The Forest Service is at a critical crossroad in National Forest management. On one path lies a return to the extraction mentality of thirty years ago; a push to view our National Forests as commodities for timber and energy production. The other path sees our public lands as ecological and social treasures to be treated with care and protected for future generations.
FSEEE has worked for decades to protect our National Forests. We recognize that current economic and political forces could easily lead us back to the old days, when resource extraction was the Forest Service’s raison d’etre.
We also recognize that the Forest Service can move forward and embrace ecological sustainability if it is given the right tools. FSEEE has a plan to inspire a sustainable future for our National Forests, and we need your help.
The men and women who manage our National Forests are often faced with a conflicting barrage of information about good forest management. What’s best for the forest is not always obvious, and many of them struggle with institutional stagnation and inertia.
FSEEE has been following the restoration of the Siuslaw National Forest, and we have discovered a forest management model that is clear, effective and good for forest users, wildlife and ecosystems.
We plan to take that model to National Forests across the country to show land managers that it’s possible to both care for the land AND serve the people.
Let me explain:
Thirty years ago, the Siuslaw National Forest was managed as an industrial tree farm. Since the early 1960s, the Forest Service had logged more timber per acre from the Siuslaw than from any other National Forest.
The Siuslaw sat at the center of the political triangle that united local politicians, lumber mill owners and a Forest Service bureaucracy that learned how to keep much of the money made from timber sales for its own purposes, rather than ‘lose’ these dollars to the U.S. Treasury.
The Siuslaw was at the extreme of a timber-first culture that dominated federal forest management from Arkansas’ Ouachita to Washington’s Olympic National Forest. The environmental damage – streams running brown with silt, diverse hardwood forests converted to monoculture pine plantations, compacted soils and invasive weeds – was incalculable.
In 1976, Congress stepped in and passed the reform-minded National Forest Management Act. This law sought to reign in the worst logging abuses and, in particular, limit clearcut logging.
The Forest Service not only didn’t get the message, it fought reform tooth-and-nail with every trick in its book.
The Forest Service did its best to keep citizens shut out of land management decisions. Within the agency, a bitter battle was waged, pitting entrenched foresters and engineers against scientists hired to meet the letter, but not the spirit, of the reform laws.
By the late 1980s, the timber feeding frenzy had reached a feverish pitch. The Forest Service cut 12 billion board feet – enough to fill 2 million log trucks – from our nation’s forests. Hillsides were scraped clean of their primeval, ancient forests. Loggers built roads ever further into the public’s backcountry. The iron triangle of policy, industry and bureaucracy was so strong that even spending $100 of public funds to produce a dollar of timber value was not too great a price to pay to keep the chainsaws roaring on the Tongass National Forest.
And then the entire edifice came crashing down as federal judges around the nation slapped the Forest Service for its flagrant disregard for environmental laws. Judge William Dwyer, a Reagan appointee, charged the Forest Service with “a remarkable series of violations of the environmental laws” in its destruction of Pacific Northwest old-growth forests.
As much as the Siuslaw National Forest was the epicenter of the train wreck, it was also the first to embrace a new mission, one based upon sustaining the ecological integrity of all forest resources – the soil, water, air, and diversity of life.
The Siuslaw’s transformation has been no less gut wrenching than it has been profound. In a largely behind-the-scenes process, a series of Siuslaw forest supervisors built a new mission for the nation’s most productive forest. They realized the Siuslaw’s productivity could be used for more than growing timber for two-by-fours – it could also produce salmon, potentially more salmon than most anywhere else in the continental U.S.
In the mid-19th century, indigenous people harvested about 10 million pounds of salmon annually. After 100 years of logging, grazing, damming, and over-fishing by white settlers, these salmon stocks had dwindled to less than 10 percent of their former levels.
The Siuslaw forest staff decided that their new mission would be to restore the salmon’s freshwater habitat. Over the past 20 years, the Siuslaw has embraced this mission and become a world-class leader in developing the art and science of watershed restoration.
As it turned out, what is good for streams and salmon has also been good for the forest ecosystem.
At Karnowsky Creek, the Forest Service partnered with private landowners to restore the over-grazed floodplain and return the creek closer to its primeval, meandering path. At Knowles Creek, the Forest Service worked with private timber owners to return old-growth logs back to the stream, creating the pools necessary for salmon rearing and the natural blockages required to catch and hold spawning gravels. The Siuslaw turned away from clearcut logging altogether and focused its forest management on thinning its young plantations to create future old-growth forests.
The Siuslaw staff realized early on that its new restoration mission required a dramatic change in the forest’s road system. Logging roads are not good for salmon or watershed restoration. Some roads remained necessary for public access and recreation. But most of the Siuslaw’s roads were built to clearcut the forest; they simply were no longer needed. With the logging money gone, the Siuslaw could no longer afford to maintain a large road system.
The Siuslaw has decommissioned, closed or stored (by putting water bars across the road to prevent landslides) hundreds of road miles. The Forest Service has replaced dozens of culverts that blocked salmon passage, returning miles of stream to the fisheries.
Today, if there is one National Forest that has realized Aldo Leopold’s vision of “seeing land as a community to which we belong, so that we may begin to use it with love and respect,” it is the Siuslaw.
National Forests across the country are facing similar restoration puzzles. The issues vary, but the question is the same: How can land managers restore the forests under their care, creating sustainable forests for future generations?
Key components of the Siuslaw’s transformation can be applied on National Forests from coast to coast. First, the Forest Service must address the aging and poorly maintained road system. It must reduce road densities on the existing network and reengineer those roads required for public access to end the catastrophic road failures that choke streams with sediment. Second, we must move the Forest Service away from resource extraction once and for all and focus the agency’s efforts on ecosystem restoration by thinning overstocked plantations, returning streams to their natural states, and focusing on the ecological connections across the landscape.
We understand that it is just as important to highlight the Forest Service’s success as it is to end its abuses, so we are launching a campaign to bring the Siuslaw’s story of forest restoration to every Forest Service office in the nation.
We are working with renowned videographer Alan Honick, who directed the FSEEE-produced “Torrents of Change” sixteen years ago. “Torrents of Change” launched reform-minded Siuslaw forest supervisor Jim Furnish to deputy chief where he led the Clinton Administration’s roadless rule initiative that protected 60 million wild acres from logging roads.
Bringing the Siuslaw’s story to screen will help Forest Service leaders and young employees understand that a new way forward is possible. We can restore pride in our agency and enthusiasm in our work by embracing a new mission that gives more than lip service to environmental restoration.
Jim Furnish has agreed to help with and appear in the video, as have key Forest Service scientists and managers. We will assist in the documentary’s production and once it is done, we will make it part of an educational tour that will touch every Forest Service office coast-to-coast.
I hope you can help us by making a special, generous contribution to our efforts. When the flickering flame of reform takes root, we must blow it into a green fire that lights the way for future generations.