A Call For A Cease Fire in the Ancient Forest Wars by Jeremy Hall
Most public forest activists I know write appeals, defend the forests on the ground, and give speeches as a labor of love and rage. Love for wild forests and the critters within them. Rage about the timber industry’s lack of regard for every-thing but logs (profit). And rage about the federal agencies that enable industries to render the beauty and complexity of the Earth into money and power.
Listen. On a typical summer day in the National Forests of Oregon’s Cascade mountains, I bushwhack through Ancient Forest dripping with life from every surface. It is always a spiritual experience. But this cathedral forest is marked with signs of imminent logging: paint, flagging, and survey markers. I drive through watershed after watershed of clearcuts, landslides, and fragments of native forest to arrive at a magnificent stand of a stratified ancient forest. My reverence for the majesty of the fire-scarred and woodpecker pecked Douglas fir, stout and fissured, with no branches for the first 100 feet, is tempered by a deep burning anger. I know if I do an inadequate job of defending our public lands, the trees I love are destined for stud walls, pallets and toilet paper.
In July, I go with George Sexton, a good buddy of mine, to check out the Wyatt timber sale in the Umpqua National Forest. Each grove that the U.S. Forest Service identifies as a likely grove to clearcut is different—one stand is almost entirely old-growth Douglas fir trees, their thick, fire protecting bark still black from a blaze that raged a half century ago. Clusters of rare candystick, a chlorophyll-less white and red spike of flowers, parasite the roots of singed Doug Firs. In another stand, sugar pines and mountain hemlock shade a thick under-story of beargrass, rhododendrons and chinquapins, the air heavy with buzzing bees high on pollen and nectar.
We drop through one of the groves slated for clearcutting into Wyatt Creek. Moss six inches thick covers basalt boulders. Carpets of coltsfoot and oxalis and the deep green of the maidenhair ferns nod in the updrafts on their fragile dark stems. As we come to a string of massive rock formations topped with umbrellas of vine maple, the whisper of the creek becomes a roar. Both of us cry out in joy when we see why: before our astonished eyes appear four consecutive waterfalls splashing into deep pools carved into the sheer basalt. The wildness of the place is astounding; it feels like we’re the first ever to behold it.
After reveling along the stream and trying to call out the nymphs, I lower myself, camera in hand, down a narrow ledge that offers the best view of the falls. My mind shifts from being present in this place of wonder to trying to get the right depth of field and composition so the picture will be helpful to lobby for the protection of the upstream forests. Though I feel as though I am deep in the interior forest, I know that the drone of chainsaws is just out of earshot; they are relentlessly pressing forward, entering and leveling the last pristine forests.
The Vocabulary of War Zealots who stake out political capital take on the vocabulary of war. For those on the extremes of controversial conflicts, it’s standard fare to spend time in strategy sessions, tactical development, and scouting out weaknesses of the other side. Here in the Northwest, the fate and function of forests on public lands is a long-running and divisive conflict.
Direct action manuals for those on the front lines of forest defense quote from Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Timber proponents manipulate the balance of mainstream media to function as subtle propaganda. While the language similar-ities between armed conflict and the struggle to control public forest policy are striking, the similarities between end results of each are even more so. Just compare images of bombed landscapes to fresh clearcuts. Rural towns economically depressed with diminishing takes from Ancient Forest resemble evacuated villages. Many passion-driven, inspired people play the complicated game of capturing public support, directing policy, and controlling land. Many forest preservationists and timber advocates alike think in terms of victories, casualties and assembling new campaigns.
But what’s really in conflict are opposing cosmologies. As a preservationist, I believe that the ongoing creation between complex webs of life is sacred. Opposing this are the loggers, sawyers, and old-growth dependant contractors who believe that the honor of producing high-quality progress is sacred. I believe nature’s flux and flow defies our under-standing and can’t be replicated with any act industrial. An Ancient Forest logger believes National Forests have greatest public value when intensively managed.
Are these differences irreconcilable? Sadly, they seem to be. So the war-games continue. Taking the biggest losses are the last 4% of the native forests in the United States, and the traditional rural lifestyles of Pacific Northwesterners. I might gain political leverage in a public forum if I say Fredrick Jackson Turner was right more than a hundred years ago when he said “the West is over.” But that’s just rhetoric to a fourth generation logger without work in Lowell, La Grande, or Longview.
A Solution We Can Live With The crucial question is, how do we fashion a win-win situation out of this mess? If you talk to people who believe that the role of humans is to prepare Earth for an evolving methane breathing species, or to those who believe that Earth First! controls Congress, the answer is, there can be no win-win. But there is a path that people can choose leading toward the greatest common good. In a word, it is “sacrifice.”
Sacrifice for the common good comes in different packages. It may be painful to limit the size of single-family homes; encourage urban density and proximity; retrain contractors to use vernacular materials such as stone in the Northeast, adobe in the Southwest, and straw-bales in the Midwest. Suburbanites might be frustrated when they can’t afford to rebuild their decks with clear cedar or redwood. To accept challenging, non-traditional restoration projects and to develop recreation-based economies rather than lucrative logging contracts may be difficult for some rural Northwesterners to swallow.
But consider the consequences of not accomplishing this transition now. If we continue to allow industrial logging on our public lands at the rate we are logging now, we will soon not have any more loggable Ancient Forest anyway. As a nation, we’ll suffer not only an economic transition by necessity rather than by choice, but we will have fewer recreation opportunities, more degraded drinking water, fewer species, and smaller popula-tions of wildlife. In short, we’ll suffer a collective blow to our quality of life.
We are running out of time to avoid a horrible legacy left by the Forest Service (USFS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Congress. To put it simply, forestry is agriculture, not mining. The shortsighted public servants managing our public lands continue to plan clear-cutting of pristine forests rather than thinning plantations, thus continually degrading irreplaceable resources.
Most of the trees in the National Forests on the westside of the Cascades are high elevation forests growing on thin soils and steep slopes. Replanting cut over areas is difficult, if not impossible, because of the extreme conditions on the ground. Unstable soils are poor in organic matter. Deep snow drifts suffocate young trees in the winter and extremely dry and hot weather in the summer fries young trees. Over thirty years of clear-cutting and poorly engineered road building has rendered hundreds of thousands of acres of our public lands into a patchwork of geometric wastelands linked by mudslides and road failures. It blows you away when you look at it from the air.
There is no question that poor planning, collusion, and a conspiracy of optimism have resulted in a terrible example of Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons right here in the Northwest. A small segment of the human community has compromised the values of land shared by the entire community. Nearly everyone will admit that. After a series of court injunctions implicated the USFS and the BLM for the rapid decline of the Northern Spotted Owl, and after the owl was on the cover of Time magazine in 1991, federal agencies became accustomed to admitting their polices were wrong. We’ve had a decade of such admissions.
But while the feds admit that “Yes, mistakes were made,” they keep on making the mistakes again. In the case of public forestland, the first-term Clinton administration saw an opportunity for a public relations bonanza. After months of high-profile rhetoric, a carefully selected panel paraded out the Northwest Forest Plan (NFP). All planning for projects on federal forestland west of the Cascades, from Canadian border to San Francisco, has been tiered to the NFP since 1994.
The Plan was billed as a balance between ecological, legal and sociological factors. It promised to sustain Ancient Forest, protect salmon and spotted owls, and somehow produce a reliable supply of high-quality timber to sawmills dependant on public forest. If there is a clearer example of setting mutually exclusive goals, I’m unaware of it.
It is no surprise that five years later, both preservationists and loggers give the NFP an “F.” From my perspective, there are three reasons why we need a new one.
#1: Ancient Forest is disappearing. “[The Northwest Forest Plan] does not escape the historic dependence on late succession forest and old-growth as the source of harvest volume. The Northwest Forest Plan saves the Ancient Forest ecosystem the way a tight tourniquet saves someone with a head wound.”— 1993 statement from Dr. K. Norman Johnson, an author of the NFP
The NFP called for logging 30% of the remaining Ancient Forest. It’s going fast. In a mere five years, over 16% of Ancient Forest standing on public forest land before implementation of the NFP has been logged.
There are four characteristics of Ancient Forest. Big, old trees is the most obvious, but standing dead trees, large woody debris, and a multi-layered canopy structure are also integral components of a forest architecture which takes as long as a millennium of evolution to develop. Many of the endangered, threatened, or sensitive species of forest flora and fauna are dependent on interior Ancient Forest. Ancient Forests are the most important terrestrial ecosystem for the global water cycle. Human societies everywhere ought to refrain from destroying these vast, fragile and ancient systems.
The NFP was heralded as ecosystem-based management because it established “reserves” that allowed logging under very special circumstances. The reserve class meant to protect Northern Spotted Owl habitat is called a late-successional reserve. Unfortunately, loopholes in the Plan allowed 7,872 acres of late-successional reserves to be logged in 1997 alone. To make matters worse, fully 1.6 million acres of Ancient Forest in the Pacific Northwest falls outside of the late successional reserve classification. While the USFS and the BLM on occasion offer timber sales that log dense plantations, I rarely see a timber sale that does not offer several groves of Ancient Forest to sweeten the pot.
There is less than 5% of native forests left in the lower 48. The argument that we can continue to lose native forest is ludicrous. It makes as much sense as a brother splitting a dollar with his sister by taking 95¢ and then telling her that “It is only reasonable” to take a couple more pennies for himself.
#2: Public lands aren’t managed for the Public’s Best Interest Why don’t our policy priorities match our values? We know that that an Ancient Forest is worth more standing than logged, and we’re not just talking aesthetic, spiritual, or habitat values.
The Forest Service has calculated the yearly economic contributions of the National Forests. Only 2.7% of the value of the forests comes from timber, minerals, and grazing rights. A whopping 83.1% comes from clean water and air. These are Forest Service figures! In contrast, the Forest Service spends 39% of its annual budget on subsidizing resource extraction (a fancy term for logging and mining), while spending only 3% on protection of soil, air and water quality.1
Taxpayers subsidize logging companies holding timber sale contracts to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars each year. It was $791 million in 1997 alone2 . Some of this subsidy is used to engineer hundreds of miles of logging roads. Yet for fiscal year 1999, less than ten miles of road in the entire 191 million acre National Forest system will be rebuilt or constructed for purposes other than to access timber, even though the Forest Service admits that there is an $8,4000,000,000 (that’s $8.4 billion) backlog in road maintenance3 . Safe access to our public lands is compromised, and to make matters worse, hikers now have to pay for trail access.
It is the Northwest’s high quality of life, not its logging practices, that has fueled recent economic growth and stability from high-tech, manufacturing and design industries. Companies that are starting up, growing and relocating alike place high priority on outdoor recreational opportunities and clean drinking water as two premier aspects of the Northwest’s livability. The timber sale programs compromise both of these values.
While hiking, rafting, climbing, skiing, snowshoeing, fishing, and hunting are part of the Northwestern identity, clean drinking water is a regional treasure rare to the rest of the world. Nearly two million Oregonians get their drinking water from the headwaters of streams originating on USFS or BLM land. Forests collect and filter snowmelt, rain, and fog drip, producing exceptionally clean water. Many Northwest cities are able to produce pure drinking water at very low costs with little use of energy or chemicals.
However, these systems are effective only if the water has very low amounts of suspended solids, often referred to as “turbidity.” The July 1998 General Accounting Office (GAO) study entitled Oregon Watersheds determined that logged areas contributed nearly twice as much sediment to the water filtration systems as undeveloped areas during the 1996 floods. This rush of turbid water into water treatment systems forced the city of Salem to request exemptions from EPA turbidity standards for four months after the floods. The GAO report also states that the biggest offenders increasing turbidity in public forest streams are clear-cutting, tractor logging, broadcast burning, and road building. These logging techniques are still employed through the Northwest Forest Plan by the USFS and BLM in muncipal watersheds.
The Northwest Forest Plan also fails to protect streamside buffers. Although all streamside forests are placed in “riparian reserves,” many loopholes exist that allow for logging within the reserves. In 1997 alone, 5,523 acres of streamside forests with riparian “reserve” protection were logged.
#3: We can’t trust the feds to do the right thing. Despite all of the rhetoric coming from the new Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, most Regional and District planners are still trying “to get out the cut.” The record of the actions of many Forest Service officials indicates that the agency views much federal environmental law, public input, and protocol simply as impediments to sidestep.
A recent, glaring example of federal agencies breaking the law was showcased when the 9th Circuit Court temporarily halted nine timber sales on grounds that the agencies are not in compliance with the Northwest Forest Plan. Judge William Dwyer agreed with 13 plaintiff environ-mental groups that the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management failed to carry out the Plan’s “survey and manage” requirements. These requirements for monitoring plant and animal population and protecting their critical habitat were fundamental to the Northwest Forest Plan.
Surveys were bypassed entirely in many timber sales areas. Dwyer said the Forest Plan’s survey requirements are “clear, plain and unmistakable. (F)ar from being minor or technical violations, widespread exemptions from the survey requirements would undermine the management strategy on which the (Plan) depends.” It is clear that even the most rudimentary protections that the Northwest Forest Plan affords to drinking water and wildlife have been ignored to allow the agency to continue its addiction to timber sale receipts. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have demonstrated over and over again that they are incapable of administering a timber sale program in accordance with the law, keeping the public interest in mind.
To add insult to injury, many timber corporations who purchased second growth timber sales are now logging Ancient Forests instead. Over 170 million board feet (approximately 34,000 logging trucks full) of second growth timber sales on the Oregon coast were ruled illegal because of violations of federal environmental laws. Under a federal “replacement volume” program, these logging companies were awarded Ancient Forest logging contracts in the Cascades for no additional charge. These proposed trades, according to forestry consultant Roy Keene, “go beyond just an environmental issue. It’s about dealing fairly,… openly and equitably with precious public resources.”
Besides being a taxpayer rip-off, the replacement volume program is an endangered species shell game. The reason the timber sales on the Oregon coast were found to be illegal was because they would have destroyed habitat of the marbled murrlett, an endangered bird of prey. So the public land managers, in their infinite wisdom, swapped them for sales in habitat critical for the survival of the Northern Spotted Owl.
These replacement volume sales go above and beyond the planned sale quantity for each USFS district. The regular sale quantity is considered the maximum cut possible without unravelling Ancient Forest ecosystems. But of course, such subtleties do not matter to the USFS planners.
Many District Rangers and Regional Foresters spent their formative years in the agency during heyday logging years. Generally speaking, they truly believe that chainsaws and logging trucks belong in pristine forests. Despite polls that indicate that 79% of the American public oppose logging on our National Forests,4 powerful civil servants resist change. This resistance to change holds the future of rural Northwest towns and America’s quality of life in the balance.
The Solution Though the problems seem insurmountable, the solution is clear. First, permanently protect all publicly owned pristine forests. I don’t want to live to see the day that I can say “I was in the last generation to view wild salmon, hear the hoots of spotted owls, and be in a place so wild that I could believe I was the first human ever to see it.” Second, shift the hundreds of millions of dollars currently allocated to timber sale infra-structure into a restoration infrastructure. There would be no loss of rural jobs, as the same equipment used to log and road our forest can be used to restore it.
This is a golden opportunity to beat swords into plowshares, and we must not miss the opportunity. As a people, it’s in our collective self-interest to transform our vocabulary of war into productive dialogue leading to policies that support our quality of life. If we continue to think of pristine forests on public lands in terms of who is winning the conflict, we will all lose in the end. Not only will we lose jobs and the infrastructure for producing clean water, clean air, and recreational opportunities, but also our children’s chances to experience the connectedness of the land.
As my friend Michael Donnelly says, “If you don’t think everything is connected, try to hold your breath for a while.” Let’s not allow the lungs of the planet, our pristine forests, to be compromised or destroyed; if we do, then regardless of our ideologies, we’ll all be gasping for air.
1 Moskowitz, K. “Economic contributions and expenditures in the National Forests.” 1999. Prepared for American Lands Alliance. 2 John Muir Society, Sierra Club. Figures reviewed and deemed credible by the Congressional Budget Office. 3 Interview with USFS Washington D.C. staff, Chris Wood, ranking deputy. 4 Market Strategies Inc., 1998.
Jeremy Hall is one of many activists working to preserve and protect wild forests in the Pacific Northwest. After living around industrial logging his entire life, Jeremy began to devote his life to pristine forest advocacy in 1995. When not out eating salmon berries, documenting public land abuse, swimming under waterfalls or photographing proposed clearcuts, Jeremy works in the Oregon Natural Resources Council offices in Portland. He can be reached at (503) 283-6343 or by email.