In the Pitched Battle Between Loggers and Environmentalists, a Timber Tinderbox Waits for a Match
Scene I: There is a 40-acre stand of ancient trees near Chester, California in the heart of the dryland timber forest. The stand is dominated by towering 500-year-old, 200-foot Ponderosa pines. These trees, which were seedlings when Columbus landed in the Americas, are lucky to have missed an appointment with the chainsaw, because they’ve been owned by a logging company since the turn of the century.
In the 1930s, Truman Collins became the third generation of his family to run Collins Pine Company, which then owned 65,000 acres of mostly virgin forest around Chester. Like most American lumber companies, Collins had been moving operations westward as local supplies of exploitable timber were exhausted. But, seeing as they were almost to the Pacific Ocean, Truman Collins decided to put roots down in Chester. And instead of clearcutting the company’s acreage, he decided to try the then-revolutionary concept of single-tree selection-cutting some but leaving the rest to grow. Collins land is now covered in dense stands of Ponderosa pine, with shade-tolerant white fir struggling for space in the canopy. The forests are logged, to be sure, but they’re logged selectively; the land still looks and feels like a living forest.
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Truman Collins’ sense of commitment to forest longevity is hardly a universal one. Instead, as public dissatisfaction with the industry grows, environmental concerns mount, and less and less federal land is made available for “harvesting,” something like a civil war is developing in the western forests-the source of 30 percent of American timber. But a better analogy might be to shooting sparks that threaten to set off a conflagration, because fire-how it starts, how it burns, what it consumes-is the central issue in a region where sometimes unstoppable canopy infernos swallow up millions of acres a year.
Scene II: U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Timber Planner Tim Bailey’s Wagoneer is bouncing down a logging road in Oregon’s huge Willamette National Forest. He stops where the thick stands of Douglas fir give way to a naked moonscape. It is the edge of the disastrous 1991 Warner Creek fire, which burned up 9,000 acres of reserve land. Bailey, whose long hair and beard make him look more like an Earth First! activist than a USFS ranger, offered a variety of theories about the fire. Environmentalists could have set it to embarrass the Forest Service, he says. Or loggers wanting to generate work from the salvage sales that inevitably follow big fires. Or even a disgruntled USFS employee. You’ll get a lot more certainty from veteran forest activist Kim Marks, who was among the young protesters who successfully blockaded a timber sale in Warner Creek in 1996. “Torching the trees guarantees that ‘salvage’ timber sales go through,” she says bluntly. One thing is certain: it was arson, just like the fire last Halloween that torched the USFS Oak Ridge ranger station nearby. Any way you look at it, events like these make for tinder-box conditions in the national forests.
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With the last day of 1996, the Rescissions Act Logging Rider-also known as the “forest health” bill-passed into history. While ostensibly targeted at just the sick and diseased trees that impair forests’ health, the bill also included provisions for logging stands of healthy green trees that had been protected by lawsuits since 1990. It was a harvest windfall for an industry that’s been reeling from a series of blows: first the 1991 federal court ruling halting logging until a workable program to protect the infamous spotted owl was in place, then the 1993 Clinton Forestry Conference, which resulted in drastic cuts in federal timber volume. When the smoke cleared, small lumber mills started closing all around the Northwest, and the timber rider was too little, too late to save them.
Most environmentalists saw the logging rider as the single worst environmental law passed in the 104th Congress, and Clinton is on record as regretting his advocacy of it. Concerted citizen action-largely in the form of lawsuits—blunted the rider’s impact. According to some environmentalists’ estimates, more than a billion board feet of rider-based sales were canceled or postponed because of legal challenges, public interest lobbying and old-fashioned activism-including sit-ins to stop the logging trucks.
Cut to the Core
Environmentalists need to realize that they can’t oppose all logging, at least as long as most of us live in wood houses and use paper.
From the perspective of someone who cares about forests, recent history is pretty bleak. According to the World Wildlife Fund, only two percent of the original old-growth forests remain in the continental U.S., and much of what’s left is under threat. We continue to consume wood products at a rate unparalleled in the world, every year cutting down 800,000 acres of trees, throwing away 27 billion pounds of wood and going through 181 billion pounds of paper. U.S. consumption of forest products-aided increasingly by imports—reached 16 billion cubic feet by 1987, and it’s expected to nearly double by 2040.
If it’s going to maintain the cut, the timber industry will need to keep its Washington lobbyists working overtime in support of proposed legislation (see below). The other hope for renewing the chainsaw massacre is fire, or at least the threat of it. Interviewed around the Northwest, industry representatives and lobbyists are singing from the same hymnbook about tinderbox conditions that, they say, are the result of environmentalist hand-wringing and misguided USFS fire-prevention policies. Their answer is “salvage” logging to lessen the “fuel” buildup on the forest floor.
Scene III: Northwest Forestry Association lobbyist Ross Mickey, a defector from 10 years with USFS, emerges from his station wagon at a snow park in the Deschutes National Forest near Sisters, Oregon. After wrinkling his nose at the overflowing public toilet (a product, he says, of federal cutbacks), Mickey gestures at the surrounding timber stand, which is dotted with dead and dying trees (victims of drought, spruce budworm and bark beetles). “Fire has been a part of this ecosystem throughout recorded time,” he says. “Fire causes natural stand mortality and it clears away dead material, leaving a mosaic. Fire is nature’s way of getting the system back in balance, but because we actively suppress fires, the trees have gotten more and more crowded together and there are hundreds of thousands of acres just waiting to burn.”
John Allen, district ranger with the two-million-acre Deschutes Park, just finished managing a 90-acre timber sale at nearby Lost Lake, and he’d like to manage more. “The federal cash register is open for us to put out fires, but not to suppress the conditions that lead to them,” he says. “We need more thinning, more underburning of natural fuels so that we don’t get huge, unstoppable fires that blow up into the crowns of the trees.”
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A little history is in order. The USFS was founded in 1905 to manage the national forests set up under outdoor enthus
iast Theodore Roosevelt. Its first head, Gifford Pinchot, was a pragmatic conservationist who believed that the wholesale logging without replanting that had destroyed the forests of the east should not be repeated in the west. He envisioned “a timber famine so severe that its blighting effects will be felt in every household in the land.” The new service had its baptism in fire just five years after its founding. In the summer of 1910, the largest forest fire in U.S. history burned more than three million acres in northern Idaho and western Montana, resulting in the deaths of 79 firefighters.
The protests against logging in the western forests sometimes involve
demonstrations (top) and at other times more confrontational direct action.
The response from an outraged public put USFS into the fire-fighting business in a big way and launched the career of Smokey the Bear, whose “Only you can prevent forest fires” became one of the most successful advertising slogans in American history. The logging industry claims that Smokey and his pals have been too effective, suppressing fires that should have thinned the forest and been allowed to burn out naturally.
There are still plenty of fires in the 191 million acres of national forest land. In 1994, there were 23,873 forest fires in public tracts. But because of high-tech fire prevention methods (that include air assaults from planes and helicopters), the fires don’t last as long or consume as much acreage as they used to. A 1994 fire in the Wenatchee National Forest in Washington burned 140,000 acres, not three million. A fire in Idaho’s Payette National Forest, also in 1994, set records, but took out “only” 298,000 acres. Loggers claim what we should really be worrying about is the fire next time-they raise the bogey of an enormous fuel-fed inferno that will sweep across the drought-stricken timber east of the Cascades, baking whole towns.
Environmentalists, while decrying the “forest health” issue as “voodoo forestry,” don’t entirely discount the fire problem. Marc Evans, Greenpeace’s forest campaigner and a former USFS fire fighter, says, “We agree that there needs to be some sort of selective logging to decrease fire load. But they should just be taking the understory and leaving the canopy trees.”
Logging related landslides, like this one in Oregon, killed five people in 1996.
Greenpeace, says Evans, “is trying to set international standards that will be universally applied. We don’t support logging where there are still outstanding land claims. In the U.S., we never support clearcutting, and we don’t support logging in primary forests or roadless areas. We do support selective logging, which surprises people. The lumber companies are always trying to paint us as anti-logging, but I’ve personally spent a lot of time with a chainsaw in my hand, fighting fires.”
Oddly enough, despite the current confrontations in the forest (at presstime, Cascadia Forest Defenders was blockading a timber sale near Detroit, Oregon and Greenpeace was scaling the columns at the Canadian Embassy in Washington to protest old-growth logging in British Columbia) a workable compromise might actually be possible. The two sticking points are, clearly, clearcutting and old-growth logging. The forestry groups acknowledge that old-growth-because so much of it has been logged, and because most of the rest is protected—is really not that important an issue for them. “It’s virtually a done deal-the battle [over old growth] is over and they won,” says Craig Larson, director of international marketing for the Western Wood Products Association trade group. And they readily concede that cutting grandfather trees is a public relations disaster, losing them the goodwill not only of environmental groups but the general public as well. Since, as one timber spokesman put it, “We could survive for 30 years on salvage logging alone,” why doesn’t the timber industry, citing its new commitment to stewardship, simply declare that it will no longer log old-growth forests?
Such a unified decision on the part of the logging industry would also make good economic sense, in the light of building supply giant Home Depot’s very public decision to no longer buy old-growth redwood from its suppliers, which include Louisiana Pacific.
Clearcutting is a much more complicated matter. The loggers are firmly wedded to it, and even defend the wholesale destruction of trees on environmental grounds. (You don’t have to build as many landslide-prone roads, they say).
Scene IV: Only stumps and the gnarled limbs called “slash” remain from a Willamette Industries hillside clearcut on the Mohawk Tree Farm in Marcola, Oregon. It is dramatically ugly up close. Although company foresters insist that this messy jumble of stumps, deeply rutted muddy trails and dead limbs discarded like pickup sticks is a healthy ecosystem, soon to be replanted, environmentalists see it as a dead zone.
Last year Willamette paid Cavenham Forest Industries $1.6 billion for 1.1 million acres of timberland, making the company one of the top 10 forest landowners in the U.S. In a dramatic move, it then announced that it will no longer bid on USFS timber sales. Willamette, which had $3.8 billion in sales in 1995, is now free of the restrictions placed on federal timber. It can-and does-export its logs abroad.
Robert “Maggie” Magathan, a Willamette Industries manager supervising the Mohawk clearcut, is quick to make assurances that this hillside, stripped of its protective cover, is stable and not a landslide waiting to happen. Such threats are very real: In the mid-1960s, landslides from timber roads in the Salmon River watershed in Idaho nearly wiped out the salmon runs. In Oregon last year, five people were killed by landslides directly linked to clearcuts. Magathan bristles when he’s also asked if the spotted owl’s interests were observed when the trees came down. Pointing across the valley, he says, ““There’s a pair of spotted owls right over there. We have to check every year for spotted owls and [a similarly endangered seabird that nests in old-growth trees] marbled murrelets.”
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Loggers who’d never heard of the endangered spotted owls had to take a crash course after 1991, when federal judge William Dwyer ruled that Northwest timber sales had to stop until USFS could demonstrate that its logging plan wouldn’t wipe them out. That they were endangered was no longer in doubt: By the late 80s, there were estimated to be only 500 to 600 nesting pairs in Washington. Intensive old-growth logging had separated owl populations into small groups that had trouble finding enough food. The most common cause of death for juvenile owls was starvation.
These days, loggers say that the environmentalists seized on the spotted owl as a convenient excuse for reducing timber volume. Still, even though one owl got nailed to a tree in a Washington park, the industry has mostly responded with elaborate owl protection plans, bending over backwards to prove its effective “stewardship” of their habitat. Indeed, you could accu
se both sides in the habitat debate of focusing so exclusively on owls and murrelets that the plight of other birds and mammals is ignored. The Sierra Club, for instance, estimates that logging during the nesting season kills 250 million songbirds every year. “Nationwide, there is an indiscriminate slaughter that results from logging,” says Eric Huber, an attorney with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund.
Import or Die
As environmentalists and loggers focus on spotted owls, are songbirds being ignored?
Inevitably, government rulings, environmentalist lawsuits and habitat considerations have dramatically reduced logging operations in the U.S. Since 1987, western timber volume has been cut by a third, reduced by 8.2 billion board feet, but the demand for wood products certainly isn’t going down. More than a million new homes are built with wood every year, and new housing starts grew 5.6 percent in 1996. USFS estimates that domestic demand for wood fiber (including paper) will grow 50 percent by 2020. That means more imports, particularly from Canada. In 1987, the U.S. imported 12 percent of its wood products from Canada. By 1995, nearly a third of its wood was coming from the north.
But protecting American forests by shifting wood production to Canada is a dubious environmental proposition. Only massive protests have prevented wholesale cutting of the country’s west coast old-growth temperate rainforests, including the magnificent Clayoquot Sound. (A plan to log two-thirds of Clayoquot, announced in 1993, led to the largest civil disobedience protest in Canada’s history, resulting in the arrest of 900 people.) Rainforest Action Network (RAN) has targeted the Canadian forestry giant MacMillan Bloedel (unaffectionately known as “Mac-Blo”) which, RAN charges, “aggressively logs ancient primary forests.”
Other international sources of wood products-like Indonesia-are even worse. Indonesia lost an astonishing 145 million acres of forest land between 1950 and 1982, replacing complex rainforest ecosystems with monoculture softwood tree farms. Intensive clearcutting operations in the Philippines, Malaysia, Burma, Chile and Thailand have few environmental controls.
A Legacy Lost
Clearcuts form an ugly mosaic at Willamette Industries’ Mohawk Tree Farm in Oregon.
RAN estimates that only five percent of our ancient old-growth redwood forests remain. What else have we lost? In 1923, the U.S. Forest Service concluded that the original American forest had covered 822 million acres; other estimates go as high as 950 million acres. White pines, 230 feet in height, grew in New England (their demise heightened by their usefulness for ship masts). A single giant tulip poplar could yield 20,000 board feet of timber. These huge Eastern trees were almost entirely gone by the turn of the century-Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut were then 70 to 80 percent open land.
The U.S. had no forest policy at all during the frenzied period of western settlement in the 19th century. Vast fortunes were made from logging, but the lack of any sort of sustainable vision led to an endless boom-and-bust cycle that left people out of work and turned thriving communities into ghost towns when the timber ran out. The USFS was created to sustainably manage the forests, but boom-and-bust cycles are still devastating western towns.
Scene V: Logger Terry McCracken, a subcontractor on a Collins Pine cut, sized up a white fir, trying to get it to drop just right, to avoid killing nearby young trees, endangering a protected stream bed or landing on his head. Although logging is considered to be the second most-dangerous profession, McCracken feels lucky to be working, because timber mills have closed all over northern California and Oregon. “Why don’t you get it out that loggers aren’t the bad guys?” he asks. “I had a girl say to me, ‘How did it feel to kill that tree?’ but I bet she lives in a wooden house.” McCracken’s fir, probably over 100 years old and damaged by a skidder in an earlier logging incident, came down as planned. Before the day was out, he’d harvest 50 more.
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Loggers like McCracken are good at what they do, but can we afford to keep subsidizing their jobs? In 1994, according to the General Accounting Office (GAO), timber sales on the national forest level lost more than $176 million. In 1995, according to the White House Council of Economic Advisors, the Forest Service spent $134 million more than it collected in timber receipts. And The Wilderness Society found that, in 1995, the agency failed to account for $200 million in road construction costs and $257 million in payments to counties.
The 1976 National Forest Management Act (NFMA), which regulates timber cuts on federal land, has been called “a two-toothed tiger” by the Forest Reform Network. Passed in 1976, the law largely lets the Forest Service determine policy, but it does contain a pair of important-though routinely violated—environmental provisions. The first, known as the Randolph amendment, requires USFS to actually carry out its protection plans for soil, watershed and other natural resources. The second, the Bumpers amendment, requires the agency to take steps to maintain tree and animal diversity in the forests.
Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot established the US Forest Service in 1905.
In the 105th Congress, the timber lobby’s priority is the gutting of NFMA, and a bill introduced by Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho), the Public Land Management Responsibility and Accountability Restoration Act, is the preferred vehicle. Craig, the new chairman of the GOP Task Force on the Environment, gets campaign contributions from Georgia-Pacific, Weyerhaeuser, Boise-Cascade and Champion International. He was the principle force behind Senate passage of the salvage logging bill, and he has now introduced legislation that would reduce NFMA to a shell. Among its provisions, the bill would: establish a procedure for transferring ownership of national forests to state ownership; allow the Forest Service to impose fines of $10,000 for “improper” challenges to timber sales; eliminate the role of the Fish and Wildlife Service from overseeing threatened and endangered species in the forests; and encourage more destructive salvage logging. According to Jim Jontz of the Western Ancient Forest Campaign, “This bill mocks the Republican leadership’s announced goals of improving environmental protection. It’s a naked timber industry wish list.”
Congressional greens, meanwhile, are engaged in an uphill fight to pass the Save America’s Forests Act, which would ban logging on 17 million old-growth acres, and eliminate clearcutting on all national forests. Expect an all-out industry assault if the bill shows signs of life.
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As polarized as the situation is in the western forests, there appears to be room for a workable compromise. Environmentalists need to realize that they can’t oppose all logging, at least as long as most of
us live in wood houses and use paper. And the lumber industry has to start thinking sustainably, planting new, diverse forests to replace the ones it cuts down, and give up its designs on our few remaining old-growth cathedrals. For environmentalists, that last point is non-negotiable, and by giving in to it, the tree-cutters could start rebuilding a relationship that long since toppled over like a chainsawed Douglas fir.
JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E.