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Trouble In The Forest

  • Linda Platts

    During the 1960s, a profound shift in public attitudes took place in the United States. Reverence for progress was replaced by reverence for nature.

    Congress passed a tidal wave of new legislation addressing environmental concerns and establishing new policies for the Forest Service and other public land management agencies. As this legislation changed how land, air, and water would be managed, a growing environmental movement determined to save nature from humans was making its presence felt.

    New legislation required the Forest Service to consult with the public about management plans. Organized environmental groups showed up in force at public meetings to air their views and seek changes in Forest Service plans that they believed favored timber production over concerns for forest health and biodiversity.


    By the mid-1980s, the public input process was having a huge impact on forest management. Environmental organizations, timber firms, and the Forest Service engaged in long-running battles over timber sales, logging roads, stream protection, wildlife habitat, water quality, and recreational use. Kate Klein, a district ranger in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in eastern Arizona, has seen her share of court cases: “Every time we lose a battle, we have to go back and do some more analysis, computer models and evaluations. It’s a downward spiral. We’re forced to do so much writing that we spend less time in the woods knowing what we’re making decisions about” (quoted in Trachtman 2003, 44). Time and money were spent in court rooms and on legal fees rather than on the land.


    The new laws and regulations were intended to provide greater protection for the forests. Instead, they often contributed to worsening forest health. The Blue Mountains are an example of what went wrong. Holly Fretwell, a policy analyst who has provided congressional testimony on public land issues, writes, “Early travelers named the Blue Mountains for the constant haze of wildfire smoke that surrounded them. Frequent, small fires cleared the understory [of the forest], allowing the stately fireresistant ponderosa pines to flourish. Wagon trains traveling west along the Oregon Trail rolled easily between the widely spaced trees of the forest landscape” (Fretwell 1999, 10). In a landscape that had once been defined by the constancy of fire, the Forest Service worked to eliminate fires.

    Without fire, shade-tolerant firs grew up in dense thickets under the big pines. During the 1940s, timber companies harvested the mature pines, which generate the most revenue, and left behind the crowded and weakened firs. This created the ideal habitat for the western spruce budworm, and the infestation spread rapidly. Immediate harvest and treatment could have saved valuable timber and might have prevented an epidemic. Instead, Fretwell explains that it took years for the Forest Service to respond. A maze of federal regulations and a lengthy public comment process slowed active management to a standstill.

    Today, the Wallowa-Whitman and Umatilla national forests in the Blue Mountains are covered with “gray ghosts,” six million acres of dead and dying trees. The lovely big pines are mostly gone, replaced with sickly firs unsuited to the dry climate and vulnerable to insects. In her book Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares, Nancy Langston, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin, explains how the dream of improving the forests with scientific management has led to the nightmare that exists today in the Blue Mountains. She writes: “In trying to make the land green and productive, they ended up making it sterile. . . . It was a tragedy in which decent people with the best intentions destroyed what they cared for most” (quoted in Nelson 1997, 32).

    The Endangered Species Act was supposed to protect the northern spotted owl in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest of northern California. To save the old growth habitat preferred by the owl, the usual harvesting and thinning were halted. Mortality from root disease and bark beetles increased. As trees weakened and fell, fewer standing trees were left for nesting, and the dense, closed forest canopy was opened. Furthermore, the forest became more vulnerable to catastrophic fire that had the potential to wipe out the entire old-growth habitat in the area. In testimony before Congress on forest ecosystem health, Thomas M. Bonnicksen, a professor of forest restoration and resource policy at Texas A&M University, stated:

    By simply drawing a line around those forests and assuming that they’re going to stay that way, we’re setting up a catastrophe for the long-term viability of the owl, because inevitably those forests are going to burn. . . . When we lose these forests or when they deteriorate, we also lose the habitat we need for many of the wildlife we value and we also further endanger species. (Bonnicksen 1997,49)

    Rather than protect the species, the act appears to have hastened the decline of critical habitat.

    The Clean Air Act also has had an impact on forest management. Any fire that is deliberately set by a federal land management agency-a prescribed burn-must meet air quality standards just as a factory or power plant must. Ironically the prescribed burns are intended to reduce the risk of much worse air pollution that would result from a huge and uncontrollable wildfire. It goes without saying that wildfires meet no clean air standards. Despite good intentions on the part of land managers, citizens still register complaints about smoke from prescribed burns. When that happens, prescribed fires are quickly extinguished.



    As we look closely at how the Forest Service, under the Department of Agriculture, manages the national forests, it is useful to draw a comparison with private forests.

    Private industrial forests suffer few of the problems seen in the national forests. Boise Cascade owns a forest in the Blue Mountains that is managed for its timber values. It is free from dense undergrowth, sickly trees, and bug infestations, and it looks remarkably similar to the open forests of more than one hundred years ago. Private forests adjacent to California’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest are free from beetles and root rot and even provide habitat for northern spotted owls. In the South, the International Paper Company welcomes the public onto its timberlands. The fees that it collects from hunters, hikers, anglers, and campers have added significantly to the company’s profits. With these incentives, the company is actively managing its forests for valuable timber as well as wildlife habitat and scenic landscapes.

    Can these private forests provide valuable lessons for public forests? Should all public forests be managed for the same goals? Or should each be managed for its highest-valued use, such as timber, wildlife, or recreation, but not all of these values? Fires, too, have a role to play in each forest, but it is different for each one. Managing forests spread over such a vast and varied landscape with the same objectives and goals may not be good forest management.

    Bonnicksen, Thomas M. 1997. Forest Ecosystem Health in the United States. Testimony before House Committee on Agriculture and Committee on Resources. House of Representatives, Washington, DC, April 9.
    Fretwell, Holly. 1999. Forests: Do We Get What We Pay For?” Public Lands Report II. Bozeman, MT: PERC, July.
    Nelson, Robert H. 2000. A Burning Issue. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.
    Trachtman, Paul. 2003. Fire Fight. Smithsonian, August, 44.

    This article is excerpted from Forest Fires, by Linda E. Platts, part of the “Critical Thinking about Environmental Issues” series developed by PERC and published by Greenhaven Press, an imprint of Thomson Learning.

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