Through the smoky haze, I could just barely make out the “H” on Mount Helena from my home during the last couple of weeks. This year’s fire season has been especially bad, reminding me of the several fire-filled Augusts from my childhood when football practice was moved inside and we’d find chunks of ash on the windshields of our parked cars.
Growing up in the Bitterroot Valley, I’ve had a front row seat my entire life to the effects of forest fires. There is no question that increasingly severe fires and smoke-filled skies are bad for our health, our environment and ultimately, the way of life we enjoy here in Montana.
Thankfully, federal and state leaders are recognizing that active forest management like selective logging, fuel reduction and prescribed burns is effective at mitigating against unnaturally severe forest fires. Under Gov. Greg Gianforte’s leadership, Montana is doubling the amount of forest acres actively managed this year. President Biden agreed with Gianforte in a recent exchange that reducing fuels in our forests is a necessary component of good environmental stewardship.
Despite the appearance of consensus on this issue from our leaders, we still hear a lot of criticism about active forest management from environmental commentators, like my fellow columnist George Ochenski, who say we can “never log our way out of our baking climate.” These critics fail to see the forest for the trees.
Years of poor management and “hands off” policies have made our forests like tinderboxes, overloaded with fuel for fires like the ones we are experiencing this season. Last year California’s wildfires emitted more CO2 into our atmosphere than 24 million cars. In fact, smoke from fires had the biggest impact on the climate in 2020, bigger than the complete shutdown of our world economy from the pandemic.
Researchers, government experts, foresters — the people who understand our forests best — have shown that proactive forest restoration not only helps prevent severe fires, but also promotes long-term forest health, protects our watersheds, improves wildlife habitat and preserves our access to the outdoor places we cherish. In fact, actively managed forests can help offset the effects of climate change because they are better at sequestering harmful CO2 from our atmosphere — something critics like Ochenski fail to mention.
The United Nation’s own panel on climate change recognizes active forest management as the key component to their strategy to mitigate CO2 emissions: “a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fibre or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.”
There’s no way around it: you simply cannot claim to support addressing climate change on the one hand while opposing proven and practical forest management to help reduce the risk of massive forest fires on the other.
The favored proposals to address climate change touted by critics of active forest management often require long-term policy changes to fundamentally reshape our entire world economy, with benefits that will only be realized gradually.
In contrast, active forest management offers us a constructive way to address forest health and reduce the threat of disastrous fires in the near-term, rather than waiting for idealist climate solutions to be realized decades from now.
Like a lot of Montana kids, I was taught never to complain about a situation unless I was prepared to offer a constructive, practical solution. Unless we want to continue suffering from massive fires, active forest management is a no-brainer.
Kendall Cotton is the president and CEO of the Frontier Institute, a Helena think tank dedicated to breaking down government barriers so that all Montanans can thrive.