Former Forest Service biologist blasts plan for less monitoring
October 23, 2005
A proposal to trim a list of plants and animals used to monitor conditions on the White River National Forest would gut the agency’s efforts to keep track of ecosystem health, said a former U.S. Forest Service biologist.Tim Snowden, who worked in both the Dillon and Holy Cross ranger districts in the late 1990s, offered formal comments on behalf of the Sierra Club. He said the plan to change the Management Indicator Species (MIS) list suggests that the Forest Service is trying to shirk its stewardship duties by minimizing the number of plants and animals it needs to study. “It’s like they’re saying, ‘Let’s put something on there that won’t give us any bad news,'” Snowden said. “It looks like they are trying to avoid having to do any monitoring.”White River forest ecologist Keith Gietzentanner has said the new list would enable forest managers to use their limited resources more efficiently. Even though the number of species has been cut by half (from 18 to nine), and changed to include different species, the list is still adequate for monitoring changes in the forest, he said.The new proposed list doesn’t include enough species to represent the numerous diverse habitats of the forest, Snowden said.Elk, for example, are “generalist” species that can adapt to a wide range of habitats, including developed areas like golf courses. “Species like elk are actually increasing due to man-made habitat alterations,” he said.”The MIS as listed in the proposal would eliminate the effectiveness of the [list] as an environmental indicator of ecosystem health … I look at this as about the same usefulness as considering coyotes and cockroaches as management indicator species,” Snowden wrote in his Oct. 4 comment letter. “[These species] can survive all but a direct nuclear strike. These are admirable qualities, but … population numbers will tell managers very little about degradation of habitat.”Snowden was critical of nearly every part of the agency’s proposed changes, for example panning the designation of lodgepole pine as an indicator species. “Using this and elk for the montane life zones, the forest could theoretically clear cut tens of thousands of acres while their wildlife evaluations would show no effect or beneficial effect on MIS,” Snowden wrote. “Meanwhile, the forest is deleting habitat like pinyon-juniper … that is increasingly threatened by oil and gas development.”The list slanted toward species that thrive on human-caused habitat alteration, Snowden said.Gietzentanner said the forest only encompasses a few hundred acres of pinyon-juniper forest, but Snowden said there are actually tens of thousands of acres in this classification, particularly in the northwestern part of the forest, around Rangely.”To a biologist like myself, this gives the appearance that the Forest Service has no intention of legitimately monitoring habitat loss and the effects on species on the forest. The agency should use some of the hundreds of thousands of dollars it has spent on trying to manipulate the NEPA process to justify increased logging and use some of that money to actually monitor species populations on the forest instead,” he wrote.Snowden said the list is totally lacking when it comes to species that would indicate the health of Engelmann Spruce-subalpine fir habitats in the subalpine life zone. “This forest type has a host of species that evolved requiring old growth and mature conditions, including lynx, pine marten, southern red-back vole, northern goshawk and red squirrel,” he wrote, pointing out that none of those species are represented on the list. “This type of habitat has some of the greatest pressures on it, including ski area development, logging, mining, water storage, transportation and housing development. “These pressures should be impetus for the Forest Service to have several indicator species … that show the effects of old growth and mature forest loss.”While White River forest ecologist Gietzentanner and biologist Vern Phinney defended the proposed changes, Snowden said there are cases when Forest Service biologists “don’t fight hard enough.” “You have to understand that they’re under tremendous pressure from the industrial side of the Forest Service,” Snowden said.”That side is focused on commodities production,” he said, adding that, in the current political climate, the push toward extraction is getting even stronger.The pressure on individuals within the agency to deliver the findings sought by top officials is incredible, he continued. Snowden said he was forced out of the agency because the biological opinions he wrote on certain projects were not acceptable to his bosses, especially the conclusions he made when evaluating potential impacts to lynx from a salvage logging project on the White River National Forest.The Forest Service has provided millions of dollars to look at vegetative management for timber purposes, but trying to get a few dollars for species monitoring is like “pulling teeth,” Snowden said.”You’ve got to have species on the MIS list that would indicate declines in ecosystems,” he concluded.