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Sierra Magazine
Big Timber's Big Lies

They'll say whatever it takes to keep the subsidies rolling in.

A Guide to Countering Timber Industry Propaganda

A decade ago my brother and I fulfilled a lifelong dream of hiking from Mexico to Canada on the 2,700-mile Pacific Crest Trail, most of which traverses national forests in the Pacific Coast states. We fully expected to see great expanses of wilderness, unbroken and unspoiled, and we did-until we reached the northern Sierra Nevada. There we began to notice Forest Service signs posted on trees along the trail that read, "Trail washed out. Take detour." We dutifully obeyed, and slogged along the hastily hacked-out alternate paths.

Then one day, in Tahoe National Forest, we noticed two men up ahead writing on one of these signs. When they saw us, they hustled up the trail and out of sight. Their words in fresh marker-pen ink warned: "Clearcuts ahead. It's a scam!" Intrigued, we stuck to the main trail, and soon found ourselves staring across a massive clearcut that extended over the ridgeline. Attempts to replant had obviously been made, but the topsoil had washed away and the saplings were dead. Not one living thing could be seen.

Catching up to the sign's editors, we were amazed to learn that they were the U.S. Forest Service employees who had put up the original warnings. Their bosses had ordered them to do this, they said, in a cynical attempt to conceal the devastating effects of commercial logging.

This was not the last clearcut. From the northern Sierra, up through the Marble Mountains and the Cascades, we encountered one stumpfield after another, along with "reforestation" plantings of tidy rows of little trees, all of the same species.

I had never before been politically involved. But by the time I reached the Canadian border, five months and four days after setting out, I was a convert to forest activism. I began to investigate the Forest Service and the timber industry in an effort to answer the question that kept recurring as we walked through the devastation: Why are they logging our national forests?

The main reason is that we're paying them to do it. The Forest Service's own figures reveal that the timber sales program on national forests operates at a net loss to taxpayers of well over $1 billion each year. Not only does the industry get a sweet deal on the trees themselves, but a substantial chunk of its overhead is gratis, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer. We pick up the tab for logging-road construction, timber-sale planning and administrative costs, replanting, and even restoration and cleanup.

But this is certainly not the explanation you'll hear from the industry or the Forest Service. According to them, logging provides jobs, offers fire protection, improves forest health, supports rural education, and prevents deforestation in other parts of the world. A closer examination, however, reveals that all of these claims are merely deceptive ploys used to justify continued destruction of our national forests.

Clearcutting Jobs

The Forest Service and the timber industry claim that logging our public lands is essential for jobs and the economy. But the agency's own documents show that recreation in national forests contributes over 31 times more to the U.S. economy and creates 38 times more jobs than logging national forests. If we ended all commercial logging on national forests, and redirected the subsidies into timber-community assistance, we could pay each public-lands timber worker more than $30,000 a year for job retraining or ecological restoration work, and still save taxpayers millions.

From 1979 to 1989-a period of extremely heavy logging on Northwest federal forests-timber employment actually fell by about 20,000. The main cause of job loss was not environmental regulations, as the timber industry would have us believe, but automation and the loss of old-growth forests due to logging itself.

A lot of logging isn't even done by loggers any more. Enormous mechanical monsters known as "feller-bunchers" roam the forest floor. A huge hydraulic clamp grasps the trunk of the tree with startling quickness and massive shears cut through it in one swift motion. The clamp then sets the tree aside and the monster-machine rolls forward through the forest. It is tireless. It never complains about wages or working conditions. Its hunger for our trees knows no limit. Given this technology, it is not surprising that ten years ago the U.S. General Accounting Office projected that even if logging on national forests increased by 55 percent over the next 50 years, employment in timber extraction and milling would still drop by more than 25 percent.

Logging Forests to Save Them

As the truth about logging and economics was increasingly
exposed by forest activists in the '90s, the industry faced a public-relations crisis. The old "jobs versus environment" rhetoric just didn't hold up, so new, ostensibly altruistic justifications were invented.

The industry now insists that we must cut the trees to protect them from fire and disease. Yet the Forest Service's own 1994 study, "Forest Resources of the United States," revealed that tree mortality in the West due to both fire and disease actually increases in logged areas. The worst rates were on private lands, where logging levels are even higher and where less natural forest remains. In western forests from 1986 to 1991, tree mortality from fire and disease on private lands went up by 20 percent, compared to 3 percent on national forests, while it actually decreased by 9 percent on other public lands, such as national parks.

Fires tend to start in areas that have been logged because logged forests are drier, less shaded, and contain flammable debris known as "slash piles," unmerchantable branches left by logging crews. When fires do occur in old-growth forests, they rarely kill the larger trees, which have thick, fire-resistant bark. Instead, such fires simply clear understory brush and return nutrients to the soil, enhancing forest health. Even in the relatively rare event that a fire does kill an old-growth stand, the remaining trees and snags provide valuable nesting habitat for large birds of prey and other forest species. Wildlife has little use for stumps.

In 1993, the Forest Service introduced a new logging program-"Forest Stewardship"-that is purportedly conducted for the health of the forests. As public opinion polls in the mid-'90s began to show that a growing majority of Americans wanted to end federal timber sales, the Forest Service countered by reducing the volume cut under its Timber Commodity Program and making up the difference with a steady increase in logging under the Forest Stewardship Program. Today, roughly half of all timber cut on national forests is supposedly for the forests' own good. Most of the biggest, most destructive timber sales-including massive clearcuts through ancient forests and roadless areas-are planned, prepared, and executed under the guise of stewardship. Most of these are supposedly carried out to "reduce fire risk."

Last year, however, a General Accounting Office report finally called into serious question the use of timber sales to address fire issues. "Most of the trees that need to be removed to reduce accumulated fuels are small in diameter and have little or no commercial value," the report noted. Because of this, Forest Service managers "tend to focus on areas with high-value commercial timber rather than on areas with high fire hazards" and "include more large, commercially valuable trees in a sale than are necessary to reduce the accumulated fuels." The GAO concluded that the program is "largely driven by commercial rather than safety

Indeed, the principal methods for setting the Forest Service's fire-reduction budget are commercial. The cover of the technical course manual of the Forest Service's National Fire Management Analysis System (NFMAS) shows a balancing scale. On its right side is a stand of trees on fire. On the left, a large bag of money. The text openly states that "NFMAS presently has no provision for directly and systematically estimating the economic impact of effects of fire on wildland resource values that do not in and of themselves produce market or commodity outputs." The message is clear: if it can't be sold, it doesn't have value.

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