Selling Out Our Forests

By Edward O. Wilson

Thursday, August 28, 2003; Page A27

The fires that have savaged forests of western North America this
summer are the ecologist's equivalent of a perfect storm. The
combination of record drought, high temperatures and abnormally thick
layering of fallen debris has turned millions of acres into
tinderboxes that await only a lightning strike or stray campfire
ember to ignite.

The best way to avoid catastrophic fires is by trimming undergrowth
and clearing debris, combined with natural burns of the kind that
have sustained healthy forests in past millennia. Those procedures,
guided by science and surgically precise forestry, can return forests
to near their equilibrium condition, in which only minimal further
intervention would be needed. The worst way to create healthy
forests, on the other hand, is to thin trees via increased logging,
as proposed by the Bush administration.

The health-by-logging approach arises primarily from an economic
motivation in forest management, and reveals the wide separation
between two opposing views concerning the best use of U.S. forests.
The administration, seeing the forests as a source of extractive
wealth, presses for more logging and road-building in wilderness
areas. Its strategists appear determined to mute or override the
provision of the 1976 National Forest Management Act requiring that
forest plans "provide for the diversity of plant and animal

Environmentalists and ecologists, defending the provision, continue
to argue that America's national forests are a priceless reservoir of
biological diversity, as well as a historical treasure. In this view,
the forests represent a public trust too valuable to be managed as
tree farms for the production of pulp, paper and lumber.

The economic argument for increased road-building and logging is
unfounded. It is contradicted by the U.S. Forest Service's own
measure of forests' contributions to the nation's economy. Of the $35
billion yielded in 1999 (the last year for which a comprehensive
accounting was published), 77.8 percent came from recreation, fish
and wildlife, only 13.7 percent from timber harvest, and the modest
remainder from mining and ranching. Roughly the same disproportion
existed in the percentages of the 822,000 jobs generated by national

And that is only part of the story.

The Forest Service's accounting does not include long-term profits
that accrue indirectly from natural habitats. These add-ons derive
from peripheral tourist facilities and other businesses attracted by
the amenities of pleasant environments. Such economic growth is all
but absent in the case of logging and other extractive industries,
for the obvious reason that Americans do not find mill towns and
logging roads appealing. In a nutshell, current federal policy is
promoting a proportionately minor income producer to the detriment of
the dominant income producer.

And there is more. If we have learned anything from scientific
studies of forests, it is that each such environment is a unique
combination of thousands of kinds of plants, animals and
microorganisms locked together in virtually endless webs of
competitive and cooperative relationships. It is this biological
diversity that creates a healthy ecosystem -- a self-assembled
powerhouse generating clean water, productive soil and fresh air, all
without human intervention and completely free of charge.

Each kind of forest or any other natural ecosystem is a masterpiece
of evolution, exquisitely well adapted to the environment it
inhabits. The fauna and flora of the world are, moreover, the cradle
of humanity, to which we, no less than the rest of life, are closely
adapted in our physical and psychological needs. Each species and its
descendant species live, very roughly, a million years before
suffering natural extinction. Worldwide, habitat destruction combined
with the other three of the four horsemen of environmental ruin --
invasive species, pollution and unsustainable logging -- have
increased the rate of extinction by as much as a thousandfold,
thereby shortening the average life spans of species by the same

At least 1 percent of America's native plant and animal species has
vanished, mostly during the past century, and a third are classified
as vulnerable or endangered. Most native species, including those
still relatively safe, have undergone large reductions in abundance,
geographic range and, most likely, genetic diversity. Much of this
loss is due to the replacement of biologically rich natural forests
with tree farms. From the standpoint of species diversity and
resilience, these cultivated woody crops rank as no more than
cornfields. While tree farms can easily be expanded on private lands,
national forests -- the reservoirs of much of our nation's biological
diversity -- cannot. The euphemism used by the Bush administration
and the timber industry to help justify this practice, the Healthy
Forests Initiative, does no justice to the broad needs of the United

America's national forests are the common property of its citizens.
They are a public trust of incalculable value. They should be freed
from commercial logging altogether and cut only very locally and in
extreme cases when it is deemed ecologically necessary to return
native species or reduce hazardous fires near homes and communities.
The time has come to free national forests from political
partisanship and use their treasures to benefit all Americans, now
and for generations to come.

The writer is university research professor emeritus at Harvard.