National Forests and their Management

National Forests and their Management

Martin Melville

The debate over whether the National Forests should be working forests or preserves and wilderness continues to be particularly contentious. In some ways, it amounts to class warfare. Those who “have” are pitted against those who make their living here in rural America. There is an us-them, an urban-rural, an indoor oriented-outdoor oriented, a willingness to impose one’s will on others that is present in the dynamics of the resource management debates. National Forests could- -and should- -be models of caring for the environment.

What insight could a dang old logger have on something as complex as forest management? I see the forest through a lens that is likely different than yours. If you will listen, perhaps my view can help inform yours. It could broaden your understanding of sustainability, hackneyed tough that word is. Quakers speak of “way opening:” solutions appear for seemingly intractable problems or disputes. Quakers speak of “the third way,” which presents itself in the face of either-or arguments, a rising middle ground increasingly scarce in today’s polarized society. Such solutions are often both-and  Follow me. You may be surprised….

On a pleasant May day, the spiritual formation class abandoned the classroom to practice walking meditation. I knew the way. I led. Shoeless I went, my feet still tender from their winter housing of insulated footwear. Down the hill path littered with coal cinders biting at my soles and across the city sewer line where hopeful sycamore trees sprouted, we walked silently. The path narrowed. We walked single file, he contemplation of  meditation maintained. A spider web spanned the path in front of me. I raised my hand, signaling the obstruction to those following. I ducked under it. Like a snake going around a rock, the rest of the class followed. The web remained intact. Some distance further along, we arrived at the waterfall. We stopped and continued to worship. The beauty of the day. The gossamer falls. May’s nascent life. The warmth of sun on skin. We soaked it up. When I broke the silence, I said “This is my cathedral. It is where I worship. No church, no building made by the hands of men excels its glory.”

It is also where I work. I arrange the pews, wash the windows, sweep the aisles. I care for this cathedral as though it were my own. I know this place. It is where I spend my days. Few are so fortunate. My first degree is Forest Management, but most of my career has been spent where the “rubber meets the road:” imitating and implementing the motions of Nature. This is most commonly accomplished through cutting. Trees.  Yes, the world calls me a logger. Like termites and fungus (both of which are essential) my peers and I provide necessary ecological services.

“Imitating and implementing:” What does that look like? It means understanding Nature through learning and observation. It means asking questions and seeking answers: Why does hemlock like to grow there? Under conditions do its seedlings prosper? What other plants and animals are associated with this community that hemlock is part of? Is a species in trouble locally or regionally? What can I do to help them? How will my actions affect other plants & animals? Some need young forest. Others need old forest. It has been said that Nature abhors a vacuum. It’s sort of like a waterbed: push it down here, it bulges up there. The environment is interactive reality at its best. Change this, other variables shift as well. This is the science of forestry and of ecosystem management.

I may be unusual in articulating my work as a forester and logger as a religious practice. Perhaps most don’t recognize that they work in a cathedral at all or that they “come to the Garden alone.” There is a reverence among us for nature. They might call themselves stewards whether they own land or work on it. Today the US Forest Service arguably practices the most textbook silviculture[1] I’ve seen. As our understanding of the environment has grown, the assets and values they must manage for has exploded.  They have an inordinate number of “I’s” to dot and “t’s” to cross. If you go over any document with enough lawyers, some error can be picked out. The result is an agency that is tied up more securely than Gulliver.

I live in Pennsylvania. Penn’s Woods is the translation. Even with the sprawl of urban areas like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Scranton, the state is still about 2/3 forested. It’s the leading producer of hardwood lumber and logs in the country. We only have one National Forest, the Allegheny (ANF). It happens to be home to the finest black cherry in the world.  As National Forests go, it’s a small one, only a little over a half-million acres; there are 192 million acres in the entire National Forest system. The whole of Pennsylvania is about 26 million acres.

Many of us in the forestry business watched with bemused detachment as law suits brought by environmental organizations shut down one timber sale after another in the western US. It won’t happen here, we thought. Right or wrong, California, Oregon and Washington often serve as cultural bellwethers. The courts were attentive. It did happen here. Sales of timber on the ANF declined from 10 million board feet per year to less than a million. We don’t have an owl (spotted); we have a bat (Indiana). From where I sit, the goal of litigation appears to be obfuscation, not improved forest health.

In the early 2000s, I attended public meetings held by the Forest Service to gather input on how the forests should be managed. Overall, the process was amazing.  The process sought sustainability in three areas: Community, environment, economy. Too often we focus on our favorite at the expense of the others. All comments had same weight regardless of professional training. A forester, geologist or watershed scientist’s comments held the same value as someone who had been given a canned statement by their organization (whether environmental or industry). It seemed to me that there was a difference between values and management, which wasn’t accounted for.

Managing for a single value- -or denying that forest management can be good for the forest- -is pushing the waterbed. So it is that using public lands solely as a source of timber ignores the other tenants in the forest. Denying  that management can be good  for forests and their tenants by supporting bans on logging is just as short sighted. We need trees. They produce oxygen and habitat and food. We need the things trees can produce such as lumber and chemicals found in everything from toothpaste to fabric (rayon is made from cellulose, a primary building block of wood).We can produce those things here, and National forests need to be part of that picture, or we can get them from elsewhere. There are costs associated with getting them elsewhere. For instance:

Increased carbon emissions: part of the appeal of the “buy local” movement is that far less energy (read: carbon) must be expended to get products to market. When we refuse to use our own resources (which are renewable), they come from South America or Asia. We haven’t changed demand. Products will be found- -and transported. Let’s get those products we need from here, where we have greater control, not there where we have little or none.

Environmental regulation is stronger here than many other places in the world we get timber from. I visited Honduras twice. That country has laws about forest management, but for a variety of reasons those laws are sparsely enforced. We can get construction lumber from the boreal forests of Canada or Russia, but in many cases because growth is so slow in northern climates, the impacts of logging are greater there than here. North American temperate forests are among the most productive in the world. One way to save tropical rain forests is to grow (and use) our own wood products. If we’re worried about mud in the rivers and endangered species here, shouldn’t we worry about them there, too?

Social justice applies to the people who live in rural areas in this country as well as those who live in cities and in other countries. To cavalierly say “we’re going to take away your means of making a living because we don’t like (or understand) what you do,” or to say “we’re worried about the environment so you can’t make your living working with this renewable resource anymore” seems like the ultimate in social injustice. Dismantling rural economies incurs the unnecessary costs of welfare, retraining and migration.

“Well,” you might say, “aren’t there trees on private land? Can’t private land pick up the slack if we don’t cut timber on public land?” Yeah. So there are a couple of problems here. First, less than half of the timber sold by private landowners is marked by a professional forester. Second, even the sales marked by a forester earn a high rate of “unsustainable” as described by Matt Keefer, in his Penn State Masters thesis (Keefer, 1999). And third, in many western states, public ownership exceeds 70%. What private timber? Really, doesn’t it make sense to get the timber we need from the best managed lands…which happen to be public (either state or Federal)?

“You keep telling me that National Forest Lands are the best managed. Prove it,” you say. The Forest service has to abide by more laws than any other landowning entity in this country. Their process attempts to meet the needs (desires?) of as many stakeholders as possible, even when those needs appear to be diametrically opposed. Several of the laws require them to establish and follow a plan to achieve stated goals. They use sophisticated methods, including computer modeling to guide them in what action to take when.  They collect data about plants and animals and use that to help make appropriate decisions. The state forests here in Pennsylvania are Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to be sustainably managed. Federal lands would qualify for certification, but the Forest Service hasn’t pursued it. I’m not sure why.

“Well, maybe they are well managed,” you grudgingly admit. “But large public holdings are the last opportunities we have for wilderness. We must preserve them.” Put bluntly, preservation doesn’t work.

My father in law grows orchids. He tells the story of an environmental organization that purchased a farm field in New Jersey that was home to an endangered orchid. Before the purchase, the field was mowed at least annually. The purchasers, in their zeal to protect the orchid, ceased the mowing, which they thought was a form of messing with the ecosystem. The grass grew tall. Trees moved in. Succession succeeded. The orchid isn’t there any more.

There is no such thing as a stable ecosystem. Ecosystems are in a continuous cycle of growth, death, and rebirth[2]. In the public meetings mentioned above, the Forest Service stated as one of its goals “the restoration of the forest to a pre-Columbian state.” Humans have been active in the forests of North America for more than 10,000 years. Why not say “we want to restore them to a pre-human state?” Yes, we can tell what was growing here in those times. No, we can’t recreate it. The forest is different now. Remember the Joni Mitchell song “The Circle Game?:” “We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came….Walking away and letting them be “natural” is short sighted.

Yeah, OK,” you say. “But the Forest Service shouldn’t be making a profit off of my trees, and they shouldn’t be subsidizing industry, either.” See, that’s what’s tricky about public anything: they’re my trees, too. The whole below cost timber sale rhetoric has been spun so hard it’s dizzy. The Reader’s Digest explanation goes like this: USFS does three types of sales. First, fuelwood comes trees people cut for heat. Secondly, stewardship “sales” are usually about habitat creation or improvement. Sometimes those trees are removed from the forest and sometimes they’re left lay. The third type of sale is a timbersale, where most of the trees are suitable for some kind of wood product, whether it’s chips or sawn lumber. The first two typically cost more to administer than they bring in income. Sometimes timbersales bring in more than they cost, sometimes they bring in less. Try thinking of it like this: your garden is full of weeds. It will grow better if the weeds are pulled. Maybe the weeds are left for mulch & maybe they get taken away. Either way, you’re going to have to pay the gardener. The gardener makes a living from the combination of weeding and selling the pigweed and lambsquarters she pulls at the local market for greens. That makes the work she does cost you less and your garden is in better shape.

The world is not a perfect place. Our actions are tainted by our proclivity for looking out for our own interests and the difficulty of acknowledging what we perceive as competing ones. That is no excuse to quit trying. More often than not, it seems we miss “the point.” That’s true whether we’re talking about how to live the teachings of Christ, or care for creation. Forest management is far more complex than management of say, a crop field. Plants and animals all have their own set of optimum conditions. Usually it is not an either-or, but a both-and proposition.

“I don’t trust these government foresters. I think they’re in the back pocket of industry and they’re intentionally trying to grow a (black) cherry monoculture. And monocultures are bad,” you say. Yes, monoculture are bad. But you should live my life. Things often don’t turn out quite the way I plan. I go to work in the morning intending to produce a couple of loads of logs. The skidder gets a flat tire. The feller drops a tree on his chainsaw & smashes it. The clock is ticking. The frost is coming out of the ground and the job is going to turn to mud shortly. Then it starts to rain. You control the things you can and work around the things you can’t control. Managing forests isn’t a whole lot different. I keep coming back to the idea that federal lands are the best managed lands in the country. And they’re managed for multiple things. That really complicates things. Sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, a monoculture is what grows. Stand in the forester’s shoes a while. Could you do as well?

All this is to say: Actions (even if the action is doing nothing) have impacts far beyond themselves. Management can be counterintuitive. In Pennsylvania, it’s easy to think that we should cut the big (mature) trees and let the little (baby) trees grow. This assumes the bigger trees are older. They’re not. The little ones are the same age, but they’re runts. Back to the garden. If you had a row of carrots, would you pull the big ones and leave the little ones for “the next forest (seed, or row of carrots)?” Not if you know anything about genetics you wouldn’t. Consider the Smoky Bear promotion: we must be careful with fire (true). We must put out all fires, no matter the cost (bad idea).

Sometimes, though, doing nothing is worse than what we planned to do. A prime example is the misguided policy of fire suppression that has left western forests loaded with explosively flammable fuel. Historically those western forests burned every 3-10 years. Lightning caused most of the fires, though Native Americans weren’t above habitat alteration. The fires tended to be small. They rarely made it into the crowns of the scattered larger trees. Now, a hundred years of fire suppression have fuel everywhere. It is a pyre to burn the forest, waiting like a heretic to be burned at the stake with the drop of a match. It makes no sense to say we won’t let you do fuels reduction because you might harm an endangered species but it’s OK to char them in an inferno because that’s “natural.”  In addition, if climate change caused by humans is such a huge problem, why isn’t there support for utilizing fuelwood from western forests so that those pollutants from catastrophic fires don’t get into the atmosphere? After all, forest fires are responsible for more than 6% of CO2 emissions. In spite of legislation such as the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, passed in 2005, the lawsuits continue. One provision of that legislation was funding for fuels reduction work to help reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires. There’s a real disconnect here.

Disconnects are not inherently bad. I think ignoring them is. Managed forests are healthier and provide more ecological amenities. If environmental organizations are really about protecting the environment, they should get behind that concept. Scrutiny of public institutions has certainly uncovered its share of misbehavior and scandal. In that sense, it is a good thing, but (almost) everything can be taken too far. When the rhetoric of either industry or environmental organizations doesn’t match the science, it’s time to stop and reconsider the arguments. Sometimes the caretaker has something to say.

###        ###        ###

This paragraph was part of the original. I wasn’t sure where to put it, so here it is as an appendix:

Teddy Roosevelt made creation of a national reserve of timber a primary goal. Roosevelt recognized that, properly managed, forests could provide a continuous supply of timber. Even though the National Forests were established as reserves, they were to be working reserves. Roosevelt was also an avid hunter. Diverse habitats, from grasslands to mature forests, were home to those he loved to hunt. Early on, the focus of the USFS foresters was often heavily on timber production, sometimes at the expense of other ecological values such as wildlife, recreation or clean water. That was true into the mid-1960s. As our understanding of the web of life expanded, just managing for trees became only part of the picture.  Congress passed many laws such as the Multiple Use Sustained Yield act (MUSYA, 1960), the Endangered Species Act (ESA, 1972), and the National forest Management Act (NFMA, 1976). The goal of these laws is to provide a framework for decision making so that management on public lands reflects the broader values of society and scientific knowledge of how to care for the environment.

[1] Silviculture can be defined as the art and science of forest growth, maturation and regeneration. It is to forestry what agriculture is to farming. Silvi=tree, culture=to grow.

[2] See definition of silviculture. It’s remarkably similar.

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