Forest Watch The Future of the Country's Public Forests Is Far from Clear

Environmentalists girded for two contradictory possibilities in the first months of the Obama administration: the rapid rollback efforts by the Bush White House to open more of the country’s public forests to logging, mining and drilling and new Democrat-led legislation that could increase timber extraction on public lands, starting with threatened spotted owl habitat in the Pacific Northwest.

Number one on the agenda for many groups is restoring Clinton-era rules that banned road building in nearly 60 million acres of national forests. Reinstatement of the so-called “road-less rules’ is one of the highlights of “Transition to Green,” presented to the incoming president by a coalition of environmental groups last fall (see also “The Green Roadmap,” page 28.) Other recommendations for public forests include cancelling logging plans for Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, scrapping Bush’s forest-management plans, and throwing out rule changes to the Endangered Species Act and other landmark laws made in the waning days of the Bush Administration and decried for weakening federal environmental protections. The groups also urged Obama to name a science advisor to the Forest Service’s next chief.

“Clarity is something Obama could bring in the first couple of months of his administration,” says Michael Dugnan of the Sierra Club, which signed off on the recommendations along with groups like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, World Wildlife Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Pew Environmental Group.

But legislative proposals to increase federal timber sales are likely to renew debate between groups that would save what’s left of the public forests, and organizations that maintain that logging and forest restoration can be done compatibly. NRDC, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society and other national groups aren’t pushing for an end to federal timber sales. Even Greenpeace sees a place for logging on federal lands, as long as old-growth forests are protected. These groups say it’s better to work with logging communities and their representatives in Congress than to fight them. And, they maintain that some cutting will always be necessary to guard against wildfires and halt the spread of disease and insect infestation.

Greenpeace senior forest campaigner Rolf Skar says Obama has an opportunity to put to rest “decades of unproductive fighting over old-growth forests. Working with folks in Congress,” he says, “Obama could protect old-growth forests and set about putting people back to work in the Pacific Northwest.”

“The idea that we shouldn’t manage and we can’t manage the forest is a very narrow view,” says Michael Francis at Wilderness Society. “”Zero cut” is a draconian philosophical position.”

The “Zero Cut” Contingent

But growing public concern about global warming has reinvigorated the decades-old movement to end all commercial logging on federal lands and has spurred new support for the “zero cut” concept. Head off the Threat Political Action Committee, or, a new national PAC dedicated to electing politicians pledged to reversing climate change, has incorporated the idea into its platform. Hottpac would “leave all forests on public lands standing and intact and stop all logging on America’s public lands immediately.”

That is a policy Timothy G. Hermach, president of the Eugene, Oregon-based Native Forest Council, has pursued since he coined the expression “zero cut” decades ago. He returned to Washington last November for the first time in four years, intent on convincing the incoming administration and members of Congress that continued logging on public lands is wrongheaded.

“Most Americans don’t realize that they own national forests and they are being logged at our expense,” says Hermach, referring to a wealth of studies showing that the U.S. Forest Service spends more to build logging roads and make sale preparations than it receives in payment for the lumber.

During the heyday of federal timber sales two decades ago, the Congressional Research Service estimated that taxpayers lost more than $1 billion a year. Since then, lawsuits over the northern spotted owl, salmon and other threatened species have dramatically reduced the amount of timber coming off federal lands. In 1988, 12.6 billion board feet were harvested nationwide, according to the Forest Service. In 2008, the amount had stabilized at about two billion board feet annually. But the red ink continues to flow. The most recent attempt to tally the losses was conducted by the John Muir Project of the Earth Island Institute in 2005. The conclusion: The program was an average of $835.5 million per year in the red between fiscal years 1997 and 2004. And that figure does not include the environmental and biodiversity losses.

Andy Mahler of Heartwood, a cooperative network of grassroots forest groups in the East, Midwest and South, says there is no economic justification for logging the national forests but there is “an overwhelming logic” to protecting them.”The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has pointed out that large contiguous tracks of forest land are one of our best hedges against changing climate,” says Mahler. “Add to that the watershed protections, habitat, recreation value and peace of mind they provide and there is an overwhelming logic to protecting public forests.”

Of the 750 million acres of U.S. forest still standing, the Forest Service manages 191 million acres and the Bureau of Land Management another 53 million acres. Most of the rest is privately owned.

Nationwide, logging employs far less than 1% of the nation’s workforce. While logging on federal lands still has an impact on local economies, especially in Western states, it is considerably less than two decades ago. Shawn Church, editor of Random Lengths, an industry trade publication, says Forest Service sales have become so insignificant to domestic lumber supplies that if federal timber were removed altogether from the market, he says, “It would have some effect on the surviving sawmills. But it would be at the margin.” Most commercial logging long ago shifted to private land, predominantly in Southern states, bringing with it a myriad of other environmental problems and political fights.

Even organizations such as NRDC that support some renewed logging as long as old-growth forests are protected, are apprehensive about what the new legislation could look like. “The next legislation we”ll see moving quickly will be management of old growth in the Pacific Northwest,” says Neil Lawrence, director of NRDC’s Forest Project. “It could be very beneficial but it could be too heavily influenced by the timber industry and make things worse.”

Moving Forest Protection Forward

One bill expected to move forward in the 111th Congress is the Pacific Northwest Forest Legacy Act authored by Rep. Peter Defazio (D-OR), a member of the House’s Natural Resources Committee. It would replace the controversial Northwest Forest Plan with new rules that ban logging of old-growth stands and “boost ecologically based thinning in logged-over forests’ on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management holdings in Oregon, Washington and northwestern California.

Nearly 60% of the forests in Oregon are federally owned. And the state’s congressional delegation has not been forgotten by forest products industries, according to Open Secrets, a website run by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics that tracks contributions to political candidates. Defazio ranked 14th among House members in forest-related industry donations during the 2007-2008 election cycle. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, ranked fifth among senators who received campaign cash from forest-related industries in the same cycle. And even Oregon’s newly elected senator, Jeff Merkley, a Democrat who defeated incumbent Republican Senator Gordon Smith (who Open Secrets tracked as the second-most popular politician with the forest industries last year, after John McCain), has promised constituents to reopen public lands to “sensible” logging.

Tom Partin, president of the Portland, Oregon-based American Forest Resources Council, says access to more federal timber in the region is crucial for his members, who currently truck in their lumber from hundreds of miles away and have difficulty competing against manufacturers with closer supplies from private timberlands.

But critics say there’s nothing sensible about increasing federal timber quotas, especially at a time when the economic crisis and housing bust have caused the price and demand for lumber to plummet. The Sierra Club’s Dugnan says a shift may be occurring in which people are beginning to think of forests not just as sources of timber and minerals.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear to people that healthy forests—upright forests—are economic drivers,” he says. “You cannot put a price on clean air and water.”