• U.S.

Environment: Tumult Over Timbering

3 minute read

According to a 1960 federal law, the 154 national forests in the U.S. must be used for multiple purposes—recreation, timbering, grazing, wildlife preservation, watershed protection. But the U.S. Forest Service, an agency of the Agriculture Department that manages national forests, has lately given top priority to private logging on public land. The service’s budget is hiked when it does more timber business. Furthermore, President Nixon has ordered a 60% increase in the logging of national forests in order to meet a goal of 26 million new housing units by 1978.

As a result, the Forest Service has increasingly endorsed “clear-cutting,” an efficient logging method that involves cutting down all timber, after which a denuded area is replanted with the most marketable species. Is this good or bad for the country’s 182 million acres of national forests?

Into Oblivion. Last week conservationists swarmed into Washington to protest the Forest Service’s actions before the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands. In Montana’s 1,575,000-acre Bitterroot National Forest, argued Guy M. Brandborg, a former Forest Service official, clear-cutting has caused widespread erosion, threatening watersheds, wildlife and recreation. Wyoming Senator Gale McGee said that instead of regenerating naturally after clearcutting, as the Forest Service claims, the forests often have to be replanted with seedlings, a difficult and hazardous task, especially on steep slopes. McGee also said that timber companies favor clear-cutting over selective cutting (the removal of only ripe or harmful trees) because they can use giant machines that flatten thousands of trees a day, a money-saving if destructive practice.

Lumbermen argued just as strongly that clear-cutting helps control disease and produces “even-age” forests that provide quality timber. They stressed economics: the yield for a clear-cut area is 100%, compared to about 60% for selective cutting. Howard Bennett, secretary-manager of Appalachian Hardwood Manufacturers, went even further. Today’s unmanaged forests, he said, are “graveyards of once fine trees that are now rotting hulks on the forest floor, sent into oblivion by the sincere but misguided efforts of those who confuse preservation with conservation.”

Needed Regulation. By contrast, many expert witnesses argued that clear-cutting is ecologically damaging. Hurlon Ray, director of the Northwest regional office of the Federal Water Quality Office, contended that such logging can cause a 7,000-fold increase in stream sedimentation and destroy fish-breeding grounds. It also reduces food sources for birds and small mammals. Beyond all that, clear-cutting is unsightly, at least to those who value national forests as something far different from the “tree farms” that loggers favor.

To neutral observers, the Washington hearings suggested that clear-cutting needs regulation. In the northern Rockies, for example, trees grow so slowly that clear-cutting is relatively unprofitable and a threat to that area’s national forests as well. Since the danger is much less in other areas, the problem is how to make distinctions.

To that end, some witnesses urged the Government to encourage tree farming in privately owned forests, which account for 73% of the nation’s wooded land. Others urged a far greater effort to recycle the millions of tons of paper products that become litter in the U.S. each year. Before anything else is done, conservationists would like a moratorium on all federal timber sales, until a full-scale investigation can be made of federal management policies. That may be asking too much, but one thing is clear: U.S. forests are now being cut faster than they are being replanted.

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