by Cara Gardner
Currency -- that green stuff in our wallets that we never seem to have enough of -- is composed of 25 percent linen and 75 percent cotton. Surprisingly, there's no paper in it. One might think, therefore, that no trees are harmed in the manufacturing of money.
Guess again. Plenty of people are making money by harvesting trees from America's public lands. Though only 3 percent of America's timber harvest comes from national forests, the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), a nonprofit organization that advocates in the interest of the public, reports that from 1995 to 2000, timber industry logging trucks took more than 13.5 million trees out of national forests. Economic analyses have shown that road building and related timber-harvesting functions provided by the Forest Service amount to a public subsidy of the timber industry. The 1995 to 2000 subsidy has been pegged at more than $1.7 billion. Some environmental groups, like the Lands Council, an organization working to protect public lands in the Inland Northwest, want to end all commercial logging in national forests. Two woodlands of particular concern are the Colville National Forest (CNF) and the Idaho Panhandle National Forest (IPNF), both of which have long histories of timber sales, backcountry road-building and water-quality problems resulting from clear-cutting.
The United States Forest Service, says Rein Attemann, forest watch coordinator for the Lands Council, "needs to end their timber sale program on a national level. Why don't they use that money to restore the forest instead?"
Yet some activists are worried that the timber industry will manage to secure even more timber sale contracts on America's public lands. Though the timber industry is struggling with losses because of large imports from Brazil and Canada and slowed timber sales due to successful litigation from environmental groups, the new Healthy Forest Restoration Act (HFRA) may be the timber industry's only shot at regaining some lost ground.
"The Idaho National Panhandle Forest is more damaged now than it was in the '80s," says John Osborn, founder of the Lands Council and conservation chair for the Sierra Club's Northern Rockies Chapter. "And the U.S. Forest Service is less committed to planning than they were in the '80s. Congress isn't interested in forest planning; this presidential administration isn't interested in it. So what should the public expect?"
But Bob Dick, Washington manager of the American Forest Resource Council, a group that advocates for timber products companies, says the new rules are in reaction to the devastating fires of the past few summers.
"The HFRA was not passed to benefit the forest industry," says Dick. "It was passed to benefit forest health. Having said that, one thing that will be done is an extensive amount of thinning and some of those will have commercial values. Are we going to go out whacking old growth? No. But some are overstocked and whether you want to call them old growth or just old trees depends on your perspective. "
Nowhere is the issue of what will happen to America's national forests perhaps more pertinent than here in the Pacific Northwest, which is the setting for what environmentalists call the "end of the timber frontier."
"There used to always be another stand of virgin wood on the other side of every ridge," says Osborn, "but beginning last century, the industry shifted out of the Great Lakes, which were decimated, and into the Pacific Northwest. By the '80s, what they saw on the other side of the ridge was the Pacific Ocean. As a nation, we literally cut from the east coast to the west coast. That's the end of the timber frontier."
The end of the timber frontier may be forged by two dramatically different sets of ideologies. Forest activists say the Colville National Forest (CNF) and the Idaho Panhandle National Forests (IPNF) have completely different management strategies: While the CNF has turned much of its planning over to a coalition of stakeholders with diverse interests, the IPNF appears to be poised to stick with business as usual. Both the CNF and the IPNF have begun writing new long-term Forest Plans and implementing the HFRA legislation. With Iraq and the presidential race receiving lots of attention, forest issues aren't making much of a splash in mainstream media. But how the Inland Northwest's national forests handle their forest plans and implement the HFRA will determine the fate of the "end of the timber frontier."
"The No. 1 mentality difference between IPNF and CNF is that currently we have five lawsuits against the IPNF and zero against CNF," says Attemann, with the Lands Council. "Three out of the five lawsuits against the IPNF challenge timber sales. They want to log 1,500 acres in the name of 'restoration.' They say, 'We want to restore and make amends,' but what they mean is, 'We want to make money logging 1,500 acres and call it restoration.'"
The CNF, which covers over a million acres east of the Cascades and northwest of Spokane, has created a Colville Community Forest Coalition, made up of environmentalists, timber industry reps, community members and university experts. The Lands Council is on the coalition, despite its controversial demand for an end to logging on national forests. Rick Brazell, supervisor for the Colville National Forest, says no matter what a group's stance is, he welcomes their input.
"I think the biggest change [in the Forest Service's management of the CNF] is with this coalition," Brazell says. "They are committed to working through tough issues. They don't always agree and they still have trust issues, but I sure do listen to them."
The IPNF, however, which covers about 2.5 million acres and includes the Coeur d'Alene, Kaniksu and St. Joe national forests, isn't extending any such offers. As required by law, it's working with the public on forest planning, but doesn't welcome outside opinions on forest stewardship.
"If [environmental groups] come to the table with the position of no timber harvests on the national forests, there's not a lot to talk about," says Dave O'Brian, spokesperson for the IPNF. "We look at logging and timber harvests as a goal."
All of America's 156 national forests have a Forest Plan, written by the Forest Service in cooperation with the public. Both the CNF and the IPNF have been meeting regularly in work groups on the first stages of their new Forest Plans, to be completed sometime in 2005. A Forest Plan outlines how the land will be managed with regard to stewardship, timber sale projects, recreation use, regeneration efforts and more. Local environmental groups claim that while the CNF will still allow commercial logging on its lands, it will minimize and restrict clear-cuts, build no more roads and avoid felling old-growth trees. IPNF isn't ready to make the same promises.
"Our [old] forest plan was written from the timber harvest perspective," acknowledges O'Brian with the IPNF. "But the plan being written this time around is being written from people from [all perspectives]. My interest is what's good for the forest."
Barry Rosenberg, executive director of the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, has fought to keep big timber out of the Inland Northwest's national forests for 20 years now. He says after he failed to convince the Forest Service on a number of key issues during the forest planning that took place in the '80s, he realized the futility of working with the Forest Service.
"The forest plan is a waste of time," he states. "All the issues we raised [about what would happen to the IPNF during the '80s] came true. The Forest Service has acknowledged this, but it's still doing the same things."
In fact, environmentalists say the Coeur d'Alene National Forest, one of the three forests that make up the IPNF, has become the most damaged in the nation.
"The whole watershed is unraveling because of over-logging," says Osborn. "The CdA forest in particular is the epicenter for the devastation. It has the highest road densities in the nation. The CdA forest has, on average, 11 road miles per square mile of forest. Biologists get concerned when there are more than two road miles per square mile of forest. Roads are the issue in forest planning. They drive the debate. Because of roads and clear-cutting, there is the watershed unraveling, increased fire risk, invasive species, conflicts over motorized vehicles and impact to wildlife."
IPNF's O'Brian disagrees: "We don't know if it's the most roaded forest in the country or not, and I don't think [environmentalists] do either," he says. "But we do recognize that we have too many roads in the CdA [forest]. And we've obliterated way more roads than we've constructed in the past 10 years." O'Brian claims the IPNF has gotten a bad rap for logging heavily in the past and that the Forest Service is working to clean up its messes.
"We don't manage like we did in the '80s. We don't cut timber to the extent we did and the way we did. Logging gets used as a negative term, but there's good logging, too. It improves the forest. Most companies log much differently now. There are just tons of trees. There [are] more trees in this forest than there were when Columbus came."
Attemann, with the Lands Council, begs to differ: "We're challenging the IPNF's inventory of their old-growth trees. What IPNF says they have on paper they don't have. They're misleading the public."
The Forest Service acknowledges its mistakes and the damage done to the environment. But the real test is in how each national forest's new plan is written.
"We get out and actively work with people in the local area," O'Brian says. "We do everything we can to fully disclose exactly what we're doing and the purpose for almost all our projects has to do with restoring natural conditions and making the forest healthier."
"Yes, the IPNF says the public should be part of the process," concedes Attemann. "Whether they're seeking out people's opinion is highly doubtful."
Those who have watched the behavior of the Forest Service in the Inland Northwest for very long are impressed with the CNF's approach, while they generally view the IPNF as merely jumping through the hoops necessary to justify more logging. Rosenberg claims that even though the IPNF discloses more information to the public about its timber sales, it's still deceiving people.
"Timber sales are being used to justify cleanups," Rosenberg says. "So they have to make money on a clear-cut in order to fix a stream in a different part of the forest. They say, 'You can have clean water through logging.'"
Passing the Buck
The Forest Service is able to fund restoration projects through timber sales partly because that's the only way it gets the money to conduct those projects. Congress writes the Forest Service's budget, and environmentalists say that politicians, influenced by big timber lobbyists, make sure that the Forest Service depends on timber sales for restoration projects.
"The timber companies give money to Senator Larry Craig and other politicians. And [former Senator James] McClure was promised a job on the board for Boise Cascade when he got done politicking," says Rosenberg. He's sure corruption within the Forest Service and Congress is leading to the destruction of America's public lands. In fact, forestry and forest product industries have given over $2 million during the current election cycle in PAC and individual donations, 82 percent of which has gone to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The industry also spent more $4 million on lobbying efforts in 2000. The forestry and forest products industry was the third-largest donor to Larry Craig's campaign coffers, handing over $100,000 in the six-year-long 2000 election cycle; Boise Cascade and Potlatch are among the four biggest contributors. And there's additional example of the industry's connections with the Bush administration: According to the Idaho Statesman, the former vice president of Boise Cascade was the Bush-Cheney Idaho finance chairman in 2000.
"It's pretty obvious. I mean, I think the American people are aware of how much sway corporations have," says Rosenberg. "The budget for the Forest Service is determined by how many trees are cut. So the Forest Service has to keep cutting [in order] to keep getting money."
The timber industry denies having a direct influence on the Forest Service's budget, despite the fact that Mark Rey, the Department of Agriculture's undersecretary for natural resources and the environment, is also a former timber industry lobbyist. Environmental groups accuse Rey of favoring big timber, noting that he opposes key acts that would protect national forests from large logging projects. Those who work for him, however, disagree.
"Mark Rey did a good job for the timber industry, and he's doing a good job now," says Bob Dick, of the American Forest Resource Council. "His predecessor, George Frampton, had worked for the Wilderness Society and then oversaw the Bureau of Land Management. Tell me how that's different?"
"The politics don't carry down," agrees Rick Brazell, supervisor for the Colville National Forest. "Nobody is telling me, 'You have to cut the forest.' I'm doing what has to be done for forest health. I don't care about politics -- it's not my issue."
As for whether he agrees it's a conflict of interest that Rey used to lobby for big timber, Brazell says, "I better not say anything; he's my boss." Dick, on the other hand, says it's hypocritical for environmentalists to point out the close connections between big timber and politicians.
"Is it any worse than budgets created by people that have been lobbied by environmentalists," he asks, citing several pieces of legislation passed by the Clinton administration that were influenced by environmental groups that lobbied Congress.
Whether big timber's every demand is actually carried out by politicians and the Forest Service is open to question. But Rosenberg is right about one thing: large campaign contributions, kickbacks and incentives between special interest groups and politicians aren't anything new to the American public. It's an old dance, and many citizens no longer pay attention.
"Forest activists have done everything except capture the hearts and minds of the American people," Rosenberg says, explaining that the only real way to protect national forests is to galvanize the public. "It's not on their radar screen because it doesn't affect them directly. Yet logging affects the water, and clean water does directly affect people."
One of the things both the Forest Service and forest activists agree on is that the future health of public lands depends on whether the American public, as we increasingly rely on federally preserved spaces for recreation, will take part in actively protecting it.
"The timber industry is active in what we do on the forest, but recreation access and use has replaced timber issues in terms of what gets talked about the most," says O'Brian.
Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, says Americans are starting to realize that environmental devastation isn't rooted in theories or predictions about what might happen if things don't change, but in the reality of what has already happened, what is happening now.
"Most people are being put at risk in their backyard, in their cities, in their states," Pope says. "Are people local? They are, and I don't blame them. Are they apathetic? No. You've got to have knowledge about your community; you've got to take responsibility. Environmental issues are ethical issues -- all public policy is."
Timber sales and fire prevention are just some of the issues being raised during the public participation period for both CNF and IPNF's forest planning. For more information, or to find out when the next forest planning meetings will take place, visit: www.fs.fed.us/r6/colville/index/html or www.fs.fed.us/ipnf
To learn more about The Lands Council's work to protect national forests from commercial logging, visit: www.tlc.org
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Publication date: 04/22/04