“Logging national forests is like grinding Mount Rushmore for gravel, or melting the Statue of Liberty for scrap iron,” Tim Hermach says. “Yet the U.S. Forest Service is allowing big timber companies to raze our natural heritage for corporate profit. ”
Hermach is talking about the practice of logging on our national forests, an act that has been controversial since the U.S. Forest Service was founded more than a century ago. A wide spectrum of environmental groups, from the Sierra Club to Tim Hermach’s more radical-leaning Native Forest Council, have been calling for the outright cessation of commercial logging on public land for decades.
Across the political spectrum, a “zero cut” policy is often seen as the most fiscally responsible and environmentally sound approach to managing our national forests. A wide range of scientists, environmentalists, and fiscal conservatives have supported legislation to end timber sales on our public lands.
The trouble with a zero cut policy is that timber harvesting has been a guiding principle of the U.S. Forest Service since its infancy. But with forest recreation on the rise, and suburban sprawl and global warming becoming increasingly dangerous threats, has the Forest Service outgrown its “land of many uses” mandate? Should it still be logging in publicly-owned forests, especially with carbon emissions on the rise and forests around the world on the decline?
TOUR DE CUT
Sherman Bamford likes to take people hiking. School teachers, lawyers, scientists, farmers, Republicans, Democrats…it doesn’t matter who the people are, he just wants to get them into the forest. Specifically, he wants to take them into the parts of the George Washington National Forest that are being threatened by proposed logging projects. Bamford organizes the Tour de Cut, a series of hikes throughout the year designed to open people’s eyes to the logging taking place on our public land, predominantly without the public’s knowledge.
“During the last 15 years, twice the number of acres have been added to the George Washington’s logging base as have been added to its Wilderness system. A lot of people don’t know our public forests are managed for timber,” Bamford says. “The more people who watch what the Forest Service is doing, the better things will go.”
What the Forest Service is doing is taking a public resource and selling it off piece by piece to private timber companies. Of the 193 million acres that represent the U.S. Forest System, half of it is available for logging, according to current management plans. And the Bush Administration and the U.S. Forest Service have been trying their best to get access to the other half. In 2002, Bush introduced the Healthy Forests Initiative, a forest management policy that gave timber companies greater access to our protected lands—under the guise of fire protection—while stripping away public input into the management process. In 2005, Bush repealed the Roadless Rule, a policy set in place by the Clinton Administration to curb road building and logging on our public lands. In that same year, the Forest Service adopted a management policy that excluded itself from certain aspects of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. It’s a policy that could have increased logging on our national forests by 80%. The policy was struck down in federal court last year, but the Forest Service adopted a similar plan in the spring of this year. A coalition of conservation groups immediately filed lawsuits again.
The fact that the U.S. Forest Service is in the business of logging at all shocks most Americans who naturally assume our public land was set aside for the public. But the truth is, the Forest Service is very much in the business of cutting down trees. Two-thirds of the Forest Service’s budget is assigned to timber projects—projects that have transformed a land protection agency into the largest road building agency in the world. Our national forests contain eight times as many miles of road as our highway system. These roads were built with taxpayer money specifically to facilitate timber sales.
Less than 5% of our country’s forests have escaped the axe, and most of those remaining old-growth forests are located within national forest boundaries. Hoover Creek, an exemplary old growth forest tucked into a cove of the George Washington (G.W.) National Forest, was logged a few years ago in accordance with the G.W.’s management plan. Two hundred acres of old growth were cut, some of which were 230 years old.
“The loggers involved with the project said the trees they cut from Hoover Creek were some of the biggest timber they’d cut in the East,” Bamford says. “This is why we’re concerned with logging in our national forests. Because the Forest Service isn’t as careful as we would like.”
Currently, 38% of the George Washington National Forest is available to logging. Some of that land includes old growth as well as newer forests that are starting to show old growth characteristics. The G.W. is just beginning its next management plan revision process. The plan that is established now will dictate forest policy for the next 15 years, and early indications show the new plan favors logging even more than the current plan.
“The draft we’ve seen weakens the standards they use to determine when, where, and what conditions they will log under,” Bamford says. “Over 22,000 acres have been logged from the George Washington under the old management plan. We’re really concerned what the new plan will bring.”
The Forest Service was created largely to ensure a lasting timber supply for future generations. Theodore Roosevelt saw the destruction of the private forests as a result of the country’s expansion, and he established the national forest system as a timber insurance policy. This is a fact that the timber industry is always quick to point out whenever logging limitations are suggested. A representative for the American Forest and Paper Association, the national trade group for the wood products industry, refused to comment for this story other than to say, “The national forests were set aside for timber reserves.”
Representatives from the Forest Service reiterate this guiding principle, which was established more than a hundred years ago, pointing to the forest’s “land of many uses” slogan as justification for ongoing timber sales.
Yet the most shocking aspect of these timber sales is that the Forest Service isn’t making any profit off of them: They actually lose $1 billion each year on its timber projects. The Forest Service sells our timber cheap, then subsidizes the logging using taxpayer money to plan the cuts and build the road infrastructure for the private timber companies to use.
“We’re giving trees to timber companies at an economic loss to the American people,” says Carl Ross, executive director of Save America’s Forests.
That $1 billion annual loss only includes the direct cost involved with operating the timber sales programs. It doesn’t factor in the indirect costs of losing the natural resources provided by an intact forest. Eighty percent of America’s drinking water comes from our national forests, and yet forest policy often places road building above water quality. To accommodate road building, the Jefferson National Forest’s management plan, revised in 2004, allowed for 10,000 times the natural sediment level to be dumped into that forest’s streams from road building.
Our national forests also represent massive carbon stores, mitigating more than 20 years of current U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to a study by the U.S. Forest Service. Yet that same agency makes half of that carbon store available to logging every year. According to studies by NASA and the United Nations, logging the world’s forests is the second leading cause of climate change, preceded only by the burning of fossil fuels.
“The loss of money in timber sales is chump change compared to the value lost by giving away our natural resources,” Tim Hermach says. “If you owned the Mona Lisa, would you sell it for $10? We’re ripping out the lungs of the planet without any consideration for its true value.”
Maximizing economic value has been the defining principle of the Forest Service’s timber sales program for most of its history—especially since World War II. As a result, many of our national forests have become glorified tree farms, dominated by one species of tree.
“Clear cutting isn’t just a matter of cutting all the trees at once. It’s turning naturally biodiverse forests into monoculture tree farms,” Ross says. “They cut as much wood as they can and replace the natural forests with high-yield tree farms that have very few species. This has been the business of the Forest Service during the last 50 years.”
This process has been played out in Alabama’s Bankhead National Forest, which was slowly transformed from a biodiverse region into a loblolly pine plantation. In recent years, Bankhead has been attempting to restore the natural landscape by thinning the pines and replacing them with a mixed forest habitat.
Recreation has replaced logging as the golden egg of the national forest system. While the extensive logging practices lose $1 billion a year, recreation based in national forests provides $111 billion per year to the country’s gross domestic product. And that’s according to the U.S. Forest Service’s own study, which also declares only 3% of jobs in rural communities are linked to logging on public land, while 75% of jobs in rural communities come from recreation based on public lands. Recreation contributes 30 times more income to the nation’s economy and creates 38 times more jobs than logging. Yet current Forest Service policy still favors logging over recreation.
In the Southeast, where the national forests have become the playgrounds for the booming populations that surround them, direct conflicts have occurred between logging projects and popular recreation areas.
“Pisgah is the second most used national forest in the U.S., right behind the forest that houses Vail Mountain Resort,” says Chris Joyell, strategy director with Wild South. “Its usage levels are on par with a national park, but the Forest Service continues to target Pisgah for logging projects that threaten to shut down trails.”
Joyell is talking specifically about the Globe Forest logging project and the Shope Creek project, both of which threaten to cut acres of timber from what could be immensely popular recreation areas in Pisgah.
“Both of these areas have more to give to hikers and bikers than to the timber industry,” Joyell says. “The Forest Service will lose money on those timber deals, but still won’t consider developing the areas for recreation. There’s a “no net gain” policy for recreation trails. In order to build a mile of trail, they have to take a mile of trail away. But they have no problem with building miles of logging roads.”
Sherman Bamford sees this sort of policy as indicative of an outdated way of thinking. “Within the agency, you’ve got people who were trained as foresters, with timber as the primary goal. The mentality is entrenched within the agency that you have to lay everything out in a grid, divide everything up, and manage the forests piece by piece. We’re seeing a lot of younger foresters who are open to new ideas and more sustainable logging practices. But it’s like turning around a battleship. It’s a very slow process.”
While the U.S. Forest Service, the largest land agency in the country, manages its vast amount of forest under principles dictated one hundred years ago, the landscape and needs of the U.S. are rapidly changing. Global warming, suburban sprawl, and forest fragmentation weren’t concerns one hundred years ago. In the Southeast, the national forests cover only 12% of our landscape, but the region is home to some of the fastest growing populations in the country.
The rise in recreation—and population—has led to the political push to end commercial logging on public land over the last several years. The National Forest Protection Act was introduced in 1999, which would have banned commercial logging entirely except for fire suppression around communities. It spent several years bouncing around the House floor, gathering co-sponsors and support, but never gained the traction necessary to warrant a hearing. The Act to Save America’s Forests has been introduced in the Senate repeatedly since the late ‘80s. It began as an anti-clearcutting bill and has morphed into a comprehensive forest protection act that still allows limited logging in certain areas, while banning the practice from the majority of our public land. It’s been endorsed by 600 scientists, has hundreds of cosponsors, and is supported by virtually every major environmental group in the nation, but it has yet to make it to a hearing.
“It wasn’t going to become a law in the last eight years,” says Carl Ross, who has helped shape the bill over the last decade. “When the Republicans controlled Congress, we were never allowed to have a hearing for the bill. But things are changing.”
While most environmental groups support the Act to Save America’s Forests, they’re focused more on passing the Roadless Area Conservation Act, which would make roadless protections permanent, but wouldn’t limit logging on the other 50% of our national forests. It’s not as comprehensive of a bill as the Act to Save American Forests, but it is a bill that has a decent shot at becoming law.
“People like the Roadless Rule. It’s extremely popular,” says Elyssa Rosen with the Heritage Forest Campaign. “And yet, there have been lots of efforts to undo that rule, so we’re putting our energy behind the Roadless Area Conservation Act. It’s more politically viable.”
Sherman Bamford believes the Roadless Area Conservation Act would go a long way toward protecting the George Washington National Forest, which is home to the largest system of roadless areas east of the Mississippi. Bamford and the Virginia Forest Watch have also been instrumental in pushing other pieces of federal legislation through Congress that will have a lasting impact on the Southern Appalachians. The Wild Monongahela Act, which establishes 47,000 acres of Wilderness in West Virginia, recently became law, and the Virginia Ridge and Valley Act, which will create two new National Scenic Areas and seven new Wilderness areas, is likely to pass during this session.
Wilderness bills are increasingly popular with the Democratic majority in Congress, but bills banning commercial logging on our national forests altogether have not been given as much attention.
“If we diminished the amount of logging we allowed, we’d be staunching the massive loss of hundreds of millions of tax dollars a year,” Carl Ross says. “The profit to America would be astounding: the carbon stored, the recaptured lands we could use for recreation, the flood damage that would be mitigated, the silt that would no longer pollute the streams. These last natural areas are important capital to protect. If we lose those, we’ll lose all the economies in the world.”
<STRONG>BY THE NUMBERS: THE LOGGING CONUNDRUM
50% of our national forest lands are made available to commercial logging. <br>
The timber sales from our national forests only contribute 3% of America’s timber supply. The rest is cut from private forests.
440,000 miles of logging roads crisscross our national forests, but only 121,000 miles of recreation trails exist in these same forests.
The Forest Service loses $1 billion a year through timber sales subsidies.
Recreation on public land provides $224 billion a year to the U.S. economy.
74% of all jobs in rural communities are related to recreation on public land. <br>
3% of all jobs are related to logging.