Pine-bark beetles are usually killed by a spring frost, but an unseasonably warm spring rouses the bugs and sends them on their scourge. The enviros had a prima facie case — a warmer globe would mean more beetles — if you’re the type of person who finds a causation in every correlation. In fact, worse beetle kills certainly occurred before a written record began, which in the American West is not so long ago. This really didn’t matter to the environmentalists, for whom everything hitherto designated “an act of God” is now attributable to anthropogenic global warming.
As the warming palaver got moving in the usual quarters, the real story was happening on the ground, where a pattern was emerging. The national forests and federally designated wildernesses in western Montana were devastated by the beetle, while state, tribal, and private landholdings that bordered them suffered considerably less damage. And those non-federal lands have seen an uptick in logging over the past several years, even as federal timber sales continue to plummet.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal forest abuts the Lolo National Forest, subject of ad nauseam environmental litigation. On the Indian reservation, logging is expedited because the forest, under the tribe’s management policy (much like the original policy of the national forests), must pay for its own upkeep and be a source of profit for the tribe. The tribal court hears lawsuits concerning land use, but it often requires environmental groups to post a bond to cover part of the cost in delaying a logging project, which will be forfeited if the environmental litigant loses. Such lawsuits rarely proceed — why would they, when litigating in federal courts is almost always free and, because of attorney’s-fee awards, even profitable for the plaintiffs?
The consequence is that tribal, state, and private forests have been thinned. So when the beetle came, these forests suffered far less damage than the overgrown (but otherwise biologically similar) national forests bordering them.
The most profound irony of the locking up of timber resources is that the national forests and many other lands that man has presumed to keep in their “natural” state are, in fact, far from untouched to begin with. American Indians, along with trappers, settlers, ranchers, and farmers (all of whose main fuel source was wood), game wardens, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the BLM — all have an accumulated history of centuries of intensive meddling in places we wrongly regard as “untouched” nature.
Man has transformed nature, and that bell cannot easily be unrung. While environmentalist doctrine today favors the concept of preserving “wilderness,” Indians on the eastern seaboard and in the West were active foresters who wielded fire to manage forests and brushland. As William Cronon argued in his classic work of environmental history, Changes in the Land, controlled fires set by American Indians resulted in a landscape considerably altered from its natural state, with greater habitat for beaver and other fur-bearers and widespread growth of wild strawberries, which would have been crowded out by a forest run rampant. All this, even before the white man had discovered this nature.