Sierra Club Home Page   Environmental Update  
chapter button
Explore, enjoy and protect the planet
Click here to visit the Member Center.         
Take Action
Get Outdoors
Join or Give
Inside Sierra Club
Press Room
Politics & Issues
Sierra Magazine
Sierra Club Books
Apparel and Other Merchandise
Contact Us

Join the Sierra ClubWhy become a member?

Planet Main
In This Section
  March 2003 Features:
Support Swells for Wild Utah
Bush Chips Away at Clean Air Act
Clean Power Comes on Strong
Get Out, Get Active
From the Editor
Search for an Article
Free Subscription
Back Issues

The Planet
Recreation, Restoration Key to Vibrant Forests

By Tom Valtin

Printer-friendly version of this page

When the Sierra Club was founded 111 years ago, one of its main goals was to protect the forests of the Sierra Nevada. With passing decades, the Club's scope expanded to embrace the protection and healthy management of forests from coast to coast. It is no coincidence that the Sierra Club came into existence the year after the first national forests were established.

The 1891 Forest Reserve Act that created these first special forests proclaimed: "No national forest shall be established, except to improve and protect the forest within the boundaries, or for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of the citizens of the United States."

For the first half of its history, the U.S. Forest Service tended the national forests with an approach of stewardship and protection. But from World War II to the late 1990s, the agency tilted more toward industrial timber production, treating the forests like tree plantations.

Rx for Healthy National Forests
Defend the public's right to be involved in the management of federal lands.

Protect the more than 60 million acres of still-roadless and wild forests from roadbuilding and other harmful activities.

End commercial logging and logging-road construction on federal public lands.

Restore damaged forests - improve water quality, replant trees and other native plant species, properly maintain or decommission old logging roads, recover depleted fish and wildlife species.

Decades of citizen activism, legal challenges, legislative reforms, wilderness designations, and some protective regulations have helped to reduce a totally unsustainable timber sale program to a much lower level. The Roadless Area Conservation Rule designed by the Clinton administration represented a historic change from decades of exploitation of wild forests to a protective strategy that values wild roadless forests for their ecological benefits. However, since the Bush administration came into power, it has moved to reduce public involvement and agency accountability and dramatically increase commercial logging.

It doesn't have to be that way. The Sierra Club's vision for the national forests calls for defending the rights of citizens to be involved in federal land management, protecting the wild undeveloped forests from roadbuilding and other destructive activities, ending commercial logging of the national forests, and restoring damaged forests. In the short term this means stopping the Bush administration's attacks on forest safeguards on all fronts. In the long term it comes down to "protecting the best and restoring the rest."

This future isn't just good for the forests, it's good for the economy.

More than half of the national forests have been logged and scarred by logging roads-an astounding 440,000 miles of them. Federal public forests provide less than 3 percent of America's wood products, but nearly 40 percent of our rivers originate in national forests, providing clean water worth billions of dollars each year. The nation can easily make up the 3 percent by reducing the use of wood or using non-wood alternatives, but it would cost billions to filter enough water to replace the clean water that could be lost if the current tree-harvesting approach continues unabated.

burned again
Burned Again: Promised restoration work by the Forest Service in Montana's Bitterroot National Forest has fallen by the wayside in the agency's haste to log the area.

Recreation, fish, and wildlife currently produce 88 percent of the economic benefits generated by national forests. But more than 400 fish and wildlife species-including salmon, trout, and grizzlies-that live in the national forests are threatened with extinction.

Americans love to hike, camp, fish, hunt, and canoe in the national forests. It's no wonder: with 4,400 campgrounds, more than 120,000 miles of trails, and 96 wild and scenic rivers, national forests are truly America's favorite playground. The Forest Service's own figures show that recreation, hunting, and fishing in national forests contributed nearly 40 times more income to the nation's economy in 2000 than did logging, and created more than 30 times as many jobs.

On the restoration front, promoting firesafe communities and restoring the natural role of forest fires are integral parts of a healthy forest policy. For the past decade the Sierra Club has urged the Forest Service to do more to reduce hazardous fuels and implement prescribed burning. Citizens also need more and better assistance to help protect their own homes. Simple activities like removing flammable brush within 100 feet of a home, moving firewood and flammable materials away from a house, and building with fire resistant materials will keep a home from burning when threatened with a forest fire.

Forest restoration, which has the potential to reverse the past half-century's worth of devastation, has yet to be embraced by the Forest Service. Restoration activities include improving water quality, replanting trees and other native plant species, decommissioning old logging roads, and recovering depleted fish and wildlife species.

Some forest restoration efforts currently underway include:

  • Redwood National Park in northern California is removing the network of old logging roads in the park to eliminate the serious landslide risk.
  • In the Chatooga River watershed of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, the Forest Service and local communities are working to reduce pollution and improve water quality in this wild and scenic river, which offers some of the East's best trout fisheries and whitewater rafting.
  • In the Pacific Northwest, old logging roads are being removed in order to recover salmon species.
  • Across the West, forest managers are working to protect communities from wildfires while at the same time reintroducing the natural role of fire.

Besides solving real on-the-ground environmental problems, an increased focus on restoration activities can provide economic opportunities for workers and rural communities. Thousands of people around the country are already employed doing restoration work. The numbers would substantially increase if Congress and the land management agencies made a major investment in restoration activities. Focusing on restoration could turn the "jobs vs. environment" clichˇ into "jobs for the environment." Recent scientific and economic analysis estimates that every $1 million spent removing existing roads and restoring the national forests in which they are located creates 33 jobs.

Many restoration activities are labor intensive and require little capital investment, thus providing excellent openings for small businesses and new entrepreneurs. Future work might also include removing invasive species, planting native shrubs and plants along stream banks, and restoring natural meadows with prescribed burning.

A restoration economy is already budding in many places. A study by the University of Oregon found that the ecosystem management industry is a significant part of Oregon's economy. It provides more than 16,000 jobs with a total payroll of more than half a billion dollars per year. These workers are employed by more than 600 private firms and public agencies in the state. Moreover, private and public partners spent more than $106 million on restoration work between 1995 and 2000. While declines in logging and reforestation jobs are projected, the study anticipates further growth in watershed and habitat enhancement (both hand and heavy equipment work), stand improvement work, and recreation management.

One of the great values in restoration is that it engages people and communities in the stewardship of the forests. Communities realize quickly that the federal government cannot do it all, and that there are many groups and citizens with a passion for restoring damaged forests.

The Sierra Club calls for a restoration program that is scientifically credible, well-funded, socially acceptable, and economically viable. Done right, restoring the national forests will leave a legacy of clean air and water, wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities, and protection from flooding and catastrophic fires-a wild heritage worth far more than can be measured by board feet and dollars.

Adapted from "Restoring America's Forests" and "Seeing the Forests for their Green," Sierra Club reports available at

Up to Top