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UNCONSCIONABLE EXPLOITATION

By Chad Hanson

TIMBER FIRMS ARE USING CALIFORNIA'S ENERGY CRISIS TO PUSH MORE BIO-MASS LOGGING IN U.S. FORESTS

Pasadena -- As other Western states begin to experience signs of the energy crisis wreaking havoc in California, a segment of the timber industry is attempting to cash-in by expanding sales of "bio-mass" timber from national forests.

In the history of bad ideas, logging millions of acres of our nation's priceless and irreplaceable national forests to provide taxpayer-subsidized energy stands out with particular distinction.

Currently, bio-mass energy producers rely on burning waste paper, used wooden pallets from factories and construction sites and agricultural residues for much of their supply.

Now, in order to take advantage of the much-publicized energy crisis, the bio-mass producers and the timber industry are joining forces to persuade federal officials to allow them increased access to public national forests.

Though only a tiny percentage of most states' energy supply currently comes from bio-mass logging on federal lands, the bio-mass and timber alliance wants to expand such harvesting.

The alliance even is attempting to put a "green" spin on its goals by claiming that it will harvest only twigs, branches and occasional saplings left by logging crews. The unvarnished truth is that bio-mass logging operations utilize heavy machinery to remove nearly all trees up to four feet in circumference.

In so doing, they not only severely damage the fragile soil on the forest floor, but also obliterate the forest understory, upon which entire plant and animal communities rely for survival. Prey species that live in the understory decline in numbers as a result, causing imperiled raptors, such as owls and hawks, and fur-bearing animals, to starve and die off.

With this past summer's wildfires still fresh in people's minds, logging companies and the U.S. Forest Service claim that bio-mass timber sales provide an important public service by helping to stop fires from occurring in national forests. When will they ever learn?

Numerous government studies have concluded that commercial logging increases -- not decreases-- fire risk and severity. Forests need fire to return nutrients to the soil and facilitate growth of medium and large trees. Older trees have thick, fire-resistant bark and usually are not killed in fires.

The Forest Service should be working to restore the rejuvenating ecological role of fire to forest ecosystems and educating homeowners in urban areas that border wildlands about simple steps they can take to co-exist with wildfire. Instead, with the encouragement of the logging industry, the Forest Service is replacing its old misguided fire suppression policy with a new and equally misguided "fireproofing" strategy.

Through bio-mass timber sales, the potential to remove nearly all of the small trees across millions of acres is real. It's the same old war on fire with a new twist. What's more, the great majority of these timber sales are deep in the forest, miles away from the nearest home. The Forest Service's own fire research station recently issued a report which found that the only effective way to protect homes near national forests is to reduce the flammability of the home itself and its immediate surroundings within 40 meters.

Unfortunately, in some national forests, bio-mass logging companies also are harvesting larger trees and actually increasing the risk of severe fires by reducing forest canopy closure -- thereby creating hotter, drier conditions on the ground.

Our federal forests are natural treasures. And they are public property that belongs to all of us.

Are we really so shortsighted that we are willing to destroy federal public forests to provide a tiny fraction of our energy supply? What's next? Shall we also cut down trees in local public parks to burn for energy? Perhaps even the benches and picnic tables, or anything else made of wood?

We should be focusing on conservation of energy and creating incentives for families that conserve, as well as developing truly renewable and nondestructive means of energy production, such as wind and solar power.

Bio-mass logging of our national forests is not the answer. It is at best a profoundly misguided act of desperation, and, at worst, a transparent example of government using a public emergency as an excuse to enhance corporate bottom lines. It should not be allowed.

In the end, we as a society are not so poor that we must log our national forests, nor so rich that we can afford to.

Chad Hanson is the executive director of the John Muir Project, and is a national director of the Sierra Club. Readers may write him at John Muir Project, 30 N. Raymond Ave., Suite 514, Pasadena, CA 91103 or E-mail him at chadhanson@juno.com.