The fires burning through northern New Mexico this past month redefine what we consider a normal spring. Pushed by relentless high winds and exacerbated by an ongoing, 20-plus-year megadrought linked to the human-induced climate crisis, these wildfires have shocked and alarmed us all. As fires continue to burn, people want action to keep their homes and loved ones safe. They also look at the surrounding landscape and know it will never be the same again, at least not in their lifetime and perhaps not ever, given that the climate crisis is redefining what is normal. The resulting fear and sadness are understandable, as is the desire for something to be done.
That is why WildEarth Guardians fully supports what fire scientists and researchers have been saying for decades: by taking common-sense actions within the “Home Ignition Zone”—the home and everything around it, up to 100 feet from the foundation—we can save homes and lives and protect firefighters and emergency responders. These are all compelling reasons to focus resources on home and community protection.
Sadly, that is not the direction Congress and the Biden administration emphasize. Instead, when President Biden signed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law late last year, it included billions of dollars and new authorities aimed at cutting down trees across vast landscapes with the implication that doing so will keep people safe.
Then in January, the U.S. Forest Service released its new 10-year strategy emphasizing timber harvest and other mechanical “treatments,” along with controlled burning, to reduce severe wildfire risks. While the agency never says its actions will prevent wildfires, officials often claim that thinning and creating large clearings (clearcuts) will reduce the hottest and most severe fires and return forests to “normal” conditions.
Many people, who are rightly fearful of the flames, readily accept the Forest Service’s promises and implications that, given enough leeway, it will protect their homes and communities. But this is far from reality. Even in cases where the agency can affect fire behavior, its actions will never overcome the extreme drought, record high temperatures, and strong winds that drive the most severe wildfires.
As the climate crisis continues to create conditions where wildfires are burning faster and hotter compared to what has historically occurred, some assert it is our responsibility to put it right by manipulating entire landscapes with chainsaws, roads, and heavy equipment, and only allowing carefully managed fires to burn, if at all. But two wrongs don’t make a right. Decades of ecosystem manipulation, public land exploitation, and aggressive wildfire suppression, coupled with rampant development in forest communities, combine to exacerbate the harm caused by the climate crisis. But the answer is not doing more of the same.
That is why WildEarth Guardians is releasing our official wildfire position, which calls for a major shift in national policy that emphasizes protecting homes and communities while recognizing the crucial ecosystem benefits that fire provides. Rather than give the Forest Service a blank check for broadscale logging, the focus needs to be on helping people adapt to living with, and recovering from, wildfires.
In our wildfire position, we recognize that:
- Wildfire is a unique, essential, and natural process.
- Wildfires of mixed intensities help maintain ecosystem integrity and diversity of natural habitats across vast landscapes.
- Wildfire regimes across the American West are diverse and ecosystem dependent, making management acutely nuanced.
- Natural ecosystems are uniquely adapted to and require fire for self-maintenance. We cannot effectively mimic or replicate the benefits fire provides.
- Intervention with logging and aggressive fire suppression (especially when fires are not threatening homes) often damages the wild places we seek to protect or restore.
- We must work with fire and ensure it can serve its proper ecological role to the greatest extent possible.
Ultimately, we cannot continue trying to dominate and control nature, especially under the guise of “restoring” the forests. Certainly we can, and must, heal the damage from past mismanagement by removing roads, improving stream habitat, cleaning up abandoned mines, and implementing other true restoration actions. But the promotion of landscape manipulation relies on the false belief that government agencies not only can mimic, but can replace Mother Nature through perpetual management. This represents the kind of hubris that created the conditions we see today. It is not a solution but the underpinning of greater disaster.
Bull trout will have cleaner, colder water. Grizzly bears will have more secure and connected habitat. Elk and bighorn sheep will have larger areas to roam. Unneeded logging roads will be removed and hiking trails will be repaired.
This is the reality now that the Forest Service’s Legacy Roads and Trails program is permanent, and funded.
Deep within the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, just signed into law by President Biden, sits Section 40801—Establishing and funding the Legacy Roads and Trails program. This is a huge win in our decades-long drive to protect and restore national forest lands and waters.
Your support has led to this victory, and your continued generosity will ensure that we’re able to leverage the Legacy Roads and Trails program to benefit clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, and communities throughout the American West.
For years, Guardians has shone a light on the scars from decades of extractive (ab)use across millions of acres of the National Forest System—where over 370,000 miles of roads block fish from migrating to spawning grounds, slice critical habitat for grizzly bears, Canada lynx, and Sonoran desert tortoise into pieces, and muddy drinking water for countless communities.
The Trump administration eliminated all funding for this successful and popular program, but we persisted because national forests roads have over $3.2 billion in unfulfilled maintenance and restoration needs, meaning that roads can easily crumble into creeks with any passing storm.
Thanks to our hard work, now $250 million over 5 years will flow into the Legacy Roads and Trails program to support projects such as fixing roads and trails to withstand more intense storms, decommissioning obsolete roads to rewild wildlife habitat, and removing or improving culverts under roads to allow fish passage. These are highly effective actions that improve climate resiliency and fix the harm from decades of damage.
Roads are like a dagger piecing the heart of wild places, so we are incredibly grateful to thousands of you who took action over the past year to drive Congress to permanently authorize and fund this crucial program. But we aren’t done yet.
Your continued support today will help us achieve our Rewilding vision.
In 1995, Congress passed the now infamous “Salvage Rider,” which effectively suspended environmental safeguards for three years allowing the U.S. Forest Service to ramp up industrial logging and road building across the American West, including in previously protected ancient, old-growth forests.
The rider was an unprecedented power grab by the timber industry, giving the U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary sole discretion as to whether or not the Forest Service should conduct any environmental analysis of logging impacts and it completely did away with any administrative appeals while also severely limiting the ability of the federal courts to stop the damaging timber sales.
Perhaps one of the most egregious provisions in the rider was the “sufficiency clauses” that said any “salvage” timber sale would automatically be considered as meeting the requirements of the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, along with several other bedrock conservation laws. And just to be sure no other barriers stood in the way to this massive timber grab, the law exempted any timber sales conducted under the rider from “all other applicable federal environmental or natural resource laws.” Thus, it rightfully earned the moniker “Logging Without Laws.”
As they say, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, and Congress is on track to do just that. Within the bipartisan infrastructure package passed by the Senate—and now before the House—Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) attached two amendments that will significantly increase commercial logging within national forests. One would let the Agriculture Secretary declare an “emergency situation” allowing the Forest Service to immediately authorize the logging of dead or dying trees, trees damaged by wind or ice, and “sanitation harvests” (i.e. clear cuts) to control insects and disease. The “emergency situation” is so broadly defined that it could include most any area on national forests not Congressionally protected.
Like the 1995 Salvage Rider, the Daines amendment would exempt logging from the National Environmental Policy Act. Luckily, the full Senate made some changes to this amendment, including taking out the provision exempting logging projects from “any other applicable law,” but the version it did pass still precludes the resulting timber sales from administrative review, and it curtails the courts from stopping damaging timber sales. The Daines amendment has no expiration date and makes any environmental analysis of those timber sales completely optional.
The Senate left Daines’ second amendment unchanged, and it would create yet another categorical exclusion—actions exempt from detailed environmental analysis—allowing the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to log and clear up to 3,000 acres at a time to establish “fuel breaks,” a completely unnecessary provision given both agencies already have numerous categorical exclusion provisions in its regulations under the guise of reducing wildfires. Additionally, Congress expanded the 2003 Healthy Forest Restoration Act several times adding more categorical exclusion allowances, one of which authorizes logging across 3,000 acres. Not only is Daines’ new provision unnecessary, it further erodes environmental safeguards meant to protect public lands and nearby communities.
Years of wildfire rhetoric, frightening images, and claims that we can control wind-driven, climate-exacerbated fires have led to a collective amnesia, paving the way for these terrible amendments. Instead of playing politics and stoking public fear to suspend environmental safeguards for more resource exploitation, lawmakers must tackle the main driver of wildfires—the climate crisis. No amount of logging, thinning or other “forest management” is going to stop the unprecedented drought and extreme temperatures gripping the American West. As the bipartisan infrastructure deal works its way through Congress, lawmakers must act to strip the dangerous Daines amendments from the package and carefully guard against similar measures from reaching President Biden’s desk. Please take action today.
A federal judge has issued a win to WildEarth Guardians and our partners—rejecting crucial aspects of the Flathead National Forest’s revised forest plan that would have paved the way for increased road building and logging on the forest in northwest Montana.
This is a major victory for federally threatened grizzly bears and bull trout, whose population numbers had benefited from the prior forest plan’s more protective road management requirements.
The lawsuit challenged the Forest Service’s decision to abandon key road management requirements despite them being more protective of wildlife habitat and supported by best available science. Exiting the courthouse after oral arguments, I felt cautiously optimistic about Guardians’ chances of success. Thankfully, my gut feeling was spot on.
The judge held the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s biological opinion for the U.S. Forest Service’s revised forest plan failed to justify or explain the weakening of protections for grizzly bears and bull trout, in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The court also rejected the Forest Service’s reliance on the flawed biological opinion.
This win is likely to have even broader implications beyond the Flathead. The judge ruled that the agencies must consider impacts of the revised plan to the entire grizzly bear population in the lower-48 states, not just the smaller disparate population on the Flathead. The goal under the ESA is survival and recovery of all six grizzly bear ecosystems to ensure, among other things, long-term genetic diversity.
But the fight is not over yet. We are continuing to diligently track the federal agencies’ actions in response to the court order to ensure this legal win equates to real on-the-ground results for grizzly bears and bull trout. Your support is crucial for Guardians to see the work through for the benefit of grizzly bears and bull trout.
It feels good to win.
WildEarth Guardians, Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Native Fish Society, Advocates for the West, our experts, tribes, and agency biologists have said all along: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is failing to save Upper Willamette River wild spring Chinook salmon and winter steelhead from extinction.
And now a federal judge unequivocally agrees and demands action.
In a strongly worded order issued on July 15, 2021, Judge Marco Hernández declared “the Corps has fought tooth and nail to resist implementing interim fish passage and water quality measures that it was supposed to begin implementing a decade ago” and stated “the Court has no patience for further delay or obfuscation in this matter.”
Now the Corps is on the hook—no pun intended—to implement twenty actions with specific deadlines at multiple dams throughout the Willamette River basin. Most of these actions imposed by the Court were requested by Guardians and our coalition.
No more excuses from the Corps!
Thanks to our successful lawsuit, operations at multiple dams will be modified to prioritize fish passage, a step toward ensuring native fish and ecosystems can thrive. There is renewed hope for western rivers, including Oregon’s Willamette, which are strangled by dams that impede natural flows, block fish migration, and negatively impact water quality. The perilous decline in wild fish will be stopped.
Your actions and financial support are vital to our work protecting living rivers and stopping extinction. You helped make this victory possible. Your continued support and partnership will enable Guardians to keep defending the wild fish and wild rivers of the American West.
This year’s wildfire season is well underway, not just in the Southwest where extreme temperatures and mega-drought continue to bake the region, but also in the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest, which are under a record-shattering June heat wave. How oppressive has the heat been? It was 116 degrees in Portland, Oregon on June 28. Clearly, the climate crisis continues to redefine our new normal as the American West struggles with the worst drought in 1,200 years and wildfires burn at unprecedented levels.
Researchers from the Universities of Montana and Wyoming recently published findings that show wildfires are burning more high-elevation forests now than at any time over the last 2,000 years. Couple this with the fact that humans cause between 80-90 percent of wildfires, and the logical conclusion is that we urgently need to protect forests and stop burning fossil fuels.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers, federal and state agencies, and timber industry proponents claim that wildfires can be—and must be—stopped by more logging. The tired refrain goes that fires won’t burn if we just suspend environmental safeguards and allow tree “thinning” and associated road construction across vast landscapes. Of course, fires do not burn without fuel and decades of fire suppression have prevented fire from playing its natural role, in some ecosystems more than others. However, despite the scary images and rhetoric, most fires have a range of severity leaving some patches entirely unburned, or burned at low to moderate intensity. Fire plays a crucial role in providing habitat for species that rely on burned areas, and most forests need fire to regenerate— even high severity fire. In other words, wildfires—including high intensity fires—are an essential component of healthy forest ecosystems.
Ignoring these facts and well-established science, some lawmakers are once again pushing bad logging bills. But after the massive 2020 fire season, calls for landscape-scale thinning were quickly refuted. The retired Dean of the College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana explained, “all the forest management in the world won’t stop forests from burning at higher levels unless we turn down the heat.”
Of course, communities adjacent to forested areas need real solutions to help protect their homes, solutions based in facts and science, not rhetoric and fear mongering. Yet, instead of keeping the focus on community protection and the immediate area around homes, bills and policies that purport to “restore” landscapes by logging and thinning remote areas on America’s public lands do little except give property owners a false sense of security.
The science is clear that the best way to protect public safety and communities in fire-prone forested areas is to focus on the Home Ignition Zone (HIZ), which is home and the immediate area extending 100 to 200 feet around structures. The National Fire Protection Association explains that following its guidelines within this zone will “interrupt the fire pathway and keep flames small, which creates a defensible space to help slow or stop the fire from spreading.” As the preeminent fire scientist Dr. Jack Cohen recently explained “ignition resistant communities based on the collective HIZs effectively address wildland-urban fire as a home ignition problem.”
Instead of playing politics and stoking public fear, federal and state agencies must work with property owners and communities to take these simple, yet effective, steps. And lawmakers must provide the authority and funding to do so.
The best way to manage wildfires is allowing them to play their natural ecological role wherever possible, and to promote true restoration that creates larger tracts of intact forests by removing unneeded roads. At the same time, lawmakers, federal and state agencies, and timber proponents need to stop promoting logging and thinning as a means to control wildfires. No one talks about hurricane-proofing the Gulf Coast, or tornado-proofing Oklahoma, and similarly, we cannot fire-proof forests. Only by taking bold action to address the climate crisis will the situation improve, and in the meantime, forests are going to burn as they adapt to hotter and drier conditions, which is why we need more ignition resistant communities and fewer opportunities for people to inadvertently start wildfires.
After years of enduring—and fighting—federal rollbacks on America’s bedrock conservation laws and protections of public lands and waters, we are on the cusp of a much needed and inspiring change of course.
President Biden has signed an Executive Order directing the Interior Department to outline steps to achieve the president’s commitment to conserve at least 30% of America’s lands and waters by the year 2030.
The 30×30 Initiative, as it’s commonly called, is sorely needed as America—and the world—confronts the dual threats of climate change and biodiversity loss. Thankfully, thus far, over 450 elected officials from across the country, and political spectrum, have affirmed their support for 30×30.
To meet this ambitious and necessary goal we have work to do. Despite the heroic efforts of individuals, communities, and organizations, America has only permanently protected 12% of U.S. lands according to the U.S. Geological Survey. On top of having a long way to go, we’re still digging ourselves into a hole because America is losing a football field worth of land in a natural state every 30 seconds, or 2,170 square miles annually.
This decline of nature threatens our health, food supplies, biodiversity, and wildlife. Across the globe, approximately one million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades, including one-third of U.S. wildlife. In the U.S. and Canada alone, bird populations have dropped 29 percent since 1970. America’s rivers and oceans remain in grave peril, and we’ve already lost over half of all freshwater and saltwater wetlands. Habitat loss and destruction of migratory corridors are pushing many species closer to the brink. Clearly, we don’t need more data to see that urgent action is required.
Achieving the 30×30 vision is essential to protecting life on earth and the initiative’s climate and biodiversity goals are inextricably linked. When we protect land, we provide the habitats needed for ecological processes to support the diversity of life while simultaneously capturing carbon. Reaching 30×30 goals will also provide and grow green jobs, protect culturally significant sites, increase access to nature for historically marginalized communities, and safeguard vital headwaters for people, communities, and wildlife.
The 30×30 Initiative presents opportunities to reinstate protections of national treasurers stripped away by the Trump administration, such as the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah and the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.
But we must do more. One of the boldest ways to help reach 30×30 goals would be passage of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA). This visionary act, which was developed by leading conservation biologists, would designate 23 million acres of Wilderness for some of the wildest public lands remaining in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, and Oregon.
NREPA would also designate 1,800 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers, preserve old-growth forests that will act as a carbon sink to counteract greenhouse gas emissions, and establish biological and wildlife corridors, which are critical for the continued existence of the region’s iconic wildlife, including grizzly bears, wolverines, bull trout, sage grouse, the nation’s largest herd of wild bison, and the country’s few remaining woodland caribou.
Increasingly, Americans want to heal the scars from resource exploitation by rewilding public lands and NREPA will establish wildland “recovery areas” on federal public lands that will create sustainable jobs undoing the damage caused by destructive activities like logging and roadbuilding.
The crises of our time require bold solutions. We must protect at least 30% of our nation’s lands and waters and the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act is a solution we must grasp to help preserve life on Earth.
Please contact your members of Congress today and urge them to co-sponsor and pass the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act.
Ghost Roads. This term conjures images of a terrified Ichabod Crane slowly moving down a dark, frightening forest road on a trembling horse, waiting for the headless horseman to jump out of the shadows and lop off his head. After working this past spring semester as an intern for WildEarth Guardians I learned a lot about ghost roads, and other types of roads, that weave and wind through national forests. Even though these roads are not haunted by ghouls and goblins, a road that is abandoned, partially treated, or not maintained is very scary.
Ghost roads originate from old logging and mining roads, temporary roads constructed during U.S. Forest Service projects that were not removed after completion, or were illegally created through repeated use. They are not recognized or recorded in Forest Service databases, yet these apparitions still haunt the landscape. Ghost roads retain the potential for severe ecological impacts, particularly in post-wildfire settings. Leaving them on the landscape increases the likelihood of continued environmental impairment, negatively impacting water quality and wildlife habitats. Roads can also exacerbate the effects from wildfires and can make post-wildfire consequences worse, cause wildfires to occur more often, and amplify the magnitude of fire events.
Per the U.S. Forest Service manual, unneeded roads should be decommissioned to a more natural state to protect and enhance National Forest System lands. However, rarely will the agency fully remove the entire road length by recontouring it back to the original slope, leaving these roads on site in varying unnatural conditions.
During my internship I discovered humans have used and abused the forests leaving behind a mosaic of roads zig zagging and scarring mountainsides. Even though the Forest Service faces funding and staffing challenges, they should be identifying these roads and, if appropriate, recontouring them back to a more natural condition. The agency may suggest this occurs in other processes, such as during Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) activities; however, my research with Guardians proved this to be false. The BAER team admirably performs their post-fire emergency mitigation duties, but they are not actually remediating ghost roads.
My dad worked in the wood products industry most of his life. As a young man he hauled logs for a living and later wood chips from mills in western Montana to particleboard processing centers in Missoula. Even though he relied on the forest to support his family, he also believed in forest conservation and sustainability, although he never used those two words. He supported forest preservation for jobs and recreation. Growing up I spent many summers on Noxon Reservoir were my dad taught me to appreciate the land and treat it with respect so generations after can treasure and learn to love the forest like we did.
Dad passed away in 2017 but if he were here today and I could recite the ghostlore of these roads, he would agree 100 percent they need to be removed. Working with WildEarth Guardians resonated with me because it is what my dad instilled in all his daughters. My favorite place to be is in the deep green shadows of ponderosa pines and Douglas fir and to get there I need a road. But unused roads need to be recontoured to prevent the damage they cause after wildfires, prevent future wildfires, and help restore the watershed. We need to respect the forest and heal the past wounds from resource extraction and human made infrastructure by exorcising ghost roads from the landscape, preserving the forest for wildlife, fish, and future generations.
TAKE ACTION: Urge the U.S. Forest Service to focus on rewilding, not more roadbuilding.
Standing next to a classic old-school U.S. Forest Service sign on a sunny early June day, Representative Kim Schrier (WA-08) spoke passionately about national forests and the need to restore lands and waters. While her words occasionally were impacted by noisy cars passing on a nearby road, she was speaking about other roads—the maze of Forest Service roads that impact how wildlife use forests, how fish use streams, and how people access trailheads. Just in Washington State, the “legacy” of a century of unconstrained logging, grazing, and mining has left over 20,000 miles of forest roads—enough to drive from Seattle to D.C. eight times. Nationally, there are over 370,000 miles of roads on National Forest System lands. Doesn’t that seem like too much?
Most people agree. And there is a simple solution—fix the forest roads we use and rewild the ones we don’t. Fund maintenance budgets for roads to campgrounds and trailheads. Fund Legacy Roads and Trails budgets to reconnect wildlife habitat, reestablish soils to infiltrate water and sprout new seedlings, and remove old barriers in rivers and streams.
The group quickly left the noisy roadway and headed into the woods for the day’s highlight: a short hike in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Gathering next to the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River at the trailhead, the immediate commentary was about the giant potholes and deep dips that folks navigated on the way. Federal Highways funding paid for paving of some of this access road but the Forest Service’s minimal roads budget means that less than 10% of their roads get any type of attention (maintenance) in any given year. Potholes get bigger and the problems also expand.
WildEarth Guardians and many allies, such as WA Trails Association, Mountains to Sound Greenway, The Wilderness Society, Trout Unlimited and more, showed up to hike and celebrate the outdoors but also continue to push solutions. Thanks to Representative Schrier, the Legacy Roads and Trails Act was introduced in Congress again this year. We are all working to ensure that as solutions to the climate crisis and crumbling infrastructure are hammered out in Congress, that Legacy Roads and Trails is part of the solution.
Please do your part and ask your members of Congress to fund Legacy Roads and Trails.
Protected habitat for iconic species like the grizzly bear, wolverine, sage grouse, bull trout, Canada lynx, and gray wolf. Preserved old-growth forests that will act as a carbon sink to counteract greenhouse gas emissions. Designation of 23 million acres of public land as Wilderness and 1,800 miles of rivers and streams as Wild and Scenic. Establishment of biological corridors, preserving the migration patterns of native animals and allowing ecosystems to flourish.
These are just some of the benefits of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA).
WildEarth Guardians is proud to endorse this visionary bill and now we need your help to make this bill a reality. Write your members of Congress today and urge them to co-sponsor and pass NREPA.
As you hear us often say, the environmental crises of our time—climate, nature, and extinction—require bold, systemic solutions that work for people and the planet.
While some may dismiss NREPA as just a wilderness bill, it does much more. NREPA establishes a number of wildland “recovery areas” on federal public lands that will create sustainable jobs undoing the damage caused by destructive activities like logging and roadbuilding. For decades, Guardians has worked to erase the scars from resource exploitation by rewilding public lands and waters and NREPA will help achieve our vision of healthy, connected wild places for wildlife and people.
NREPA also complements President Biden’s executive order to put America on the path to protecting 30 percent of its land and ocean areas by 2030. The bill will significantly advance the goals of the Green New Deal and help the U.S. meet its contribution to the Paris Climate Agreement. As an added bonus, NREPA also will save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars by eliminating heavily subsidized logging and road building in wildlands that would serve more essential functions as Wilderness.
Join us in supporting the visionary Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act—write your members of Congress today.
You can also learn more about NREPA by watching the inspiring Earth Day Eve conversation we had with Carole King and Alliance for the Wild Rockies.