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The Planet

Grassroots Into the Woods

The Planet, June 1997, Volume 4, number 5

by Sarah Fallon

In 1994, a naturally occurring forest fire in the Thunder Mountain region of Washington's Okanogan National Forest prompted the U.S. Forest Service to step in to begin looking for someone to clear out the debris. A local environmental group, Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, was the highest bidder for the nearly 2.5 square miles of wilderness -- home to grizzlies, wolves, wolverines and 50 of the last 200 lynx in the continental United States -- but its bid was refused because it would not agree to log the area upon purchase. Eventually, after some cajoling, the Forest Service sold the logging rights to Double A Logging, which then sold the trees to a Montana log-house building company. Double A paid $29,000 for the sale. It cost the Forest Service $300,000 to prepare the sale and carve the roads.

Cascade Chapter volunteers Mary Pat Larsen, Mark Lawler, Peter Henry, Steve Matera and others tried unsuccessfully to stop the sale by showering the Forest Service with letters during the public comment period. They failed to stop the sale, but did draw attention to the skewed priorities of the Forest Service, and the nearby Dog Creek area was consequently not offered for resale.

"What we did here in Washington is happening all over the country," says Lawler, chair of the Club's Forest Reform Campaign Steering Committee. "Local activists are working in their communities to put pressure on the Forest Service to act as stewards of the forests instead of selling them off. It's no secret that the Forest Service sells trees from federal lands to private logging interests, but when it sells trees in the name of maintenance and 'forest health,' the general public doesn't usually realize that, as in the Thunder Mountain case, the agency effectively pays corporations to log our forests."

But if activists want to go up against the Forest Service -- to hold the agency fiscally accountable, to protect watersheds and to stop new roadbuilding -- there are key times to strike. Every 10 to 15 years, the agency is required to revise forest management plans and open the process to public review. This comment period is a clear window of opportunity. For example, when the plans for the Chattahoochee and Oconee national forests were up for review, René Voss, Gary Ludi, Jennifer Chiofalo, Suchi Patton, Ed Nicholson and other Georgia Chapter members worked with 22 other conservation groups to generate more than 2,500 letters to the Forest Service.

They were able to collect an additional 2,800 signatures simply by printing a petition in the chapter newsletter. More letters were received on behalf of the Chattahoochee and Oconee than all of the Southern Appalachian forests combined. Voss says that when the comment period ends two years from now, the Forest Service will be forced to consider an alternative plan that bars commercial logging entirely.

"We presented the agency with a viable way to manage our forests without commercial logging," he says. "The regional foresters will have to seriously consider our alternative. And we have to keep the pressure on." In Georgia, support for the forests was almost entirely local, but that need not always be the case. In Alaska's Tongass National Forest, for example, where the Ketchikan Pulp Company was seeking a 15-year extension on its logging monopoly, the Alaska Rainforest Office recruited more than 19,000 citizens to voice their objection to the plan. Roughly three-quarters of the comments came from outside Alaska.

In Vermont, where Club volunteers are fighting both state forestry practices (see "State of the States," page 6) and the national Forest Service, things turned ugly in efforts to protect Lamb Brook in Green Mountain National Forest. These 5,561 roadless acres comprise the most significant black bear denning habitat in Vermont. The Sierra Club was one of the parties that brought a suit against the Forest Service for failure to adequately consider the environmental impacts of the timber sale evaluation. According to Club volunteer Jad Daley, Vermont Forest Service workers were trained on how to create the documentation necessary to support a "Finding of No Significant Impact," or FONSI, on their environmental assessment. A FONSI precludes the need for further study, and the Forest Service does not have to perform a more extensive and costly environmental impact statement. This information was kept out of the trial, a real sign, says Daley, "that the Forest Service is playing dirty." The Forest Service lost the first round and was prohibited from building a road through Lamb Brook, but they built one anyway claiming it was for recreational use. "The Forest Service is a renegade organization. It's not 1947 anymore. Forests are scarce and the agency doesn't get it."

Unfortunately, the fight for Vermont's national forest doesn't end there; just recently, the Forest Service announced plans to log the Robert Frost Mountain Area, yet another pristine wilderness in Green Mountain National Forest.

In some cases, the Club is helping to buy forests in order to protect them. The Upper Valley Group and a dozen other New Hampshire conservation organizations are collaborating with the federal and state governments, local communities and private individuals to protect 5,200 acres of land. This includes 3,400 acres (including 315-acre Lake Tarleton) currently under private ownership to add on to White Mountain National Forest. The state would acquire a critical shoreline for $950,000, and private citizens will buy another portion for $525,000. The remainder would be acquired through the Forest Legacy Program and used for timber harvesting on a long-term rotation.

"We worked hard to get people to give small sums to the land trust to show public support," says Bob Norman, Chapter transportation chair, who journeyed to Concord with five other Club members to lobby for funding. "We've demonstrated that support to the House, and we got a 12 to 8 committee vote for full funding. Now we're gearing up for a floor fight."

As daunting as the struggle is for Club activists in the United States, those working to protect forests in Canada face even tougher obstacles. The world's largest exporter of forest products, Canada has even fewer protections for forests than its southern neighbor.

Even though 94 percent of Canada's forests are publicly owned, the public has no rights to challenge forest management decisions and Canada has no endangered species legislation. Clearcutting is virtually the only logging method used and it is applied without differentiation across ecosystems -- whether aspen, boreal or old-growth temperate forests.

This fall, Key Porter Books, with Sierra Club Books, will publish "At the Cutting Edge: The Crisis in Canada's Forests," by Sierra Club of Canada Executive Director Elizabeth May. The book is based on two years' worth of research, and it documents overcutting and the subsequent loss of critical ecosystems.

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