Wild elk shows forester that sometimes the answer isn’t so “clear cut”

Elk in Montana

The ground was shaking, but it wasn’t like an earthquake, which made it even more disturbing. I looked around for my crew partner who looked as perplexed as I felt.

We were in the backcountry of the Deerlodge National Forest, working for the U.S. Forest Service on an inventory crew. Our job was to hike into wild areas in Montana, measure trees and make notes of our surroundings. The eventual result would see the trees logged and sold to a timber mill.

I was at “plot center,” which meant that I was stationary and recording notes as my crew partner circled around -- measuring the vegetation that fell within the circle. This was how we could statistically calculate how much timber was in a particular forest stand. The stand had dense lodgepole pine and Douglas fir trees and I could barely see my crew partner.  We heard noise that was getting louder and louder, almost like a freight train. Suddenly an elk herd was running on each side of us. Both my crew partner and I were stunned, but untouched, by the elk.

The year was 1976 and I still had a year to go before I would graduate from the University of Montana with a forest management degree. I was excited about the career path I was charting out. I was already working in the forestry field in my third field season. I saw myself eventually becoming a District Ranger or some other Forest Service professional.

After completing work that day and seeing more evidence of elk in this particular forest stand than any other we had worked in that season, we decided to see if we could somehow set aside this one forest stand so it would not be clearcut. The next day I told my supervisor the story of our elk encounter and the fact that it was obvious those elk were heavily using the particular forest stand. I asked if there were any way we could make the recommendation that the forest stand be set aside for the benefit of the elk.

He shook his head and said emphatically, “Damn the elk, Congress wants the Forest Service to get these timber sales out and sold -- and that’s what we are going to do.” That was the moment I knew I would have to part paths with the Forest Service and how I eventually found myself working for The Wilderness Society in Washington and Oregon.

The theory I was learning in school was that the Forest Service managed the public’s lands to ensure the resources would be available for future generations, as well as benefiting current generations. Timber was supposed to be just one of the resources we focused on. High quality drinking water, recreation, wildlife and fish habitat, livestock forage, mushrooms and unique forest plant products, wilderness and scientific research were all supposed to be managed in a sustainable way and available for the American public to use and enjoy. In the late 70s and 80s, the reality was that the Forest Service focused on commodity extraction of timber as its dominant use.

That’s why, with strong public support, conservationists pushed hard in Congress support for laws providing specific conservation direction to the U.S. Forest Service that resulted in the National Forest Management Act of 1976 (NFMA).  The key component of the law was that National Forests had to develop a 10- year plan for how it would manage the land and resources in each individual National Forest. Periodically the regulations that detail how NFMA will be carried out is changed by the Forest Service -- with lots of public input. 

This is a superb time to update the regulations that implement NFMA as the Forest Service seems serious about prioritizing restoration, and with all the new information available on climate change, carbon storage benefits of forests, needs of endangered species, economic benefits of restoration, and our growing population in even greater need of recreation options.

We expect the latest draft regulations to be issued soon. We will be calling upon you to help show strong support for managing our National Forests in a balanced approach -- so that the elk will not be damned and our children and their children can enjoy experiencing wildlife encounters, wilderness journeys and all the adventures our public lands can provide, as well as providing employment opportunities and resources for local communities.

Photo: Elk in Montana. Courtesy of the National Park Service.