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) http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/200009/timber.asp
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 30 N. Raymond Ave.,
#514, Pasadena, CA 91103.