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March 30, 1999

For the Planet Is there a doctor in the house?


by Woody Justice

In the Fall of 1997, the weak Bryan Amendment to the Interior appropriations bill was narrowly defeated in Congress (see Harbinger 12/1/98 "Paradise Lost"). The bill would have eliminated taxpayer subsidies of new logging roads in National Forests. The same year, Reps. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) and Jim Leach (R-IA) introduced the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act (NFPRA) which got far less consideration. This bill is again scheduled for the legislative docket during the Spring session, but only if enough representatives sign on to co- sponsor it. This is a measure to end corporate-logger welfare -- a racket that in 1996 alone appropriated $791 million from Congress and returned $0 (zero dollars) to the US government. (By contrast, 1996 expenditures from fire management, recreation, law enforcement and wilderness altogether totaled about $741 million.) One-half billion dollars in revenue from national timber resources were spent on more logging on public lands and logging-related expenses. That's kind of like legalizing theft from the Treasury in order to buy more demolition equipment to break into the next Federal Reserve Bank. Subsidized federal timber also devalues that from private sales and undermines free market principles. The proposal removes the profit-making incentive that drives the US Forest Service (USFS) to cut down trees no matter the environmental cost. NFPRA would prohibit the sale of wood products from public lands (currently less than 4 percent of the US timber market) and redirects the recovered funds to worker retraining and ecological rehabilitation. It addresses the "jobs" question by providing employment opportunities to displaced logging-industry workers in the necessary effort of restoring damaged watersheds, removing mudslide-prone roads, and encouraging re- establishment of native fisheries and wildlife. Local governments would still get their piece of the pie. At present, a percentage of federal timber sales is paid to the counties in a territory. (Another example of encouraging public servants to put self-interest above common-good or even common sense.) The beauty of this proposal is that the money is already budgeted. What normally goes to fill the coffers of corporations would instead be spent for improvements to Nature's infrastructure and the same amount of federal largesse would help support rural economies that have become dependent on it.

Given enough proponents, the bill may stand a chance this year. Although corporate- logging money still dictates to the key committee members, there should be plenty of support from a legislature that has recently learned to observe public will. A June 1998 national survey conducted by Market Strategies, Inc. (a non-partisan company that includes Republican leaders among its clients) polled how Americans feel about allowing commercial timber harvests in national forests. The results show little support for the policy. When asked if the USFS should continue the program, only 24 percent chose "somewhat or strongly favor" and 69 percent "somewhat or strongly oppose." Surprisingly, the values were comparable when reduced to party: Republican 33% Favor, 59% Oppose; Independent 25% to 70%; Democrat 16% to 79%. Even the logging-reliant West showed similar results, a 62 to 31 percentage opposing, with other regions of the country, 70 percent opposition and up. (The Don't Know, Neither and "no answer" categories make up the shortage from 100 percent.) We may chalk up this public response, at least in part, to "Zero Cut" forest activists who tirelessly dispel the myths and make plain the sordid details of commercial logging on public lands. Another stimulus is probably the increase in logging-related impacts to citizen's personal lives and livelihoods. Consider a growing population that keeps expanding its bounds farther into the remote, fragile and easily disrupted ecosystems. Effects that went unnoticed for generations are now indisputable for more and more people. The falling trees made no sound until there were enough people to hear it.

Scientists who study forest and watershed ecosystems have been saying for years that logging is the most ecologically destructive force in national forests, causing accelerated erosion and water runoff that leads to mud slides and floods. A USFS-generated report confirms that 58% of the 900 mudslides in the Clearwater NF (Idaho) during the winter of 1995-96 were caused by logging roads and 12% directly by logging; three thousand mudslides occurred in the Clearwater area that season. Species extinction, property damage and contaminated water supplies are some of the immediate consequences. In the longer term, communities face unemployment as the number of jobs lost in fishing and tourism surpass those provided by public lands logging. (And where do the loggers work when the forests are gone?) Of the 737 million acres of US forest land, only 6 percent hold some sort of protection. Aside from ecological and economic reasons, there is the hope that people will choose to do "the right thing." More than the opposable thumb sets apart from other Earthling species. Our capacity to think abstractly brings an opportunity and a responsibility to put instant gratification aside and take a look at the big picture. We could practice consideration for other species -- the diversity of life -- that depend on natural wilderness. We could exhibit humility and restraint in the face of individual lifeforms that live longer than we and that do no harm. We could present models of fairness and integrity as we try to convince third world not to wipe out their own forests. Or if driven by self- interest, we could wonder, how badly are we changing the environment that provides our own basic needs?

While this bill, like the Bryan Amendment, is not perfect it does offer change from the status quo and significant protection for the remaining natural wilderness areas. Business as usual is not working except to the benefit of a few businesses. The burden of proof in the statute ought to be changed so that continued cutting in federal forests becomes the exception, not the rule. Things are at a point in the exploitation of this resource where the duty of the government is to preserve what remains. Congress has another chance to enact the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act, but time is running out.

(The staff of Wild Alabama contributed to this article. Link to or call 205-974-7678 for information about Alabama forest protection efforts.)

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