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The 'Sustainable' definition slippery

By Chad Hanson - Sat, Nov 10, 2001

Grass Valley Union, California

In his recent opinion piece, Steve Eubanks, the supervisor of the Tahoe National Forest, claimed that the timber sales program on the Tahoe National Forest is "sustainable" (The Union, Oct. 29). Terms like this are so vague, and so easily misused, it's hard to know what someone means when they make such a claim. Here's what we do know, however. Over the past seven or eight years, California spotted owl populations have been declining by 7 to10 percent each year in the Sierra Nevada, including on the Tahoe National Forest. The Forest Service's own scientists have published studies specifically linking the owl's decline to logging practices on national forests. The spotted owl is perhaps the best indicator of the overall condition of old-forest habitat in the Sierra Nevada. As the owl goes, so too do hundreds of other old-forest species. Another key indicator species is the Pacific fisher, a mink-like mammal dependent upon mature forests with high canopy cover. The fisher used to range throughout the Sierra Nevada. However, the Forest Service has determined that the fisher has been largely extirpated from the central and northern Sierra Nevada over the past several years. Only 100 to 500 individual fishers remain in the entire Sierra range. They are all in the southern Sierra and are declining steeply. Again, the Forest Service's own scientists directly link the fisher's decline to logging practices on national forests. They have also determined that suitable fisher habitat must be maintained in the central and northern Sierra in order for the remaining southern Sierra population to reconnect with populations in the North Coast and Klamath regions in far Northern California. If this is not done, agency scientists warn, the fisher will become extinct in the Sierra Nevada in the near future. Despite the dire circumstances facing the spotted owl and Pacific fisher, the Tahoe National Forest nevertheless continues to focus the vast majority of its logging projects in suitable owl and/or fisher habitat because that's where the most economically valuable mature trees are. These "thinning" timber sales focus on the removal of medium and large trees from 12 to 30 inches in diameter. Consequently, forest canopy cover is substantially reduced, rendering the areas unsuitable, or marginally suitable, for owls and fishers. Like hundreds of other old-forest species, fishers and owls require closed-canopy forest conditions for survival. Fishers, for example, are low to the ground and have short legs. The forest canopy lessens snow coverage in winter, allowing fishers to travel and hunt. By removing mature trees which comprise the canopy, commercial thinning projects seriously degrade the forest crown cover, causing fishers to starve to death, and making them more susceptible to predation. In addition, these thinning timber sales reduce shade and erode the moist, cool conditions associated with mature forests. As a result, they create hotter, drier conditions on the ground, making the forest more susceptible to unnaturally severe forest fires. The Forest Service's own science confirms this. Despite these factors, though, the Tahoe National Forest continues to plan and implement timber sales which destroy and degrade owl and fisher habitat and increase the incidence of severe fires. This is not sustainable under any reasonable definition. In addition, studies prepared by the Forest Service and independent research firms have confirmed that recreation and tourism on national forests creates 20 to 30 times more jobs and economic contribution than logging on national forests. Notably, logging degrades the very heart of the recreation economy: wildlands. The reality is that we must end the timber sales program on our nation's national forests and replace it with an ecological restoration jobs program, as HR 1494, the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act, would do. It would be good for the forests, and good for jobs. And it would be sustainable.

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Chad Hanson is the executive director of the John Muir Project, and is a national director of the Sierra Club. He lives near Cedar Ridge. His e-mail address chadhanson@juno.com