Here we have a timber sale controversy without either the timber industry or the ‘radical environmentalists.’ It just struck me as a good example of how the Forest Service can keep its eyes on the prize more easily, and fend off local public criticism, by having a relatively objective and measurable benchmark of ecological integrity to meet for a national forest (as established by the 2012 Planning Rule).
Late last year, the couple learned that the Forest Service has proposed returning 18,000 acres in the forest’s Cassville unit to pre-settlement conditions, a time when the forest was much more open and trees were spaced much farther apart, thinned by occasional fires, compared with the denser stands of timber in the area today.
To that end, the federal agency responsible for the 1.5 million-acre Mark Twain National Forest is proposing thinning the number of trees in an area known as Butler Hollow, removing invasive cedars and restoring glades and savannahs. The plan includes riparian plantings, prescribed burns, some for-profit timber sales as well as a technique called cut and leave.
But this is not a controversy that pits conservationists and environmentalists against public land managers. In fact, the project has the backing of several national groups including the Nature Conservancy, the American Bird Conservancy and the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Those three groups issued a joint position statement endorsing the project, which said the plan “employs science and sound conservation practices to provide direct benefits to people and nature.” Benefits, according to the advocates, would be a healthier forest ecosystem as well as timber to help support the local economy, and improved recreational opportunities.
“We are concerned that some recent criticism of the project is based on an assumption that the area was dense forest. Data show that the area was originally a far more diverse complex of woodlands and glades,” the statement reads.
But JoNell Corn says to return the forest to pre-settlement conditions is “not a proven science.” Corn has lived in Butler Hollow for 38 years, following in the footsteps of her ancestors, who put down roots here in the 1850s.
“I have spent hours visiting other project areas and have had people express to me that they are not concerned with what it looked like before settlers came, they just wish it would look like it did before the USFS started cutting and burning,” she said.
Missouri’s U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt is another skeptic. During an Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies hearing this spring, he questioned U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell about plans for the Mark Twain National Forest.
“I don’t want to spend our time and effort here in doing things that won’t work,” said Blunt in the hearing, which was documented by video and can be seen online. “In theory with some of these burns, you’re trying to restore a landscape from a couple hundred years ago. Surely it’s worth a little time to see the science to whether that’s even possible or not and I’m just asking you to work harder with us.”