Jeff Lonn was disturbed when he heard that Forest Service personnel were training on the southeast face of Ward Mountain by using explosives in an Inventoried Roadless Area to fell large Ponderosa Pine snags that were killed during the 2016 Roaring Lion Fire. According to Lonn, he made an inquiry about the ecological effects of felling numerous big snags for training, “especially since one of the explosive-felled snags was outside the fire perimeter in an area shown on Bitterroot National Forest maps as Old Growth.” But he received no answer.
Then on June 20 he took a walk in the area and discovered that this same training crew had also cut down a live 600-year-old Ponderosa Pine. Lonn said two maps from the BNF Westside timber project showed the tree to be in both the Inventoried Roadless Area and an Old Growth area.
Lonn notes in his communication with the agency that the Alta Pine that burned in 2008 was regarded as the oldest Ponderosa Pine in Ravalli County at 800 years. Big Pine, the biggest Ponderosa Pine in Montana, near Tarkio, is 350 years old. The oldest known living Ponderosa, located in Utah, is 950 years old.
“In any case this pine was a very significant tree and may have been one of the oldest Ponderosa Pines in Ravalli County, if not Montana… While I understand the value of training and that the impacts of cutting big snags are probably debatable, the act of cutting down a living 600-year-old tree for training is indefensible. I hope you will investigate.”
In his response to Lonn, Darby District Ranger Eric Winthers defended the practice. He stated that from May 23 to May 25 the Bitterroot National Forest was providing an Advanced Faller’s Workshop in which trainees were exposed to “multiple complex trees, giving them training, education, and experience in Advanced Falling Operations on trees with extreme hazardous conditions.
“This training was also conducted under the guidance of a Professional Timber Faller, with over 40 years of professional falling experience, and has been working with the Forest Service/Bureau of Land Management, since 2005 in multiple Regions throughout the nation,” he wrote. “We also conducted a hazardous tree blasting exercise to show our Fallers that there are additional options available to them, to mitigate hazard trees that have been deemed too dangerous under normal chainsaw felling operations. This training empowers our chainsaw operators to make decisions in the field using the best methods and safest practices to remove hazardous, complex trees while reducing risk to others.”
He said the tree mentioned in Lonn’s email was determined to be felled “due to conditions of hazards (multiple dead limbs broke and hanging overhead) and overall health of the tree (determined that it was dying – very thin crown with over 70% of the crown dead and remaining 30% dying). This tree provided the fallers an excellent training experience to develop skills needed to keep fallers safe, and help reduce injuries/fatalities in future falling operations.” He said every year firefighters are killed during falling operations.
“I realize that the tree was in an Inventoried Roadless Area, but no requirements of the 2001 Roadless Rule were violated,” he wrote. He said the rules provide for cutting areas to meet Saw Program training requirements and maintain sawyer proficiency and that the authority may be delegated to the District Rangers.
Lonn did not find the response adequate. He said he disagrees with classifying the tree as unhealthy instead of just old.
“Using his logic, its ok to cut down the 4,500-year-old Bristlecone Pines in California because they are more than 70% dead,” said Lonn. “Finally, I am not sure to whom the tree would be hazardous: it was not near a road, a campground, or even a trail. It was in an area of Old Growth in an inventoried Roadless Area that is little visited by humans. That’s why I like to go there.”
One more point, says Lonn, is that although Ranger Winthers stated that the tree was dying, Lonn saw no indication of that. “The needles were all very green even more than a month after it was cut,” says Lonn. “I would say that the tree was dying in the sense that that all of us are dying; that is, we will die someday, but it is not necessarily imminent.”