By Donella Meadows
–October 26, 1995–
“In the administration of the forest reserves it must be clearly borne in mind that all land is to be devoted to its most productive use for the permanent good of the whole people, and not for the temporary benefit of individuals or companies.”
So declared Gifford Pinchot when he founded the U.S. Forest Service in 1905. Pinchot saw the national forests as places to grow lumber, paper, jobs, and profits. He was passionately concerned that the forests be used “in a thoroughly prompt and businesslike manner,” but also sustainably, so their products would benefit America not just for a generation, but forever.
For decades the Forest Service has carried out that mandate. Countless kids who loved the woods have grown up to work as managers of national forests. Wood products have flowed unceasingly, and the forests are still there. But guardians of great treasure are always subject to great temptation. If you are a timber company you see the average tree as a standing $500 bill (or in the old growth forests a standing $5000 bill). So waves of greed have swept over the national forests, especially in the last 15 years.
The U.S. Forest Service oversees 156 national forests totaling 191 million acres, about one in five of the forested acres of the nation. These lands are crisscrossed by 369,000 miles of logging roads (eight times the length of the interstate highway system). They yield about twelve percent of the nation’s timber at a net loss — yes, loss — of $200 million to $500 million a year.
There is a loss because the Forest Service essentially gives away those $500 and $5000 bills. It spends more to prepare timber sales, build logging roads, and monitor cuts than it charges the companies that do the cutting. Money is not the only thing that is being lost. So are soils, waters, and future productivity. Sometimes faster, sometimes slower, more in some parts of the country than in others, the forests are being mined. It is exactly what Pinchot dreaded.
The Tongass National Forest, which covers 80 percent of Alaska’s panhandle, sells more timber and loses more money than any other. Half of its giant trees, which took centuries to grow, have been cut since 1950. Congressional friends have given two large companies monopoly access to wood coming out of the Tongass at the ridiculous price of $1.48 per thousand board feet. Those same Congressional friends are now agitating to increase the cut in the Tongass.
Until the recent spotted owl interventions, the cutting rate in the national forests of Washington and Oregon was 70% higher than the rate of regrowth. Steep slopes were shaved bald, their soils running down to clog salmon streams.
To justify increased cuts, the managers of the Kootenai National Forest in Montana exaggerated its acreage of commercial timber by 40 percent and under-reported its clearcuts by a factor of five. When forest officials were finally forced to reduce timber sales, they blamed the cutbacks on requirements to protect grizzly bear.
Kaibab Industries in Arizona “accidentally” logged 1300 trees on national land, illegally producing 200,000 board feet of lumber. It also made only 25-35 percent of the road improvements the Forest Service had paid it for.
In 1992 Rep. George Miller (D-Cal.) released a report citing management problems in 16 national forests in the Pacific Northwest and California. Said Miller: “In spite of repeated assurances by the Forest Service, the forests we’ve cut down are not growing back. The Forest Service does not check whether new saplings are growing after they are three years old, they do not check forest inventories against actual on-the-ground surveys, and they have not stopped cutting in forest areas that they know will not grow back.”
“Get out the cut” has been the Forest Service obsession since Ronald Reagan appointed a timber company executive as its head in 1981. Some regional administrators were sickened at the looting of the forest, objected, and were transferred or fired. The Clinton administration made a start in cleaning up the corruption by appointing Jack Ward Thomas, a biologist, to head the Service. Since then Clinton has melted under the heat of logging companies and their friends on both sides of the aisle in Congress.
Last spring Congress wrote and Clinton signed the infamous “logging without laws” rider, opening the national forests to a 30-month “emergency” cut to “salvage” dead or dying trees. The rider waived laws that protect streams and wildlife, forbade citizen suits, and could cost taxpayers over $1 billion. The rider permits cutting 400 million board feet of live, green, old growth forests, overriding Clinton’s own logging plan for the Pacific Northwest. This has kindled an outburst of frustrated citizen demonstrations — the very divisiveness Clinton went to Seattle to stop.
On September 21 of this year a memo from Washington arrived in regional Forest Service offices, telling them how to handle the rush of salvage timber sales. “Take advantage of assistance offered by the timber industry,” it said. “They have indicated they are more than willing to make suggestions, go in the field with your people, and provide input which will help achieve our objectives.”
Says Ernie Nunn, former Montana Forest Service supervisor, “I can tell you how I would read that when it came to me. It’s a license to steal.”
Says John Gatchell of the Montana Wilderness Association, “It amounts to an admission that the public no longer has national forests — the timber industry does.”
We can imagine what Gifford Pinchot would say, but no one seems to care.
(Several of the statistics and quotations above were taken from recent issues of High Country News, published in Paonia, Colorado, one of the best ways to keep informed on the management of public lands in the West.)
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1995