Mountain pine beetles decimated much of the Medicine Bow National Forest. Years after the height of beetle activity, dead trees are beginning to fall. (Joe Riis/U.S. Forest Service)

(See update paragraph in italics, below.)

Conservation and water interests are at odds over a plan to log, cut, burn and build roads across 562 square miles of the Medicine Bow National Forest.

The U.S. Forest Service is seeking comments by Monday, Aug. 20 on its “landscape vegetation analysis” that would authorize timber and brush removal over a 15- to 20-year period. The action is necessary “to ensure the future health of the MBNF,” which has seen epidemic but dwindling pine and spruce beetle infestation since the mid 1990s, according to the U.S. Forest Service proposal.

All told, the agency would build 600 miles of temporary road to allow “vegetation treatment” on 360,000 acres. The action would “make areas more resilient to future disturbance,” Forest Service documents say.

The agency would authorize clearcutting on 95,000 acres, selective logging on 165,000 acres and burning and hand thinning on another 100,000 acres. The actions would “enhance forest ecosystem components [and] supply forest products to local industries.” The project also would “provide for human safety; reduce wildfire risk to communities, infrastructure, and municipal water supplies; and improve, protect, and restore wildlife habitat,” a draft environmental study says.

Wyoming Sen. Larry Hicks, who submitted draft comments to members of the Select Water Committee for consideration at a meeting Friday, Aug. 17 in Gillette, expressed worries that the Forest Service analysis undersells water yield benefits from the logging projects and doesn’t account for losses that would occur if the agency doesn’t act (see document below).

Update — 2:15 p.m. July 17. The Select Water Committee voted without opposition to allow Sen. Hicks to submit his draft comments, after editing for format and typographic errors, as an official statement to the Forest Service from the legislative committee, according to an audio recording of the meeting made by the Wyoming Water Development Office.

The study author demonstrates bias in cherry picking scientific literature, his draft comments say, and some analyses are flawed. The Forest Service “is deficient in documenting both the economic and ecological benefits of implementing the projects,” he wrote while focusing on water yield that’s critical to irrigators, ranchers, municipalities, industry and stockmen.

The draft study doesn’t properly use methods to calculate changes in runoff from either logging or inaction, Hicks’ draft comments say. “It can not be understated the vital importance to the State of Wyoming and water users the issue of water yield and how it is negatively portrayed in the [landscape vegetation analysis draft environmental impact statement],” the draft states.

Conservation groups alarmed at size and scope

Conservation groups, including Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter and Wyoming Wilderness Association criticize the 20-year plan as “simply too large.” They say the analysis is void of climate-change science and discussion, among other things.

Two other critics, Jason Lillegraven, PhD, a retired University of Wyoming geologist, and Daniel Tinker, PhD, a UW associate professor and forest ecologist, challenged the federal agency’s conclusion that its proposal would achieve its desired results.

“[T]he contents [of the analysis] are inadequate to justify recommendation of the option of ‘modified proposed action,’” which calls for the large-scale operations, Lillegraven wrote in comments submitted to the Forest Service.

Maps show the latest areas where logging and burning could take place (right) compared to an earlier proposal for the Medicine Bow National Forest’s 15- to 20-year project. (U.S. Forest Service)

Tinker, who wrote that he has studied the Medicine Bow for more than 20 years, said the projects appear largely unnecessary. “Studies of forest recovery from Wyoming and other states in the region have suggested that recovery of forest structure and function — largely through surviving overstory trees and ‘advance regeneration’ of smaller understory trees ‑ is already occurring, much of it in the absence of any active forest management treatments,” he wrote.

Regarding the notion that logging prevents forest fires, Tinker disagreed. “There is clearly no consensus regarding the effectiveness of widespread fuel reductions in an effort to reduce either the occurrence or severity of future fires,” he wrote in comments attached to Lillegraven’s letter.

That’s a view shared by the environmental group Western Watersheds Project, whose executive director told WyoFile in an email that the 2018 Badger Creek Fire burned through “the most heavily logged part of the Medicine Bow.

“This proves definitively that logging does little if anything to prevent or slow the expansion of major wildfires, undercutting the premise for this massive logging project,” Erik Molvar wrote. “It is completely irresponsible for the Forest Service to write itself a blank check to log off 150,000 to 350,000 acres of public forest lands, and engage in hundreds of miles of road-building, without specifying where those roads and cuts will occur.”

Wyoming is losing water, Hicks contends

Hicks wrote in draft comments that the federal analysis starts from the wrong point by considering today’s conditions as a baseline. Instead, “increased forest vegetation growth” has led to a loss of between 185,000-225,000 acre feet of water in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest since 1860.

His draft comments criticize Forest Service methodology calculating stream flow and erosion. Warmer temperatures mean that trees and other vegetation require larger amounts of water and that runoff is consequently diminished, the draft comments say.

As a result “warming could reduce water flow in the Colorado [River] by 20 percent or more below the 20th-century average by midcentury, and by as much as 40 percent by the end of the century,” Hicks wrote.

The national forest covers parts of the Continental Divide and headwaters of both the upper North Platte River and Little Snake River. Water in the Little Snake eventually flows into the Colorado River.

The Forest Service takes note of negative impacts to watersheds from irrigation diversions and other human activities, yet — ironically in Hicks’ draft comments — limits opportunities like clearcutting to make up for those effects, he wrote.

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A coalition of Wyoming counties and conservation districts have unsuccessfully challenged federal forest management on the grounds that they could not show injury, Hicks wrote. But Wyoming has spent or committed $36.2 million, plus more than half a million dollars in annual costs, to “find and deliver more water from [Wyoming] in the north Platte Basin.” All the while Wyoming suffers an economic loss of 64,000 acre feet, he wrote.

The Forest Service doesn’t tell the public that its management has resulted in the loss of more than 185,000 acre feet of water — “greater than all the diversion combined” — and leaves out the fact that the plan anticipates the loss of another 27,000 acre feet.

“[W]e fin[d] that full disclosure of FS activities is not included in the [draft study] and that a selective bias has been interjected into the document,” Hicks wrote.



Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. Conservation of water is not an option for Sen. Larry Hicks. Only impoundment and supplying water to Colorado is on his mind. It seems easy for Larry to spend money damming and cutting but when it comes to funding public education, whoa up there pardner.

    At least he admits that Climate Change is an issue with the world getting hotter and that is the most progressive thing I have heard from Senator Hicks. Bravo.

  2. One of those palm to face moments when a PROFESSOR OF FORESTRY at our UW states no concensus exists on having a bunch of dead trees and increased fire risk. Please see 22Mar13 Scientific American article or our congressionally passed appropriations for forrest thinning to confirm a pretty solid concensus, not to speak of common sense. Also spend some time on any peak in Greys River and admire the checkerboard of vital green squares and red dead squares. Young trees seem to have some resistance to pine bettle empirically.

    1. Bad policy doesn’t indicate scientific consensus. Professor Tinker has a huge amount of time on the ground learning this ecosystem. He is right that there’s no scientific consensus that large-scale logging or fuels reduction projects will reduce the occurrence or severity of future fires. It’s a giant, ecologically destructive experiment. I’m appalled at the scale of this project.

  3. Great article, for those of you who have not seen the devastation of the Pine betel take a drive east of Encampment and Riverside and look to the south. You will see a forest of mostly dead trees. No I agree with Mr Hicks in the fact that dead or alive the trees do hols snow pack but, do we leave the dead trees and risk fire is the question that needs to be asked.