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Anti-nature agenda slides into gear

Alan Braunholtz

I shed real tears, as so many said so much but meant so little, hoping as usual that few people will remember to hold them to their word. Conveniently timed war rhetoric is a useful distraction here.

Post-election and the true colors are already flying. After 10 years of study, the most comments in park history (80 percent in favor) and an EPA recommendation, the Park Service decided to ban snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park.

The incredible noise, air pollution and occasional irresponsible yeehaw! disturbed the wildlife and everyone else who wanted to use the park. To give an idea how bad the pollution could be, park rangers at the entrances wear respirators, ear protection and have fresh air pumped into their cubicles.

Now it’s been summarily changed. Snowmobiles will be allowed but there is a cap, sort of. It’s set 35 percent higher than the average daily use. Commercial guides will guide four out of five trips, hopefully to keep the yeehaw factor under control. But if there’s little money for enforcement, who knows? Most importantly, by 2004-05 all snowmobiles will be four strokes and not the polluting two strokes.

It’s a compromise that heavily favors the snowmobile industry, who are very supportive fiscally and vocally to politicians who help them. I’m not that upset, since compromises are part of life. Snowmobiles are a lot of fun and even small movements to a common ground are welcome.

I’m more disturbed at how the change happened. Ten years of study ignored, no environmental impact statements, just meaningless platitudes committing “to preserve park resources.” There’s a message to other wilderness users: get organized, vocal and backed by industry and compromises will go your way more often.

The snowmobile industry is largely to blame for its bad press. For years the major complaint against them has been the noise and pollution of the cheaper two-stroke engine. Any industry with a smidgen of societal responsibility (and foresight) would have said, “Hey, we better all start making clean quiet four strokes.” Instead they focused on the power of a two-stroke, promoted an “in your face” advertising image, then used their clout and the sport’s popularity to intimidate lawmakers.

Colorado lawmakers are making all sorts of excited noises about logging as a way to increase water yield from the forests. The idea is that trees catch the snow on their branches, where it is exposed to the sun and evaporates. Trees also use water (who gave them water rights!) preventing it from flowing down the mountain into the streams and then our lawns.

This is not a new theory. It’s been knocking around for at least 20 years. Some test plots have increased their water yield after logging. To get an increased yield, 25 percent to 40 percent of the watershed needs to be clear-cut. Think about that 40 percent. These clear cuts then must be maintained, as any new growth loving all that extra sunshine will also use up that extra water. The alternative is cutting new ones every five years or so. In 15 years, 80 percent of your forest is gone.

With no trees to provide shade and act as a sponge, this extra water will run off earlier and an increase is only measurable in wet years. So we cut down trees to increase spring runoff in a wet year. More erosion for water we can only use by building dams to store it for dry years. Erosion, floods, sediment, clear-cutting and dams – anything else on the menu for environmental disaster?

Interestingly, other researchers find the exact opposite happens when you clear-cut. Ski resorts are a good example. Snow on the exposed runs gets blown away, dry winds and the sun’s heat sucks the moisture out of the snow. Snow falling on the trees lining the runs quickly sloughs off the branches onto the ground and into the shade where it is protected from the sun and the wind. Anyone who hikes the mountain in the summer can verify this.

As trees mature, they hold more water in the soil and use less. They are in more of a maintaining mode than growth mode. Older forest canopies have many gaps from insect or wind damage. These uneven canopies allow the snow to fall through easily. Our forests are about to reach this age.

The high altitude snow forests that are threatened with clear-cutting to promote water yield are too damp to be a fire risk. There is no two for one, increase water yield and reduce fire risk. The fire risk areas are too low for snow and around towns. Imagine how much money will be spent by the taxpayer to subsidize the loggers to clear cut our high alpine forests. Why not spend that on thinning around “at risk” communities and water conservation projects?

The national forests’ own web site says that managing forests for water produces yields that are unpredictable and overall undetectable. If we are really worried about water, why not think about reducing consumption, increasing conservation and establishing markets to allocate the water we have more efficiently?

Balanced papers on the idea simply say that cutting for water yield is still an unknown. It depends on so many factors – type of trees, slope aspect, altitude, winds, age of forest – that it cannot be predicted. Trees, fire and water seem to illustrate a quote by Thomas Jefferson: “He who knows best knows how little he knows.”

Sadly, our legislators know about political donations if nothing else. This is about logging, not water. Mark Rey, undersecretary of agriculture, overseer of the Forest Service and former timber industry lobbyist, promises to help our state with its tree problem.

People tend to grasp at science to justify their beliefs. Our Western lawmakers seem to have elevated manifest destiny-resource extraction to an article of faith. I admit some environmentalists are equally blinkered in the opposite direction. When you mix faith and science you compromise both and end up with bad faith and bad science.

Alan Braunholtz, ski instructor and raft guide, writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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