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February 2, 1999

Whither Goeth the Forests...

by Woody Justice

Last month a coalition of conservation advocates filed a lawsuit against the US Forest Service demanding an end to logging on public lands. The suit claims that permitted timber extraction causes more harm than benefit.

There is nothing new about that debate, except that the plaintiffs are now using the economic argument: more benefits are derived from recreation and tourism in a healthy forest than from the value of timber sold and the meager numbers of jobs that logging provides. Partners in the legal action with environmentalists include hunting and fishing organizations and tourism groups.

This confederacy is not new, either. Alliances have been slowly building, mostly in the Pacific Northwest, as the effects of environmental degradation impact mainstream livelihoods. It is a refreshing turn finally to hear voices other than the poor (company-owned) logging communities put out of work by environmental restrictions. Wilderness advocates' response to that ("What are you going to do when the forests are all harvested?") always went unanswered. At least now public officials have to consider measures that will help restore vanishing wilderness-related income, even if that means restricted resource extraction.

The argument to defend the traditional extraction-based community way of life, no matter how damaging, fails when sustainable commerce is negatively impacted because of it. With a more affluent population desiring more leisure-time activities, the tourism sector has the opportunity to influence conservation policy.

Erosion and siltation from clearcutting and road-building on steep slopes choke waterways and smother aquatic life, reducing fishery stocks directly and by eliminating their food sources and spawning grounds. Open canopies and shallower streams also raise water temperatures beyond that desirable for prized species such as trout. Ravaged forests provide no habitat for the reticent species that require secluded areas away from humans and their modifications. Roads fragment and interrupt the necessary (and increasingly scarce) larger tracts and allow invasion by competitive species that displace the rarer ones.

The American Sportfishing Association found that fishing in National Forests generates more than $8 billion in annual economic activity. Fishing and wildlife pursuits support 200,000 jobs compared with the 61,000 local community jobs generated by logging in federally-owned forests, the ASA study reports. A previous investigation by a University of Denver economist determined that recreation programs in southern Appalachian National Forests generate fifteen times as many jobs as do timber sales from those same forests.

Especially in the South, expanding timber operations are effectively a triple slap-in-the- face. The demand for faster and larger harvests squanders resources that community wood- based lumber operations depended on. Local pallet and furniture mills close as the forests are chipped and exported for jobs overseas. Unemployed former mill workers can't shift to sustainable vocations because the denuded landscape is unfit to support recreation-based enterprises.

Homeowners in low-lying and downstream communities feel the effects more and more every year. As logging enterprises encroach into previously untouched old-growth -- those areas historically too remote and steep to harvest -- mudslides and catastrophic floods are the consequence. The property-damage and loss-of-life lawsuits that result make the issue hard to ignore. Even as sober minds question the rationality of it all, Congress continues logging subsidies (corporate welfare) and the push to "get out the cut."

Hidden among the plethora of late-in-the-session appropriations last year was a rider authorizing the controversial and anti-conservation Quincy Library Group (QLG) plan. The QLG will permit waiving the application of environmental laws to timbering on certain national forests in California. Opponents of the QLG bill feel that it would dramatically increase logging and negatively impact fish and wildlife habitat on public lands. In addition to circumventing procedures established by the National Forest Management Act and mandating an experimental management plan that would increase logging under the guise of fire prevention, the proposal would divert funds from other National Forests in the state.

The new legislative session provides an opportunity for another effort to end logging in national forests. Last year a partisan venture found dozens of co-sponsors for the National Forest Protection Act, and the act was endorsed by hundreds of civic, religious and environmental groups. There is a chance to get the previously ignored bill on this year's agenda. Sierra Club's "No Commercial Logging" (NCL) campaign claims that $800 million in taxpayer funds supported the federal timber sale program in 1996. This subsidized public lands harvest supplies less than four percent of the nation's total wood consumption -- less than five percent of construction sawtimber, so "increased construction costs" is hardly a valid argument. (In fact, subsidized timber from public lands undercuts nearby private landholders who wish to get a fair price for their trees.) According to Sierra's NCL, redirecting the logging subsidy would provide $25,000 for each public-lands timber worker for retraining or ecological restoration work, with $200 million left over.

A U.S. Forest Service nationwide poll revealed that most Americans oppose "commodity production" (including timber sales) in national forests. However, in light of recent events, there may not be much hope that our public servants in Congress will be receptive to the stated will of the people.

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