Forest Service Smokes Montana

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
August 19, 2007

By Bill Steigerwald

Imagine all of Allegheny County burning to the ground -- all 730 square miles of it.

That's almost how much of Montana was in flames Friday, thanks to 17 major wildfires that have torched 453,576 acres of its vast conifer forests and grasslands.

Montana's wildland fires -- plus 15 others upwind in Idaho that were consuming another 620,986 of God's greenest acres -- have turned the state's famous Big Sky into the Big Haze. For several weeks smoke has blurred sunrises and sunsets, dulled the edges of craggy mountains and left a burnt pine scent in western Montana's valleys and canyons.

Montana may be burning -- as it does each summer. But as I saw earlier this month during my fourth career vacation in the mountainous Lewis and Clark National Forest in west-central Montana, the fourth biggest state in the Union is as spectacular, friendly and sensible as ever.

The indigenous Montanans still like their big pickups, tractor hats and boots. The two-lane roads are still straight, empty and faster than most interstates. Minuteman missiles are still armed, aimed and ready in their remote mountain silos.

A state sales tax still doesn't exist. And though some locals complain about population growth and jacked-up property values, Montana still has far fewer humans and movie stars -- 944,000 -- than beef cattle.

The old downtowns of "big" cities like Billings, Great Falls and trendy Bozeman look healthy. And isolated but lovable Lewistown -- population 6,000, dead-center in the state -- remains the perfect small town with its three coffee shops, old movie theater undergoing restoration and tree-lined streets filled with laughably cheap 1930s houses.

Last week, Montana's two U.S. senators -- Democrats Max Baucus and Jon Tester -- said they suspect global warming is partly to blame for the huge fires that have rendered the air in the state capital of Helena officially "unhealthy" and blanketed half of their state with smoke.

Al Gore would concur. But Alison Berry, a research fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, suggests a more likely culprit -- the USDA Forest Service.

Fires -- usually started by lightning from summer thunderstorms during periods of super-low humidity -- are natural events and ecologically important, Berry said. When they burn lightly, fires keep forests healthy and renew them.

But because federal policy for 100 years has almost always focused both on putting out wildfires as soon as they start and prohibiting selective timbering to remove excess fuel loads, forests out West have become unnaturally dense and choked with undergrowth and fallen trees.

Now, because of all that stored fuel, when forests do catch on fire, they often turn into unstoppable infernos that wipe out entire forest stands. Despite this long-understood knowledge, Berry said, it is still federal forest policy to suppress most fires if people or buildings are threatened. Usually, only fires in remote areas are allowed to burn.

Sens. Baucus and Tester may be alarmed by wildfires -- which in fact have been burning up increasing amounts of federal land the last decade -- but Berry says this fire season out West is pretty typical.

And as long as the government continues to mismanage the national forests, Montana's summer skies are going to stay a lot smokier than its lucky citizens -- and Mother Nature -- would prefer.

Bill Steigerwald is the Trib's associate editor. Call him at (412) 320-7983. E-mail him at: bsteigerwald@tribweb.com.

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