The U.S. Forest Service wants to turn back the clock thirty years and re-enter what was, for them, the golden age of logging. At stake is no less than the fate of the last temperate old-growth rainforests in North America.
FSEEE was founded on the principle that these irreplaceable ecological treasures must be preserved, not squandered for short-term profits. They are not just stunningly beautiful; they provide wildlife habitat, watershed protection, carbon storage and other vital ecological functions.
For more than two decades, FSEEE helped win major victories that gained interim protection for millions of old-growth forest acres. But our gains are now under assault on multiple fronts. Most worrisome is a recent memorandum issued by the White House to the Secretary of Interior. This directive concerns the protection of critical old-growth forest habitat for the northern spotted owl. Here is what the Interior Secretary has been told (emphasis ours):
Areas identified as critical [spotted owl] habitat should be subject to active management, including logging, in order to produce the variety of stands of trees required for healthy forests.The proposal rejects the traditional view that land managers should take a “hands off” approach to forest habitat in order to promote species health; ongoing logging activity may be needed to enhance forest resilience.
The notion that logging old-growth makes the forest better for wildlife is pure hokum. By their very definition, old-growth forests are “old”—they have prospered for hundreds of years without “active” management by foresters or loggers.
“Active management” is a euphemism for commercial logging. It means logging roads that erode mountainsides and silt our streams. It means heavy machinery that compacts soil, reduces tree growth and introduces invasive weeds. It means cutting down century-old trees that are habitat to hundreds of rare or endangered species, not just the spotted owl.
So why is the White House and the agencies it oversees embarking upon this dangerous path? Simply put, jobs at any cost.
In an election year, with the nation still reeling from the worst economic recession in a generation, the administration has decided that jobs trump the environment.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to “actively manage” irreplaceable old-growth forests to promote jobs. There are millions of second-growth acres—a legacy of almost a century’s worth of logging and reforestation—that can fulfill our nation’s needs for building materials.
These tree plantations will never again be old-growth forests. They were planted as monocultures, during that era of industrial forestry on our National Forests between World War II and the late 1980s. Today these forests are 30 to 80 years old and have abundant wood volume. But, biologically speaking, they are deserts. These forests consist of trees grown in tight rows with little, if any, understory vegetation and none of the standing dead snags and down logs that make old-growth rich habitat for wildlife.
The problem with existing forest plans is that they protect millions of acres of second-growth forests while allowing old-growth forest logging to continue. That makes no sense.
The government’s answer makes even less sense. Instead of protecting our old-growth forests, the administration’s directive promotes “logging activity in areas of critical habitat, in accordance with the scientific principles of active forestry management.”
In Washington State, The Forest Service has kicked off its new “active” logging plans. The Okanogan, Wenatchee and Colville National Forests have published proposed forest plans that eliminate all existing old-growth forest reserves.
In their stead, the Forest Service promotes two flavors of Active Restoration. The first, called “Active Restoration 2” allows for up to two miles of logging roads to be built in each square mile of forest. The second, called “Active Restoration 3” allows, you guessed it, up to three miles of logging roads per square mile.
These proposed plans erase protections for old-growth forests that have been in place since 1994, when President Clinton adopted the Northwest Forest Plan. The Northwest Forest Plan, although not perfect, for the first time acknowledged that old-growth forests should be preserved. The Plan fell short of doing so for all old-growth, but it recognized that an old-growth forest left to its own devices can not only survive, but prosper.
Now the Forest Service wants to return to the past. It is parroting slogans that remind me of the days when foresters defined “wildlife” as “deer,” and then claimed they were protecting wildlife because deer prosper in clearcuts.
I have as little trust in the Forest Service bureaucracy today as I did 30 years ago. The financial incentives for the Forest Service to log the biggest, most valuable trees remain in force.
These incentives include the Knutson-Vandenberg Act of 1930, which allows the Forest Service to keep in its own budget all of the money earned from selling the public’s trees. The law, as originally written, authorized the Forest Service to spend these timber dollars on reforestation and other “sale area improvements.”
But, the impact of this law is even worse today, as a result of an obscure provision Congress adopted recently in a spending bill. Now the Forest Service can spend these timber dollars on preparing and administering new timber sales! Congress has created an off-budget, revolving slush fund that rewards the Forest Service bureaucracy when it sells timber.
It’s no wonder that the Forest Service is now eying the old-growth forests that we have worked so hard to protect. There’s money to be made from those trees; money to line the Forest Service’s own bureaucratic pockets.
The temptation for the Forest Service to do so has never been stronger for one simple reason. The Forest Service, like all other agencies that rely upon discretionary spending, is under pressure from a Congress focused on cutting domestic spending at all costs, regardless of the environmental toll.
FSEEE has a three-pronged strategy for keeping “active management” from running amok on our National Forests. First, we must sever the Forest Service’s budget from its logging decisions. We will work to end the current laws and policies that provide financial incentives that reward the bureaucracy for degrading our environment.
Second, we will scrutinize the Forest Service and Interior Department plans on scientific grounds, pointing out the irrational flaws and even challenging the plans in court, if need be.
Third, FSEEE will use its expertise as foresters and biologists to educate the public about the logical fallacy of “active” management of old-growth forests.
We are at a crucial crossroads in forest protection. The economic headwinds that are buffeting our nation also threaten a generation’s worth of gains in forest policy and old-growth conservation.