GUEST VIEWPOINT: Obama threatens to shatter political peace in the forest
By Andy Stahl
Published: Wednesday, Mar 2, 2011 05:00AM, The Register-Guard
A generation ago, in the twilight of his career and his life, U.S. Sen. Hubert Humphrey shepherded into law a new manifesto for our national forests. With passage of the 1976 National Forest Management Act, former vice-president Humphrey predicted that “The days have ended when the forest may be viewed only as trees and trees viewed only as timber. The soil and the water, the grasses and the shrubs, the fish and the wildlife, and the beauty of the forest must become integral parts of the resource manager’s thinking and actions.” With Humphrey’s untimely death in 1978, he never got the chance to see his vision realized.
Humphrey’s 1976 law sought to make the U.S. Forest Service more responsive to public concerns about logging, especially clear-cutting. The law requires the Forest Service to explain and justify the ecological effects of its timbering practices. Long dominated by professional foresters trained to see forests as lumber, the new law led the Forest Service to retain wildlife, soil, fisheries and water experts to enlarge its perspective of trees and their values. In 1982, as required by NFMA, the Forest Service adopted forest planning rules that regulate logging to protect wildlife, water quality and soil productivity.
The years following were not smooth sailing. The Forest Service’s first attempts at justifying national forest logging levels and practices fell flat. The new forest plans proposed even more clear-cutting than before. National forest logging levels increased steadily from 10 billion board feet in 1976 to more than 12 billion by 1987. The Forest Service simply had not gotten Humphrey’s message.
But judges did. By the early 1990s, federal judges were being called upon to compel the Forest Service to obey the law, especially the wildlife protection provisions of NFMA and its 1982 forest planning rules. In the most famous such case, Seattle federal district court Judge William Dwyer noted “a remarkable series of violations of environmental laws” regarding Forest Service clear-cut logging of old-growth forests in Oregon and Washington in which the threatened northern spotted owl lived.
By 2000, logging levels had plummeted and, since then, they have stabilized at a sustainable 2 billion to 3 billion board feet. With most of the highly profitable old-growth forests long gone, the Forest Service now focuses its logging on reducing flammable brush and thinning small trees.
Apparently not content to let today’s political peace in the woods persist, the Obama administration has proposed to replace the 1982 forest planning rules. The new rules are long on flowery rhetoric, but short on forest protection substance. They replace simple principles such as protecting wildlife species with complex, difficult-to-define ecological pablum. The new rules appear designed to placate environmental interests with happy-talk, on the one hand, while, on the other, weakening the forest protection standards that Humphrey sought. If nothing else, the new proposal threatens to stir the hornet’s nest of national forest policy.
Why now? Why, 20 years after Judge Dwyer knocked some sense into the Forest Service’s head, does the Obama administration want to risk bringing controversy and acrimony back to our national forests? The proposed new rules do nothing to help thin overstocked stands or lessen wildfire risks. The Forest Service has been doing that job for more than a decade. Higher logging levels on our national forests might increase economic activity (if the demand for wood products also picks up), and a White House that puts job creation first might be tempted to let forest protection slide.
President Obama should leave well enough alone and let the 1982 forest protection rules stand. Sustainable jobs are not found by returning to the days of national forest overcutting.
Andy Stahl, a forester, is executive director of Eugene-based Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.