History of the Targhee Timber Salvage Program

by Ralph Maughan, Ph. D

In the early 1970s, in the "Island Park" area of the Targhee National Forest began a massive salvage of lodgepole pine killed by the mountain pine bark beetle. Island Park is to the west and southwest of Yellowstone National Park.

It was predicted that the beetle would eventually kill nearly 100 % of this natural, but nearly monocultural pine forest. The prediction was based on the knowledge that most of the lodgepole pine was nearly the same age; and, being a short-lived species, older trees were particularly susceptible to this beetle which lives just under the pine bark

If the dead and dying timber wasn't cut, it was predicted that a vast fire would sweep the area, and/or the dead timber would decay to uselessness as wood products within 2 or 3 years.

At the time the salvage was started, local people and timber mills were told that the rate of salvage could not be maintained for more than 20 years. After all, it was salvage, not sustained-yield forestry, the principle by which the U.S. Forest Service is supposed to follow for green timber.

These assumptions seemed reasonable to me and to many other people. With the passage of time, however, it became apparent that some of the assumptions were wrong and a modification of the plan would be economically and environmentally beneficial.

As the salvage began, the timber cut on the Targhee escalated rapidly from about 20 million board feet (bf) a year to an average of 80 million bf. One year it was over 100-million board feet.

In just a few years time the dying forest was broken up enough to greatly reduce the likelihood of a wild fire igniting in the area and burning the whole forest down.

In my numerous conversations with small wood products operators, I learned that the dead lodgepole pine was valuable far longer than the 2 or 3 years that we had assumed.

Most of the timber was being made into 2 by 4s and shipped out of the area, but local furniture makers had begun to use it to create a much higher value-added product. Round wood furniture marked by the intricate mountain pine beetle tracks and the characteristic bluish stain they left on the wood made valuable furniture. What an irony!

These developments suggested that the salvage could, and should, be stretched out for a longer period in order to conserve jobs and wildlife habitat. Unfortunately, this did not happen. I was told by many Forest Service people and leaders in conservation groups that the Idaho U.S. Senators were putting enormous pressure on the Targhee to keep the cut high and the program going without modification.

I was told that the Forest Service was directed to ignore the small timber operators and favor the big mills that were using the timber in the traditional fashion -- shipping most of the value out of the area, an economic tradition from which much of the rural west has often suffered, making their economies much like that of the colonies held by European powers in the 18th to mid 20th centuries.

Lodgepole pine is a sun-loving tree. It will not regenerate under a heavy canopy of old lodgepole or other trees. Once the forest was broken up by the salvage logging, natural lodgepole pine regeneration took place under the much smaller stands of dead timber. Nevertheless, the Forest Service required timber cutters to make complete clear cuts (meaning that all the new trees -- some now 20 feet high -- were to be cut, piled and burned).

According to the Targhee Forest Plan, "Leave strips" of trees between the clear cuts were supposed to be retained until new trees had regenerated high enough to provide cover for elk. A large elk herd migrates out of Yellowstone NP each fall to winter in the sand hills on the Snake River Plain. This part of the Targhee used to be good fall elk hunting, but under political pressure, the Targhee cut the leave strips before they were high enough to provide elk cover.

Today the elk herd is just as large as before, but now it gathers on the Park boundary at night and literally runs the 20 miles through the clearcuts to reach the winter range on the high desert.

And it is true, the boundary of Yellowstone Park is now physically marked by the boundary of many clearcuts. The boundary, seen as a straight line, is easily visible in satellite photographs.

When the great forest fire did finally come in 1988 (the giant North Fork fire in Yellowstone Park backed westward out of the Park on Labor Day weekend), it burned many of the clearcuts just as readily as it burned the trees inside the Park. Clearcuts were supposed to protect against fires, but they were useless with a fire this big. These burnt clearcuts later had to be replanted by hand.

Ironically the North Fork Fire of 1988 did not begin in Yellowstone, but in a clearcut on the Targhee.  A woodcutter dropped his cigarette in a pile of logging debris. The fire was finally put out by Mother Nature 70 days, and 500,000 burnt acres later.

One of the scandals that took place during the salvage was the revelation that large companies would bid high for the green timber (therefore, keeping small timber operators out), wait for the timber to die and then demand the salvage timber rate from the Forest Service (which was perhaps 100 times less than they originally bid).

Finally in the late 1980s through the early 1990s, conservation groups began to appeal almost every timber sale, hoping to save a few threads of uncut forest (most of which by now had good "advanced regeneration" under the dead trees).

They were successful. The cut on Targhee went from 80 million board feet to just less than 5-million in 1994. The 80 million could have gone on for perhaps 2 more years before all the timber in Island Park was absolutely gone, but in typical fashion conservationists got much of the blame for sudden drop in the timber cut. Idaho's timber industry controlled congressional delegation saw to that.

Today Island Park is covered with regenerating clear cuts. The lower the elevation (such as along U.S. Highway 20), the faster the re-growth. The high plateau unit up against the Yellowstone Park boundary still looks almost freshly cut. The devastated-appearing condition of the "Plateau Unit" area and its lack of bear habitat is one remaining reason why the Yellowstone grizzly has not yet been removed from the "threatened species list."

. . . but the area is recovering. Recreation use is high. I still enjoy going to Island Park. The chief casualties were those who came to depend on what was by its nature undependable -- salvage. As is so often the case, the greatest hardships were borne by the small people. The timber corporations packed up, moved on, and escaped the blame.  In fact many of those hurt the most blamed the conservationists. Such is the history of the rural American West. Folks get "suckered" and don't even know who did it. If anyone gets hanged, metaphorically at least, it is often the wrong person.

Note: I wrote this article in 1995 and posted it to Usenet News. Since then I have revised it slightly. Jan. 19, 1997