Selling Out Our Forests
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
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 forests.
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
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 amount.
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