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Big Timber's Big Lies

By Chad Hanson

They'll say whatever it takes to keep the subsidies rolling in.

From SIERRA magazine (Sept-Oct. 2000)

A Guide to Countering Timber Industry Propaganda

A decade ago my brother and I fulfilled a lifelong dream of hiking from Mexico to Canada on the 2,700-mile Pacific Crest Trail, most of which traverses national forests in the Pacific Coast states. We fully expected to see great expanses of wilderness, unbroken and unspoiled, and we did-until we reached the northern Sierra Nevada. There we began to notice Forest Service signs posted on trees along the trail that read, "Trail washed out. Take detour." We dutifully obeyed, and slogged along the hastily hacked-out alternate paths.

Then one day, in Tahoe National Forest, we noticed two men up ahead writing on one of these signs. When they saw us, they hustled up the trail and out of sight. Their words in fresh marker-pen ink warned: "Clearcuts ahead. It's a scam!" Intrigued, we stuck to the main trail, and soon found ourselves staring across a massive clearcut that extended over the ridgeline. Attempts to replant had obviously been made, but the topsoil had washed away and the saplings were dead. Not one living thing could be seen.

Catching up to the sign's editors, we were amazed to learn that they were the U.S. Forest Service employees who had put up the original warnings. Their bosses had ordered them to do this, they said, in a cynical attempt to conceal the devastating effects of commercial logging.

This was not the last clearcut. From the northern Sierra, up through the Marble Mountains and the Cascades, we encountered one stumpfield after another, along with "reforestation" plantings of tidy rows of little trees, all of the same species.

I had never before been politically involved. But by the time I reached the Canadian border, five months and four days after setting out, I was a convert to forest activism. I began to investigate the Forest Service and the timber industry in an effort to answer the question that kept recurring as we walked through the devastation: Why are they logging our national forests?

The main reason is that we're paying them to do it. The Forest Service's own figures reveal that the timber sales program on national forests operates at a net loss to taxpayers of well over $1 billion each year. Not only does the industry get a sweet deal on the trees themselves, but a substantial chunk of its overhead is gratis, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer. We pick up the tab for logging-road construction, timber-sale planning and administrative costs, replanting, and even restoration and cleanup.

But this is certainly not the explanation you'll hear from the industry or the Forest Service. According to them, logging provides jobs, offers fire protection, improves forest health, supports rural education, and prevents deforestation in other parts of the world. A closer examination, however, reveals that all of these claims are merely deceptive ploys used to justify continued destruction of our national forests.

Clearcutting Jobs

The Forest Service and the timber industry claim that logging our public lands is essential for jobs and the economy. But the agency's own documents show that recreation in national forests contributes over 31 times more to the U.S. economy and creates 38 times more jobs than logging national forests. If we ended all commercial logging on national forests, and redirected the subsidies into timber-community assistance, we could pay each public-lands timber worker more than $30,000 a year for job retraining or ecological restoration work, and still save taxpayers millions.

From 1979 to 1989-a period of extremely heavy logging on Northwest federal forests-timber employment actually fell by about 20,000. The main cause of job loss was not environmental regulations, as the timber industry would have us believe, but automation and the loss of old-growth forests due to logging itself.

A lot of logging isn't even done by loggers any more. Enormous mechanical monsters known as "feller-bunchers" roam the forest floor. A huge hydraulic clamp grasps the trunk of the tree with startling quickness and massive shears cut through it in one swift motion. The clamp then sets the tree aside and the monster-machine rolls forward through the forest. It is tireless. It never complains about wages or working conditions. Its hunger for our trees knows no limit. Given this technology, it is not surprising that ten years ago the U.S. General Accounting Office projected that even if logging on national forests increased by 55 percent over the next 50 years, employment in timber extraction and milling would still drop by more than 25 percent.

Logging Forests to Save Them

As the truth about logging and economics was increasingly exposed by forest activists in the '90s, the industry faced a public-relations crisis. The old "jobs versus environment" rhetoric just didn't hold up, so new, ostensibly altruistic justifications were invented.

The industry now insists that we must cut the trees to protect them from fire and disease. Yet the Forest Service's own 1994 study, "Forest Resources of the United States," revealed that tree mortality in the West due to both fire and disease actually increases in logged areas. The worst rates were on private lands, where logging levels are even higher and where less natural forest remains. In western forests from 1986 to 1991, tree mortality from fire and disease on private lands went up by 20 percent, compared to 3 percent on national forests, while it actually decreased by 9 percent on other public lands, such as national parks.

Fires tend to start in areas that have been logged because logged forests are drier, less shaded, and contain flammable debris known as "slash piles," unmerchantable branches left by logging crews. When fires do occur in old-growth forests, they rarely kill the larger trees, which have thick, fire-resistant bark. Instead, such fires simply clear understory brush and return nutrients to the soil, enhancing forest health. Even in the relatively rare event that a fire does kill an old-growth stand, the remaining trees and snags provide valuable nesting habitat for large birds of prey and other forest species. Wildlife has little use for stumps.

In 1993, the Forest Service introduced a new logging program-"Forest Stewardship"-that is purportedly conducted for the health of the forests. As public opinion polls in the mid-'90s began to show that a growing majority of Americans wanted to end federal timber sales, the Forest Service countered by reducing the volume cut under its Timber Commodity Program and making up the difference with a steady increase in logging under the Forest Stewardship Program. Today, roughly half of all timber cut on national forests is supposedly for the forests' own good. Most of the biggest, most destructive timber sales-including massive clearcuts through ancient forests and roadless areas-are planned, prepared, and executed under the guise of stewardship. Most of these are supposedly carried out to "reduce fire risk."

Last year, however, a General Accounting Office report finally called into serious question the use of timber sales to address fire issues. "Most of the trees that need to be removed to reduce accumulated fuels are small in diameter and have little or no commercial value," the report noted. Because of this, Forest Service managers "tend to focus on areas with high-value commercial timber rather than on areas with high fire hazards" and "include more large, commercially valuable trees in a sale than are necessary to reduce the accumulated fuels." The GAO concluded that the program is "largely driven by commercial rather than safety

Indeed, the principal methods for setting the Forest Service's fire-reduction budget are commercial. The cover of the technical course manual of the Forest Service's National Fire Management Analysis System (NFMAS) shows a balancing scale. On its right side is a stand of trees on fire. On the left, a large bag of money. The text openly states that "NFMAS presently has no provision for directly and systematically estimating the economic impact of effects of fire on wildland resource values that do not in and of themselves produce market or commodity outputs." The message is clear: if it can't be sold, it doesn't have value.

Clearcuts for Kids

In addition to pretending to be a crusader for forest health, the timber industry has cast itself as the savior of rural education. This ruse is made possible by a federal law enacted nearly a century ago requiring that 25 percent of timber-sale revenues from national forests go to rural counties for road maintenance and education. The result is that school systems have gotten hooked on revenue from deforestation, and fluctuations in the timber economy have made school budgets unpredictable.

Both the Clinton administration and the Forest Service have proposed legislation to de-link education funding from timber sales and make guaranteed payments for schools directly from the government. The timber industry is vehemently opposed to such a move because this would reduce its political leverage.

Under heavy timber-industry pressure, the House passed H.R. 2389, the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act, which keeps rural education dependent on public-lands deforestation. At press time, an equally destructive companion bill, S. 1608, was under consideration by the Senate. The bills would set county payments at fixed levels but would raid funds from non-timber programs (such as fish and wildlife) if timber revenue wasn't sufficient, putting pressure on agency managers to get the cut out. The bills also require a substantial portion of the payments to be used not for education, but rather for additional logging projects on national forests.

Logging as Foreign Policy

As if the rationalizations about jobs, forest health, fire protection, and education weren't hard enough to swallow, timber executives and their friends in Congress are now insisting that halting logging on our national forests would create "shifting economic pressures" to increase logging in forests abroad. Forest protection at home, they now argue, triggers deforestation elsewhere.

In fact, less than 3 percent of domestic wood comes from national forests. Even if industry's contentions about worldwide logging were true, any shift in supply would have a minute effect on the global timber market. What's more, the industry's own research provides little support for the "shifting pressures" rhetoric. A recent study in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics estimates that for every 50 acres of forest protected in North America and Europe, only 2.5 acres of forest would be lost collectively throughout Asia, South America, Africa, and the former Soviet Union. And this study doesn't address the extent to which a shift to non-wood alternatives could compensate for reduced domestic logging.

This shift in supply could well go in an entirely different direction than the timber industry would have us believe-not to foreign countries, but to substitutes for wood. Ending timber sales on national forests and removing heavily subsidized public timber from the market would enable non-wood products to be more competitive. For example, overall costs of building with recycled light-gauge steel are only 3 percent greater than those of wood, but even such a small difference causes contractors to choose wood framing. If not for the unfairly low prices created by the federal timber program, says Michael Roddy, president of Green Framing Systems, recycled steel could meet significantly more of the demand for construction materials.

In any case, the timber industry's predictions of rising wood demand have turned out to be wishful thinking. Earlier reports incorrectly projected that by the year 2000 wood consumption would be 70 percent higher than it now is. Global consumption of wood in 1998, however, was actually about the same as in 1984, having peaked in the late '80s and decreased slightly since then.

Predictions that the demand for wood can only be met by continuing or increasing logging assume no increase in recycling or development of alternatives. Yet there is not so much a demand for wood itself as a demand for paper and construction products-products that can be easily derived from non-forest sources and recycled materials.

The federal government, the largest single consumer of paper in the world, provides an example of the potential for change. The executive branch alone consumes 20.9 billion pages of copy paper each year. Although federal agencies have increased the recycled content of their copy paper in the last two years, thanks to an administrative mandate, over two-thirds of it is still derived from virgin wood fiber. Executive Order 13101 required suppliers to provide paper with at least 30 percent post-consumer recycled content. When it was proposed, paper manufacturers howled, insisting that they could not meet such a requirement. Nevertheless, only two years later, suppliers have adjusted, and federal agencies are now in 95 percent compliance.

The quantity of paper consumed by the judicial and legislative branches of the federal government is unknown, but if they use as much as the executive branch, then the federal government's total consumption would equal roughly the amount of paper produced through commercial logging on national forests annually. (More than one-third of the timber cut on national forests-from 150,000 to 250,000 acres each year-goes into paper products.)

Stronger recycling efforts could also greatly reduce the need for lumber. Figures released last year by the Forest Service's Forest Products Lab in Madison, Wisconsin, show that 29.6 million tons of recoverable, usable waste wood is produced in the United States each year from three major sources: municipal solid waste, demolition and construction waste, and the timber milling process. This is the equivalent of over 45 billion board feet of timber, nearly half of all wood consumed in the United States each year, and 15 times the amount of timber cut from national forests annually. Every year this quantity of wood ends up in landfills.

The Real Global Issues

Logging our national forests does have a global impact, but it's the exact opposite of what the timber industry alleges. The United States, for better or worse, is the trendsetter in international policies affecting forests. For example, the United States was widely blamed by conservationists for the failure of the 1992 environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro to deliver a meaningful forest-protection treaty. Less-developed nations pointed out that the United States is still logging its last remaining ancient forests-even on public lands. Why then, they argued, should they institute strong measures to preserve their own forests?

Forest protection begets forest protection. Halting logging on federal lands would encourage preservation of both U.S. private lands and forests abroad. According to Mauricio Fierro of Geo-Austral, a Chilean forest-protection organization, "As much as we appreciate direct support from people in the United States, the most helpful thing you could do for us would be to stop logging in your own national forests." Similarly, Chris Genovali of the British Columbia-based Raincoast Conservation Society says, "Ending logging on U.S. national-forest land will set an important precedent for ancient-forest protection and will create positive political momentum internationally, which in turn could end up helping forest protection efforts in British Columbia."

As citizens of this country, we are faced with a choice: We can, through our silence, allow the timber industry to continue picking our pockets and plundering our public forests. Or we can hold our elected officials accountable and demand that they end the timber sales programs on our national forests.

Chad Hanson is a national director of the Sierra Club, and is the executive director of the John Muir Project. He can be reached at (626) 792-0109, at, or at 30 N. Raymond Ave., #514, Pasadena, CA 91103.