As GRLA Moves Forward Ecological Concerns Rise Up

Eleanor Guerrero
CCN Senior Reporter
Thursday, March 25, 2021
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Courtesy photo
The ponderosa pines provide an incredibly important environment for all kinds of wildlife including grizzlies, bobcats and lynx as well as birds, insects and rodents.   

The Greater Red Lodge Area (GRLA) forest project has been signed off and ready to go this summer. 

Jennifer Lyman, Ph.D, Professor emerita, Plant Ecology at Rocky Mountain College continued her talk about the importance of the area about to be cut between Red Lodge and Luther. The Greater Red Lodge Area plan has targeted this area as a fire mitigation project. However, it appears from Dr. Lyman’s view, that this is not the case. She explains below.

“The Palisades Trail is just west of Red Lodge.  It skirts the edge of the hills below the ski area and barely is beyond the houses but goes from the ski area road to Fox Road, about 3 miles.  It passes through what the USFS calls a distinct genetic type of Ponderosa pine forest at its southern end and that continues about half-way or more along the trail.  Douglas fir and Lodgepole pine also occur along the trail, with scattered patches of aspen as well.”  

“I don't know the answers to any of the following concerns that I have about the logging protocols for this area,” she said. “What concerns me is knowing what the level of ecological thinking underlies the logging design and protocols.”

Lyman looked at it as a purely commercial timber sale operation. 

She said, “Commercial Timber Operation: If a commercial timber sale operation is what this logging operation is then it is a shame and should not be the focus.  This area is in the Wildlands Urban Interface and does need to be logged...... or cleared of some dead material.... but the operation must be strategic and based on ecological principles.  The reason we have fires is that the forests have not been logged properly in the past.  We can still see the results of past logging here... if you look at the Ingles Creek drainage from the West Fork road in winter or on the photos on Google Earth you can see that the trees grow in rows.... This is the result of logging practices from about 1892-1896 that compacted soils, eroded soils in the horse/wagon paths, and then when the whole front burned in 1898 new seedlings could not grown on the eroded paths left by previous logging operations and we end up with a monoculture of trees is rows.  So we inherit lots of these types of forests.  The forest on Palisade trail is not one of these... it does have a small diversity of tree species including this particular genotype of Ponderosa Pine.  We need to care for this area.”

Her concerns are primary that this area is of ecological importance. 

 “Ecological Concerns: The southern part of the trail has been cleared of undergrowth in the past.  There are very few shrubs and no ponderosa pine seedlings or saplings under the mature ponderosa pines that were left behind.  Therefore, in the future when these ponderosa pines die there will be no tree replacement.  The ponderosa pines left behind produce cones but the seeds don't grow.... I suspect that the previous tree removal action left too much bare ground between the small groups of mature pines so that the soil is simply too hot and consequently too dry (the exposure is somewhat southern) to promote seedling germination and survival.  The logging practice probably disconnected the mycorrhizal linkages among the individual trees and groups of trees so that the existing ponderosas are not getting great nourishment on top of the hot, dry summer soils.

The way the trees are marked for the logging projects suggests that the same pattern of isolated groups of mature trees with very few or no understory species will occur.  What this will do is open up the hiking trail and soils to intense summer heat during July-early September and the same issue with tree replacement and diverse-aged forest will occur.”  

She notes, “Certainly it will change the microclimate of the area when the trees are removed and the sun penetrates clear to the ground, the soil erosion will also increase on these slopes.   The soils are thin anyway and quite fragile so having heavy equipment in there will be extremely problematic.  Compaction will disturb the soil biota quite negatively.  What we have on the southern end of the trail where it is very hot and dry is a dense stand of spotted knapweed, the inevitable result of poor planning.” 

Lyman said the ponderosa pines provide an “incredibly important environment” for all kinds of wildlife including birds, insects, rodents, etc.   

She reflected, “The USFS could be extremely diligent about addressing all these issues...I simply don't know.  What I see on the trail does make me concerned enough to hope you will ask them about it.”  

Lyman concluded, “This is just a brief discussion of the issues or questions.  We know now from so many incredibly good scientific studies that trees in the forest are linked to each other and also linked often to the wildflowers and shrubs that occur with them.  Ripping out sagebrush is often terrible for many wildflower species because they are hemiparasites that depend on the shrubs for nutrients.  But the mycorrhizal linkages are so much more intense.”

Lyman says she has talked with a number of retired USFS employees who are also concerned. She says they are “reluctant” to speak up.  

Michael Garrity of Wild Rockies Alliance said previously, "Almost all areas where there has been more logging have seen lynx decline as logging increased. It is time to say no to more road building and clear cuts and get on with the important work of protecting habitat to actually recover the lynx as required by the Endangered Species Act."

The United States Forest Service Forest Supervisor, Mary Erickson was asked to respond to Lyman’s issues raised. Erickson referred the response to local Beartooth District Ranger Ken Coffin. Regarding the issues Coffin said, “We appreciate you reaching out to us, however, we don't typically respond to previously written stories because we don't believe this is the best way to inform people about projects.  I acknowledge many of the concerns expressed by the people you've interviewed for your previous articles about the Greater Red Lodge Area project. Much of the concern you've reported on has been addressed through the analysis process and I suggest people review the analyses by visiting the Custer Gallatin website or contacting us at the Beartooth Ranger District. Alternatively, I would like to submit an op ed about vegetation management on the Beartooth Ranger District in April or May that would talk to GRLA but also share a broader outlook around vegetation management.”