Wilderness Chief in Tree Massacre

By Cockburn, Alexander; St. Clair, Jeffrey | The Nation, April 24, 1995 | Go to article overview
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Wilderness Chief in Tree Massacre


Cockburn, Alexander, St. Clair, Jeffrey, The Nation


There is just one hope of repulsing the tyrannical ambition of civilization to conquer every niche on the whole earth. That hope is the organization of spirited people who will fight for the freedom of the wilderness. founder of the Wilderness Society, 1930

Through late February and early March logging trucks carried $140,000 worth of old-growth ponderosa pine and Douglas fir from the private ranch of Jon Roush, president of the Wilderness Society and a man paid $125,000 a year to preserve that "freedom of the wilderness" Robert Marshall pledged as the Society's credo sixty-five years ago.

Roush logged off the eighty-acre patch of old-growth and mature forest on his $2.5 million ranch outside the town of Florence in western Montana at the moment that environmentalists had their backs to the wall, against an assault in Congress on federal laws protecting America's forests. Roush's chainsaw massacre strips the Wilderness Society of any shreds of moral authority still adhering to a name Marshall and his colleague Aldo Leopold made glorious. Not only has the Society's president flouted the preservation ethic he is paid to protect; he has also accomplished a timber cut nearly identical to one he prevented from occurring on federal lands adjoining his ranch twelve years ago. Roush furthermore appears to have breached state regulations regarding disposal of logging debris and federal rules governing road use. And he sold the timber to Plum Creek, which a Wilderness Society adviser once accused of "Nazi forestry."

The head of the Wilderness Society logging old growth in the Bitterroot Valley is roughly akin to the head of Human Rights Watch torturing a domestic servant. Roush's 736-acre ranch is bordered by the rugged Bitterroot National Forest. The area he cut is less than two miles from the boundary of a national wilderness area and well within the boundaries of the Salmon/Selway Ecosystem--the largest complex of wild land in the Lower 48 and home to elk, black bear, mountain lions and gray wolves. The ponderosa pine forest Roush logged grows on rolling lands above Sweeney Creek, a crisp stream that tumbles off the serrated, snowcapped peaks of the Bitterroot Mountains. Sweeney Creek is one of the purest streams in western Montana, the habitat of rare westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout. The bull trout is now being considered for listing as a threatened species, its population decline linked to increased sedimentation in the river from logging.

In 1983, Roush successfully sued the U.S. Forest Service when it sought to cut trees in the Bitterroot Forest, citing the potentially disastrous effects that logging there might pose to streams and rivers in the area. Indeed, Roush amassed testimony from geologists and foresters who said most of the Bitterroot Range area was unsuitable for logging. Back then Roush also complained about increased traffic from logging trucks on Forest Service roads that crossed both national forest land and his own property. It was these same roads that logging trucks used to haul off about 100 loads of timber from Roush's land following the latest cut.

The Wilderness Society has denounced the Forest Service's road-building program as destructive corporate welfare, since logging companies often get federal subsidies to build the roads and then use them to reach clearcuts on national forest lands. In a recent Wilderness Society fundraising letter attacking subsidies for timber sales and logging road construction, Roush railed against timber companies that "measure the value of land only in dollars, in board-feet of lumber."

Yet in one sale, Roush sold more timber than did the entire surrounding northern half of the 1.6 million-acre Bitterroot National Forest last year. "Jon Roush is doing what environmentalists haven't allowed the Forest Service to do for three years in the Bitterroot: conduct a roadless-area timber sale," said Timothy Bechtold of the Ecology Center in Missoula.

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