Clearcutting Issues on the National Forests in the 1970s

In the late 1960s, the Bitterroot National Forest and nearby national forests in Montana and Idaho, in a burst of timber harvesting in response to the post-WW II needs for wood and housing, began extensive clearcutting of the standing forests. The Bitterroot NF, with both clearcutting and terracing the cut-over slopes for better regeneration of seedlings, became the lightning rod of the clearcutting issue. Protests, led by the retired forest supervisor, followed a series of sensational news articles in the Missoula, Montana, newspaper (the Missoulian). The newspaper articles were authored by Dale Burk, who later wrote a book The Clearcut Crisis: Controversy in the Bitterroot in 1970 which tended to flame even more opposition. An internal review by the R-1 Regional Office ensued in December 1969 (printed in the summer of 1970). In the same year, a University of Montana study team was commissioned by Montana Senator Lee Metcalf to study and report on the situation. The university team was led by forestry professor Arnold Bolle, who was instrumental in bringing the issue to national attention. The Bolle Report (as it became known) was given to the senator in November 1970, who then promptly released it to the public. The report echoed the Regional Office report with the exception that the Bolle team felt that the Forest Service was "mining" timber - that is harvesting without the possibility of regrowing trees in the same location. Both the Bitterroot NF staff and the public were angered, but for different reasons.

Another clearcutting controversy erupted on the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia which contributed significantly to the clearcutting and forest management debate. At the same time that the various Bitterroot reports were be researched and printed, the Forest Service and the West Virginia State Legislature also reported on harvesting, especially clearcutting, on the Monongahela National Forest. The clearcutting battle then spread to Alaska with an 8.75 billion board feet timber sale on the Tongass National Forest. The Forest Service was also in the midst of other storms at the same time - Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE), several wilderness bills, testimony over the ill-fated Timber Supply Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and others.

The result of these battles was a series of public inquiries, reports, more newspaper articles, and congressional hearings in the spring of 1971 over clearcutting practices. Senator Frank Church of Idaho offered an analysis reports on clearcutting that resulted in the "Church guidelines" for limiting the size of clearcuts. The Forest Service voluntarily agreed in April 1972 to stay within the guidelines where clearcuts would not exceed 40 acres in size (Le Master 1984).

Then the Izaak Walton League, an outdoor and fishing organization, filed a lawsuit on May 14, 1973, on behalf of several turkey hunters who found their favorite hunting area on the forest clearcut, on the premise that the 1897 Organic Act did not allow clearcutting. On November 6, 1973, the federal District Court ruled against the Forest Service. After the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled against the agency on August 21, 1975, the Forest Service and Congress decided that something had to be done to change the old law to allow timber harvesting. The Forest Service, initially wanted a "quick-fix" to the Organic Act, but Congress and various interest groups wanted much more (Le Master 1984).