Getting Burned by the Timber Industry


The wave of forest fires across the drought-stricken West has produced a flurry of media attention, and the timber industry has been quick to take advantage of it. Faced with widespread public opposition to continued logging of our national forests, the timber industry has become increasingly crafty at repackaging the old destructive logging-as-usual under new benevolent-sounding titles.

Let's not forget that these are the same folks who only a few years ago were saying that old growth trees needed to be cut down because they were "decadent," "overmature" and "biological deserts."

Logging has increased fire severity more than any other human activity.

So now the timber industry is saying that it needs to log for forest health and to prevent forest fires. (It is interesting how the timber industry's answer to any issue is always more logging.)

Rather than getting caught up in all this hype, let's take a deep breath and consider the facts.

Logging increases fire.

As the Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project found, logging has increased fire severity more than any other human activity. This is common sense. After all, logging removes the large trees that are most fire resistant. (Have you ever tried to start a campfire with a two-foot diameter log?) Logging also opens up the forest canopy, letting in more sunlight and thus making the forest hotter, drier and more prone to fire. And logging creates a lot of flammable debris known as slash.

We must never forget that fire is a natural and necessary part of the forest ecosystem. Normally, fire will rejuvenate the forest, releasing nutrients and opening up seed cones, leading to a burst of growth and vitality for forests. But the combination of logging and fire suppression has left these forests more likely to burn hotter.

Because of this, conservation biologists have raised the possibility that prescribed burning may need to be supplemented with "mechanical treatments" in some areas to restore a healthy fire cycle. These mechanical treatments may involve cutting, but they are very different from what we all think of as logging. As the Forest Service's Fire Specialist Denny Truesdale said, "What is needed is to take care of the underbrush and dry twigs. The majority of the material that we need to take out is not commercial timber. It is up to three and four inches in diameter. We can't sell it."

So now the timber industry is trying to pull a bait-and-switch, calling these mechanical treatments logging, and then acting as though logging is good for fire risk reduction. But the timber industry doesn't want to prune brush. It wants to cut the big fire-resistant trees, because big trees mean big profits.

At the same time, the Forest Service and the Clinton-Gore administration, under pressure from timber interests, are developing a massive program to "treat" 40 million acres of national forest land.

Unfortunately, they are modeling this program after the destructive Fort Valley timber sale in Arizona. This project sets a dangerous precedent. While presented as means for restoration, this timber sale logged nearly 90 percent of the trees in the treatment area, including many large trees up to 21 inches in diameter. It also destroyed habitat for native wildlife.

In short, they took a forest and turned it into a parking lot.

Our forests need genuine restoration, not repackaged timber sales. How many times are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes of plundering our natural resources for profit rather than upholding our public trust values?

Ending commercial logging on national forests would not only stop the damage and fire danger created by logging, it would also free up the funding needed for ecological restoration.

Research by the John Muir Project has revealed that the federal timber sale program currently operates a net loss to taxpayers of over a billion dollars per year. We are actually paying for timber companies to destroy our national forests!

Fortunately, there is an important bill in Congress called the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act (H.R. 1396) which will end the destructive and wasteful federal timber sales program.

The legislation would redirect the billion-dollar federal timber subsidy into an independently science-based, non-commercial ecological restoration program for our public lands.

It also provides support for rural communities and schools, and funds research to reduce wood consumption, while saving taxpayers over $500 million in the first year alone.

Let's support genuine, non-commercial restoration, not the timber industry's bait-and-switch logging schemes. The logging controversy is not simply a question of how we will manage our forests, but how we will learn to manage ourselves in the fragile ecosystems of our shared planetary home.

One of the best things we can do to address the fire problem is to pass H.R. 1396.

Julia 'Butterfly' Hill, author of The Legacy of Luna, lived in a redwood tree for two years working for forest protection, and now continues these efforts as director of the Circle of Life Foundation.

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