THE CLEARCUT KINGS: The US Forest Service Northern Region and its obsession with supersized clearcuts
Clearcutting is an environmentally destructive but monetarily profitable way to log forests. Clearcutting and its related type of logging–seed tree cuts and shelterwood cuts–are all types of “regeneration” logging. The intent of regeneration logging is to eliminate most of the trees in the area and plant in the resulting openings seedlings to begin, or “regenerate” a tree crop. While modern regeneration logging has various technical terms, such as “clearcut with reserves,” “seed tree cut,” or “shelterwood cut,” the result is often similar. Clearcuts are similar to seed tree cuts and are similar to shelterwood cuts because they create large-scale openings.
The National Forest Management Act (NFMA) is supposed to limit clearcuts at 40 acres, with exceptions granted by the regional forester. Friends of the Clearwater anecdotally observed that forest-managers on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests regularly exceeded this regulatory limit with approval from the regional office, US Forest Service Northern Region. So we submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Northern Region to find out how often national-forest managers were exceeding the 40-acre limit on clearcuts, and how often the regional office was granting permission for these supersized clearcuts. The result formed the below report. If anyone would like to review the files the Forest Service disclosed, please contact our office.
* From January 2013-March 2021, the Northern Region has not denied a single request for a supersized clearcut. The regional office approved 93,056 acres of supersized clearcuts in the national forests of Montana and northern Idaho. This acreage is twice the size of the District of Columbia.
* Supersized clearcuts have increased in recent years. From 2013 until 2017, the Northern Region annual approvals ranged from 5,500-9,430 acres. From 2018 until 2020, however, requests for supersized clearcuts (and approvals) jumped to an annual range of 13,631-24,032 acres per year. This jump is because more national-forest managers are requesting supersized clearcuts in more projects, and because the size of the supersized clearcut is also increasing.
* National-forest managers’ requests to exceed NFMA limits contained little meaningful justification as to why supersized clearcuts were necessary.
There is no natural ecological disturbance that exists in the Northern Region where dead trees simply disappear from the Forest. Dead trees continue to store carbon and create complex forest structures and microclimates necessary for wildlife. Regeneration cuts (clearcuts, seed tree cuts, and shelterwood cuts) remove those ecological functions in addition to building roads, compacting soils, and burning fossil fuels to remove trees. The supersized clearcuts of this report are only a part of a total clearcut accounting. Clearcutting is still a very common practice on our national forests, and any clearcut under 40-acres would not have needed special regional permission. Thus, the Forest Service wouldn’t have disclosed these higher numbers in its response to FOC’s request, and the acreage in our report should be considered lower than the total acreage of all clearcuts.
Despite common assumption, there is no effective regulatory limit for clearcuts on the national forests in the US Forest Service’s Northern Region. Our investigation revealed a Forest Service region where especially large clearcuts are no longer the exception—they are the rule. The NFMA limit on supersized clearcuts, once meant to safeguard against on-the-ground misjudgments or excesses of zeal, is so routinely circumvented in the Northern Region that it no longer appears to accomplish either function. We anticipate that this overzealous and now routine circumvention will continue in the Northern Region, and supersized clearcuts will likely continue expanding in the national forests there until the national Forest Service leadership, the Biden Administration, or Congress intervenes.