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The Planet

Timber!! One Hundred Years Later, the U.S. Forest Service Still Sees Our Forests Only for the Trees

The Planet, June 1997, Volume 4, number 5

by B.J. Bergman

In June 1897 Congress passed what it dubbed the Organic Act, but might more aptly have titled the Balancing Act. The law -- which first authorized logging in America's new forest reserves -- sought to ensure a steady supply of timber while simultaneously protecting watersheds.

A century later, what became our national forest system is listing badly. Under the U.S. Forest Service, national forests are too often managed as the timber industry's private stock rather than an irreplaceable public trust. Congress' own Office of Technology Assessment found in 1982 that the service's forest plans "emphasized timber and other commodities while giving little attention to sustaining ecosystems." The OTA also reported that "budget decisions overwhelmed planning decisions."

"The only values many in the Forest Service know are timber values," said Mark Lawler, chair of the Sierra Club Forest Reform Campaign Steering Committee. "The vast majority of Americans want a return to ecological values, and that means overhauling the Forest Service."

The pressing need for reform will be much in evidence in June, which the Club's national forest campaign has declared "Forest Month" --- a time to raise the profile of forest issues through a variety of outreach efforts, from conducting press tours of local forests to distributing tear-off postcards for delivery to Mike Dombeck, the new head of the Forest Service. Along with other aspects of the campaign, Club activists will be pushing for far-sighted forest management, Lawler said, that aims to "protect our children's heritage, not subsidize its destruction."

Timber subsidies are one major focus of the campaign. According to the White House Council of Economic Advisors, the Forest Service spends nearly $250 million more a year to administer its timber program than it collects in revenues from timber sales on public lands.

What's worse, U.S. taxpayers shell out an estimated $50 million each year to build the logging roads that make clearcutting possible, and enable the timber industry to plunder previously unreachable virgin stands of publicly owned trees. More than 377,000 miles of logging roads -- eight times the length of the national highway system -- have already been slashed into national forests, often on steep, unstable hillsides. As was dramatically shown recently in the West, the result can be devastating mudslides and floods.

Yet even without such collateral damage to people and property, the direct impacts of roadbuilding on national forests are destructive enough. In addition to clearcutting, logging roads endanger fish and wildlife by fragmenting habitat and increasing stream sedimentation. And while such recklessness pads the timber industry's pockets, it also drains the U.S. Treasury.

"Too often, American taxpayers pay twice," Debbie Sease, the Club's legislative director, recently told the House Resources forest subcommittee. "Once to build the roads, and again to deal with the aftermath."

Last June, an amendment to eliminate roadbuilding subsidies -- which can take the form of either cash or "credits" that allow the harvesting of additional trees -- was narrowly approved in the House. But as supporters streamed home for the long weekend, opponents forced a surprise second vote the following day. With help from Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who cast a rare vote as speaker, timber-industry allies prevailed on a 211-211 tie.

Sponsors of the bipartisan effort -- led by Reps. John Porter (R-Ill.) and Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) -- are expected to once again offer the provision as an amendment to the Interior appropriations bill. This year, however, they have support not just from environmentalists, but from fiscal conservatives. Most prominent among these is House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (R-Ohio), who's leading deficit hawks and social reformers in an alliance called the Stop Corporate Welfare Coalition.

John Leary, a forest policy specialist in the Club's Washington, D.C., office, said the welcome clamor from conservatives to end forest-road subsidies -- as well as modest support from the Clinton administration, which stayed on the sidelines a year ago -- gives conservationists "a decent shot at winning this in the House." But a powerful coalition of timber interests is already working hard to ensure the provision never gets through the Senate.

To Sierra Club forest activists, eliminating taxpayer subsidies for roadbuilding represents a big first step toward making the Forest Service accountable to its real constituents, the U.S. taxpayers. In 1994, a poll conducted by the agency showed that fewer than one in five Americans wanted timber harvesting to be the No. 1 use of public forests. Nearly half did not believe that "natural resources in public forests and grasslands should be made available to produce consumer goods."

Nevertheless, the Forest Service persists in making timber its top priority -- despite clear public opposition to disastrous plans in national forests such as Alaska's Tongass and South Dakota's Black Hills. Encouraging the agency's persistent promotion of logging are numerous financial incentives, including so- called off-budget monies like the brush disposal and salvage funds, which Club activists regard as slush funds and want to see abolished.

In 1976, with enactment of the National Forest Management Act, environmentalists hoped that new rules and a new forest-by-forest planning process might force the Forest Service to finally seek the balance envisioned by Congress in 1897. But the agency continued to ignore conservation values, choosing instead to promote accelerated logging, roadbuilding, mining and grazing at the expense of watershed protection, wildlife and recreation.

Without deep and far-reaching reform of the agency, the national forest system may never survive its second century. The Sierra Club's forest campaign aims to make sure America's national forests not only survive but thrive for generations to come -- under a Forest Service that's free from the yoke of the timber industry, and rededicated to protecting and restoring America's forest heritage.

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