June 1999 Volume 6, Number 5
by John Byrne Barry
We're paying to destroy our national forests. And we don't need the wood.
Once the public understands this, there will be an uproar to end the commercial logging
In a 1996 ballot initiative, when Sierra Club members approved a new policy advocating
an end to commercial logging on federal lands, it made a lot of people nervous. Forest
activists both inside and outside the Club feared that such a stance would make the Club
Similar concerns were voiced in November 1998, when the Club Board of Directors adopted
ending commercial logging as one of four national priority campaigns. But a funny thing
happened on the way to the woods. While some of our opponents - and allies - continue to
deem this position as radical, the American public thinks it's, well, reasonable.
According to a 1998 poll by a firm that has worked for several Republican House members
and two presidents, 69 percent of Americans oppose commercial logging on federally owned
land. The Forests Service's own poll showed that 59 percent of Americans who expressed an
opinion oppose timber sales and other commodity production in national forests.
Many Americans are surprised to learn that logging is even allowed on public lands.
Alas, it has been since the Organic Act of 1897 first authorized logging in America's new
forest reserves. That legislation called for watershed protection and a steady supply of
timber - what the Forest Service calls "multiple use."
But the agency has been unable to balance those goals. More often than not, the
integrity of the forest ecosystem has been sacrificed to maximize timber and other
commodities. And at taxpayer expense, notes Bernie Zaleha, chair of the End Commercial
Logging on Federal Lands (ECL) campaign. The Forest Service lost $2 billion on its logging
program from 1992 to 1997, according to the General Accounting Office. It spends more on
building roads and preparing sales than it gets back in timber receipts.
According to Forest Service figures, only 4 percent of U.S. wood products come from the
national forests. "Once the public understands we're paying through the nose to
subsidize the destruction of our forests and we can stop this nonsense and still have
enough wood to build our houses, there will be an uproar to end the commercial logging
program," says Zaleha.
Spreading these facts is the focus of campaigns in states like Minnesota and Tennessee,
where Earth Day outreach efforts focused on ending commercial logging in the Superior and
Cherokee national forests, respectively.
The 3-million-acre Superior National Forest in Minnesota, one of 155 in the country,
presents a compelling case for ending commercial logging. Every year, more than 14 square
miles of this forest are logged.
"The public is being lied to," says Ginny Yingling, North Star Chapter
director. "The timber industry tells us logging is sustainable. Public data shows it
In April, the North Star Chapter released a report, "The State of Minnesota's
Forests." It documents that Minnesota's forests are being logged at an unsustainable
pace and, using satellite maps, shows how fragmented the forests are.
"There are hardly any contiguous large blocks," says Yingling. "We have
to stop logging immediately on those lands that are left. We can't control private lands,
but we can stop the logging in national forests."
Two thousand miles to the west, Sequoia National Forest offers another example of the
damage caused by commercial logging.
While the giant sequoias themselves are mostly protected, the sequoia ecosystem is
severely compromised by nearby logging, and old-growth-dependent species like the
California spotted owl and the marten have experienced significant declines.
On the legislative front, the Club's priority is building grassroots support for the
bipartisan National Forest Protection and Restoration Act, introduced in April by Cynthia
McKinney (D-Ga.) and James Leach (R-Iowa). The bill, H.R. 1396, would eliminate the
money-losing commercial logging program in national forests, promote restoration and help
communities that receive logging revenue develop more diverse and stable economies. While
passage of the McKinney-Leach bill is the Club's overriding goal, the campaign is working
on other fronts to stop bad logging projects, cut subsidies and improve Forest Service
stewardship. "Wherever we can take a bite out of logging, we'll do it," says
Chad Hanson, a member of the Club's Board of Directors.
Every year, the Forest Service has to get funding from Congress for its roadbuilding
and its timber-sales budgets. These are prime opportunities to chop away at the commercial
The ECL campaign is also engaging in ongoing legal and administrative means to
challenge individual forest-management plans in order to reduce logging levels.
Promoting the restoration of degraded forest lands is another major component of the
campaign. "We want to replant native vegetation in areas that have been logged;
reintroduce fire into ecosystems; and decommission, obliterate and revegetate logging
roads," says Hanson.
The Club supports the kind of restoration that the National Park Service has done in
California's Redwood National Park. "We need to proceed in a similar manner across
the National Forest System," says Sean Cosgrove, forest issues specialist in the
Club's Washington, D.C., office. "Right now, the Forest Service restores a couple of
miles of stream, then pays for it by logging a nearby tract."
The Club also wants to eliminate the incentive to keep logging in individual Forest
Service regions. About 65 percent of timber revenues go back to the region, creating a
bureaucratic incentive to keep logging. "It's like trying to fund cancer research by
selling cigarettes," says Cosgrove.
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