant to speak out when Tester is facing a tough re-election race. Some cannot look past the fact that Montana hasn't designated new wilderness in more than a quarter-century and are willing to compromise on a watered down bill, he said.
"Clearly there are a lot of environmentalists in Montana who will say, 'I know it's bad, but we've got to support it for Jon, we've got to do this for Jon,'" he said.
"If Tester doesn't succeed in passing his bill, the sense is that it's bad politically," Nickas said. "The environmental groups just bite their tongues and keep supporting it."
Nickas' group is part of an opposition coalition known as the Last Best Place Wildlands Campaign, which includes the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, WildEarth Guardians and the Western Watersheds Project.
He said Tester has improved the wilderness portions of the bill. They include changes barring helicopter landings in the Highlands wilderness area and provisions improving commercial outfitting and fire management in wilderness areas, he said.
But the changes came at low political cost, Nickas said. Substantive changes like removing the timber mandate have been left off the table.
Tester last summer, upon hearing that Senate committee staff had removed the bill's timber provisions, said the new draft was "dead on arrival" (Land Letter, June 17, 2010).
"Some of these things you're doing, senator, are so contrary to a long history of public land environmental law that you're going to run into a buzz saw," Nickas said. "[Conservation and timber groups] just told him that everybody supports this bill except for a few crazy wacko outliers out there."
Matthew Koehler, who leads the Last Best Place Wildlands Campaign, said dissent in the environmental community could cost Tester support in the run-up to the 2012 election.
"I think he has upset a lot of progressive activists," Koehler said. "My personal belief is that a lot of people are going to leave [the ballot] blank, or at least not knock on doors, not put up signs. I think people feel that way on a lot of issues with him."
Koehler said some environmentalists are unhappy that Tester had authored a provision in Congress' 2011 continuing resolution that removed Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in the state, an unprecedented move for Congress but one that was supported by most conservationists and sportsmen.
Heat from ranchers
On the other side of the issue is Rick Sandru, a rancher who grazes about 900 cattle in southwest Montana's Ruby Valley. The bill's wilderness provisions may unintentionally threaten the lands they are designed to protect, he warned.
Wilderness protections, he said, could make it harder for ranchers like him to maintain the water tanks and other infrastructure that keep cows away from sensitive riparian areas on the forest.
"Creating more wilderness does not protect the watershed," he said. "If you create a wilderness, you're pretty much tied to a 'hands off' approach."
The proposed Snowcrest wilderness, he warned would include 20 of his stock association's water tanks, miles of pipeline and roughly 25 miles of seasonal roads used by ranchers and the public for hunting, wood gathering, camping or sightseeing.
If Sandru's ranch workers need to use four-wheelers to do maintenance on water tanks, they will need permits from the Forest Service, he said.
"It's always at the discretion of the supervisor," he said. "If you get in a position and you don't like cows in the Snowcrest, you can pretty much make our lives miserable."
Without viable ranches, lands in the pastoral Ruby Valley could be sold to housing developers, Sandru said as a small herd of pronghorn antelope scurried over a hillside on his ranch.
Tester said he worked closely with ranchers like Sandru to ensure the bill included "ironclad" access to water facilities. It also guarantees the Forest Service will not prevent motorized sheep trailing in the wilderness.
"Their operations aren't going to change any," Tester said. "And by the way, we took a lot of heat from the enviros for doing that."
Other critics argue that timber mandates in the bill will be impossible to meet if environmental groups find ways to block them in court. Some have asked for trigger language in the bill that would bar new wilderness until timber mandates are met, a proposal Tester said would not pass muster in the Senate committee.
Kerry White, who founded the group Citizens for Balanced Use, said a small group of environmentalists sue every timber sale the Forest Service proposes, and they often prevail.
"This bill does nothing to prevent that from continuing to happen," White said. "We have the most liberal judge and the most liberal appeals court," he said, referring to U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
But groups including the Alliance for the Wild Rockies say the lawsuits help keep the government accountable for its own laws. As an example, it cited a 9th Circuit decision to halt the Rat Creek timber sale west of Wisdom, Mont., a proposal the group argued failed to protect standing dead snags that provide habitat for numerous birds.
"This is a classic example of what happens when politicians and loggers get to design sales in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge," Mike Garrity, the group's executive director, said in a recent newsletter to members.
Beetles won't wait
The Obama administration, after initially resisting the proposal, said in May that it supports the bill's collaborative model and the increased use of stewardship contracting. But it expressed reservations about legislating forest management.
In addition, BLM's Montana office said last month in an internal agency letter that it supported the Tester bill, both for the wilderness it creates and the wilderness study areas it would release from roadless management.
But the longer the bill stalls in Congress -- it was introduced more than two years ago -- the greater the beetles' damage, agency and timber industry officials said.
Cracks have begun to appear in many of the trees of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, a sign that they are no longer valuable to nearby mills. It is too expensive to send trees to pulp mills in the Pacific Northwest, said Myers, the forest supervisor.
Most beetle-afflicted trees are good for one to three years after infestation starts, he said.
"There is an urgency clearly to get enough of this work through the planning so we can harvest it while it has value," he said. His team is beginning scoping work on a restoration plan for the Boulder landscape.
The densely packed trees also risk fueling severe wildfires that could threaten homes and accelerate erosion that has harmed the area's waterways.
Four wildfires are now burning -- some near beetle-killed areas -- with flying embers spotted up to a mile from the flame front, Myers said.
"These large landscape watershed projects can work any time," Tester said. "But from a beetle-killed tree standpoint, we're losing a lot of board feet every day to Mother Nature."