Environmentalists, the timber industry and the U.S. Forest Service are fighting over new rules the agency has proposed to guide how it conducts land management planning on 193 million acres of national forests.
The agency released its latest planning rule environmental impact statement Thursday. Environmental groups quickly jumped to say it weakened protections for fish and wildlife. The had their usually strong rhetoric: "The national forest planning rules are like the Constitution for our national forests, and the Bush administration tried to throw out the Bill of Rights," said Earthjustice attorney Trent Orr.
For those of us old enough to remember when Congress passed the National Forest Management Act of 1976 on which the rules are based the comparison appears a little hyperbolic. At the heart of this clash of values is the continuing debate over whether logging is bad for forests, wildlife and fish?
There is little doubt that the mass of logging carried out by the U.S. Forest Service from the 1950s through the 1980s had dramatic detrimental effects on fish and wildlife habitat. Few disagree with this. But the debate today largely rides on whether or how logging can help improve the forests after sometimes more than a century of mismanagement due in part to fire suppression and in the face of climate change.
Two of the foresters whose work in the 1980s aided the end of the old growth logging frontier in the Pacific Northwest told Congress its time for a new paradigm. Norm Johnson, professor in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University and Jerry F. Franklin professor of Ecosystem Sciences in the College of Forest Resources at University of Washington testified in December that we are on the verge of losing many of the forests on which the West’s fish and wildlife depend if we don’t take action to reduce the fuels and the densities of the forest stands that make them more threatened by drought and fire.
“This is not simply an issue of fuels and fire; because of the density of these forests, there is a high potential for drought stress and related insect outbreaks,” they wrote in their written testimony. “Surviving old-growth pine trees are now at high risk of death to both fire and western pine beetle, the latter resulting from drought stress and competition.”
The new research on climate change suggests that many forests that have burned or will burn in the near future may not return to the species mix that previously existed. Here in southern Idaho ponderosa pine could converted to juniper in some dry areas for instance.
Science will help us address these issues but there remains a place for resolving the debates over values and ideology. Johnson and Franklin argue that to preserve the old growth forest that is left, the forest that sustains the northern spotted owl and dozens of other species simply doing nothing is not the answer.
“It is critical for stakeholders to understand that active management is necessary in stands with existing old-growth trees in order to reduce the risk that those trees will be lost,” they wrote.”
Some of the old growth warriors of the 1980s have come around. Andy Kerr, who Portland Oregonian's Northwest Magazine called Kerr the timber industry's “most hated man in Oregon,” has called for shifting the Forest Service to a forest restoration role that would include more logging.
The question both sides of the rules debate might be asking each other is are these rules or more importantly is the 1976 law up to the task of building the framework for such a major shift in the agency’s mission? The rest of the world and private timber owners have resolved their debates with the environmental community through a certification program.
Is a similar approach appropriate on public lands? States like Minnesota think so.
The rules debate, however valid, is the remnant of the debates over forest policy that go back to the 1970s. Each side has strong history for its views and values.
But once again climate change is changing the battlefield.