Logging for dollars in national forests
By Chad Hanson -- Special to The Bee
Published 5:30 AM PST Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2001
As the number of spotted owls and Pacific fishers continues to decline
in California, the U.S. Forest Service and the timber industry are
refusing to protect suitable old forest habitat for these imperiled
species. Instead, they try to manipulate the public's misunderstanding
of post-fire ecology to support massive logging in old-growth forests
on thousands of acres of the people's lands throughout California.
In August 1999, lightning ignited a fire in the national Trinity
Alps Wilderness Area in Northern California. The blaze spread west
to Six Rivers National Forest, and eventually thousands of acres
of U.S. forest burned, including suitable habitat for the spotted
owl and the mink-like Pacific fisher. Loggers want to remove charred
trees from 860 of those acres. They say that would prevent a bigger
fire -- a reburn -- and that a burned forest must be heavily thinned
or even clear-cut for restoration. Both ideas are weak speculation
pushed as hard science to sell ambitious plans by private industry
to log public old-growth forests.
The Forest Service itself has conducted an exhaustive review of
all existing scientific literature on the subject of reburn and "found
no studies documenting a reduction in fire intensity in a stand that
had previously been logged" (McIver and Starr, "Environmental
Effects of Post-Fire Logging," 2000, www.fs.fed.us/pnw/pubs/gtr486.pdf).
Another group of scientists, led by Robert L. Beschta, professor
of forestry at the University of Oregon, issued a study in 1995 (Beschta
et al., "Wildfire and Salvage Logging") that concluded
there is "no evidence supporting the contention that leaving
large dead wood material significantly increases the probability
The second argument -- the clear-cut-for-restoration theory -- is
absurd. To the contrary, the Beschta report concluded "there
is little reason to believe that post-fire salvage logging has any
positive ecological benefits. ... There is considerable evidence
that persistent, significant adverse environmental impacts are likely
to result from salvage logging." In its pro-logging arguments,
the Forest Service ignores decades of scientific research about the
natural, rejuvenating role of fire in western forest ecology, as
well as the importance of burned trees for wildlife habitat.
Several other large post-fire logging plans are in the early stages
for old-growth in the Plumas and Tahoe national forests. Ironically,
these projects could actually increase the likelihood of severe fires
by removing many large trees that aren't really dead, thus reducing
the forest canopy and creating hotter, drier conditions on the ground.
Most telling, the Forest Service never explains how replacing old-growth
forests with tree plantations fits any credible definition of ecological "restoration."
Let's face it: "Salvaging" in our national forests is
an excuse to log huge tracks of otherwise off-limits old-growth trees.
The timber industry and the Forest Service want to log these areas
because there live the most economically valuable trees. The Forest
Service keeps the vast majority of timber sale revenues, which gives
it a perverse incentive to do more cutting. It has developed a huge
bureaucracy around the selling of timber from national forest land.
The federal logging program operates at a net loss to taxpayers of
about $1 billion a year, according to the nonpartisan U.S. Congressional
Research Service. We do not need to waste taxpayer money destroying
our own public lands. After all, less than 2 percent of the wood
this nation uses annually comes from national forests. What's more,
ending the heavily subsidized federal logging program would make
it easier for recycled and nonwood products to compete in the market.
In most of the areas the Forest Service would like to open up, the
vast majority of the trees scheduled for removal are alive and well,
and providing healthy habitat for threatened species. The timber-sale
planning documents conveniently "assume" that the areas
experienced a high intensity fire and that most or all of the trees
are dead. But in case after case, where environmental activists have
inspected the sites, the assumptions are not true.
The Storrie post-fire "restoration" project on the southern
end of the Lassen National Forest proposed to remove 69 million board-feet
of old-growth timber (enough to fill log trucks end to end stretching
from Sacramento to San Francisco). The sale documents claimed the
area was so badly burned, it was no longer suitable spotted owl habitat,
and proposed removing 50 percent to 100 percent of the trees in areas
said to have burned at high intensity. Some colleagues and I walked
the proposed sale units and found that most areas either showed no
significant signs of burning or were burned mildly with only a few
trees killed. The project is now on hold.
If we truly want to achieve ecological restoration on our national
forest lands, we must end the federal timber sales program and replace
it with a true ecological restoration jobs program, as HR 1494, the
National Forest Protection and Restoration Act, would do. Until then,
we will continue to see the same destructive logging practices in
increasingly creative disguises.
About the Reporter
Chad Hanson is the executive director of the John Muir Project and
national director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached at (530)273-9290
or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Web site: www.johnmuirproject.org.