(A Call For A Cease Fire. . . .)
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.