The Forest Service is proposing to use helicopters to ignite fire on 13,500 acres in the Mission Mountains Wilderness in northwest Montana. The agency also wants to plant white bark pine on 2,000 acres in the Wilderness. This burn and plant plan is part of a larger 15-year proposal which also includes logging up to 40,000 acres on the Flathead National Forest, between the Swan Mountains Crest and the northern portion of the Mission Mountains Wilderness. The agency’s actions would significantly manipulate this Wilderness and destroy the area’s wild character.
The Forest Service claims burning and logging is needed to reduce wildfire risk to homes, in particular hotter fires driven by climate change. However, this tired argument fails to address climate change as the underlying cause of hotter fires, or protect property or lives since scientific studies show home ignition is determined by condition of the home’s immediate area, not by conditions in forests far from communities.
The proposal is a slap in the face to Wilderness.
Helicopters are antithetical to Wilderness and prohibited by the Wilderness Act except in rare cases where such use is essential to wilderness protection or search and rescue operations. Helicopter use harasses wildlife and destroys the experience for wilderness visitors. Prescribed fire is in no way essential to protecting the Mission Mountains Wilderness, yet this proposal would allow an undetermined number of fire ignitions via helicopter in the Wilderness over a number of years. Further, there is nothing to prevent the Forest Service from instead allowing natural fires to burn in the Wilderness.
The Forest Service also wants to plant blister rust-resistant white bark pines in the Mission Mountains Wilderness. But, planting in Wilderness, regardless of how well intended, violates a fundamental tenet of Wilderness—that it remains “untrammeled by man,” or unmanipulated. Wilderness is a self-willed landscape, a place where we let nature roll the dice and let natural processes determine the conditions. Howard Zahniser, the author of the Wilderness Act, put it best when he implored us to be “guardians not gardeners.”
Not only will planting super trees manipulate the Wilderness, but it likely won’t work. Fungi like rust are highly adaptive and planting trees resistant (versus immune) to blister rust will likely select for rust that can overcome trees that were thought to be previously rust resistant. Trying to short-circuit an evolutionary process of adaption won’t likely work and may actually further endanger white bark pine across the landscape.
The Forest Service needs to let the Wilderness be wild, as the Wilderness Act requires.
Photo: Troy Smith via Flickr