To Log Or Not To Log?

Fundamentally, the forest plan raises an almost-philosophical question: Do forests need constant logging and active management, or can nature grow healthier forests than we can if we mostly leave them alone?

The Forest Service—whose logging-intensive agenda aligns most closely with the interests of hunting organizations and timber companies—claims that forests are more productive when actively managed. Conservation organizations assert that uncut, intact forest ecosystems are more resilient and beneficial, especially in the 21st century.

Your 1 Million Acres: The Future of the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest Belongs to You

A recent timber harvest near Trace Ridge in Pisgah National Forest.

The data is mixed. Silvicultural studies suggest that thinning young, previously degraded forests improves productivity, especially of marketable tree species like oaks. And cutting forests to create early successional habitat leads to increases in deer, turkey, and grouse populations. But other scientific studies indicate that mature, uncut forests provide healthier air and water quality, more carbon storage, and more overall biological diversity.

Your 1 Million Acres: The Future of the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest Belongs to You

The forest plan has become a referendum on the future of our forests—and the economies that grow around them. Do we want a more actively managed forest that emphasizes game and timber, or a more tourism-friendly forest focused on recreation and ecosystem health?

“These are working forests, and they will always be working forests,” says Forest Service deputy director Matt McCombs. McCombs believes that the Forest Service’s mission to “sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of national forests” requires perpetual logging of public lands. He also maintains that logging ultimately improves forest health—by removing dead and diseased trees, for example, or creating clearings that produce more browse for deer and other wildlife.

“Forested lands have better outcomes when sustainable forestry is practiced, and they also have economic benefits as byproducts,” says McCombs. “We can accelerate the pace and scale of forest restoration through sustainable forestry. Forests are ultimately enhanced by managing them for game and timber.”

Adam Macon, program director for the Dogwood Alliance, says that the latest science shows otherwise.   

“Publicly owned national forests are more valuable standing than cut down, says. Intact forests provide far more long-term ecological and economic assets than board feet of timber.”—former U.S. Forest Service biologist Karin Heiman

“Logging has a lot of impacts that make the forest less healthy, less resilient, and more vulnerable to insect infestations, invasive species, and disease,” he says. Logging causes sedimentation that clogs rivers and streams. The bulldozers, skidders, and other heavy machinery create easy corridors for pests and disease to spread. Logging usually is accompanied by heavy and repeated use of pesticides, and it disrupts a web of animal, plant, soil, insect, and microbial diversity that requires many decades for forests to recover. Logging mature forests also releases more carbon, especially from the soil.

Your 1 Million Acres: The Future of the Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest Belongs to You

Economically, protecting forests for conservation and recreational uses provides more benefits than logging them. Recreation in the Pisgah-Nantahala provides 10 times as many jobs as and five times as much revenue, according to the 2014 U.S. Forest Service Assessment. Nationwide, the Forest Service reports that recreation provides 31 times more jobs to rural communities than timber sales.

“Publicly owned national forests are more valuable standing than cut down, says former U.S. Forest Service biologist Karin Heiman. “Intact forests provide far more long-term ecological and economic assets than board feet of timber.”