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Ban roads in federal forests, but go a step further and end logging as well

Duluth, MN, News-Tribune Opinions
Mon, Jun. 24, 2002

Nearly two centuries ago, Lewis and Clark observed that a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic to the Mississippi without ever touching the ground. Similarly, in the old West, vast expanses of ancient forests stretched as far as the eye could see. But not today. Logging and road building have taken an incredibly heavy toll on our nation's forests.

Now, the small fraction of America's original forests that remain unlogged and unroaded exist almost entirely on federal public lands. The Clinton administration, to its credit, proposed to protect these wild lands. The Bush administration, to its shame, reversed that policy and invited timber corporations to continue logging in roadless areas.

Outraged, more than 170 members of the House recently co-sponsored a bill to protect these critically important forests on public lands. Congressional leaders should do the right thing and pass this legislation outright, or at least deny funding for any logging in roadless forests.

These are the last, best forests -- the wildest and most ecologically diverse places that remain. Severe fires are least likely to occur in such forests because they have many mature trees with thick, fire-resistant bark, and the forest canopy cover creates cool, moist conditions. As the federal government's own National Fire Plan observes, such fires are most likely to occur in areas where logging and road building has been allowed.

At the same time, while protecting roadless forests on public lands is a great step in the right direction, it's not nearly enough. Congress should also recognize that, due to the habitat fragmentation caused by logging and road building on public lands, most of the remaining old-growth stands on our national forests are in tracts too small to be considered "roadless."

Yet protecting these mature and old-growth forests is every bit as important as protecting roadless areas if we are to sustain and restore fully functioning forest ecosystems.

To put the issue in perspective: Because of commercial logging, less than 10 percent of forest habitat on federal lands is in roadless condition. In some states, such as Alaska and Montana, that percentage is higher, of course.

The bottom line is that, because of the timber sales program on our national forests, we have lost so much high quality forest habitat that we can no longer simply protect some areas, and not others.
If forest ecosystems are to recover, and imperiled species to survive, we must protect all remaining forests on federal public lands, roadless and otherwise. In short, we must end the timber sales program on federal lands, and redirect current logging expenditures into ecological restoration. This includes reduction of flammable brush where excessive accumulations occur due to past logging and fire suppression.

America is a nation of unparalleled beauty and grandeur. The captivating natural landscapes are an indelible part of our national heritage and identity. We cannot delude ourselves into thinking that we can squander our remaining wild lands without losing something as a nation, and as a people.

Most Americans understand that. The Bush administration does not. Therefore, it is up to Congress to express the will of the people, and send a message that the integrity of our national forests is more important than the short-term profits of the administration's big timber campaign contributors.

As John Muir said a century ago, "Since Christ's time, and long before that, God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand leveling, straining tempests and
floods; but he cannot save them from fools... Only Congress can do that."

CHAD HANSON of Cedar Ridge, Calif., is the executive director of the John Muir Project and a national director of the Sierra Club.