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The Ecological Costs of Logging

Who Will Speak for the Forests?

by GEORGE WUERTHNER

An associate who works for a major environmental group doesn’t want to talk to me anymore. He has concluded that I’m against logging because I won’t uncritically support the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Proposal (BCSP), a plan that, among other things, calls for logging a portion of the Lolo National Forest in Montana.

He’s right. I don’t support the BCSP because no one has convinced me the proposed logging aspects of the plan won’t be degrading forest ecosystems. How many acres will be logged? What is the rationalization for logging and is it accurate? Can some of the goals like fire hazard reduction be accomplished at less cost without logging? What are the real ecological costs of logging? So far most of my questions about the specifics of the proposal have gone unanswered. Without more information, no one, including the public can really determine whether this proposal is in the best interest of the public. I suspect if I had the answers to my questions, I might conclude that no logging makes sense.

I’ve grown more and more convinced that any biomass removal (i.e. logging) negatively impacts forest ecosystems. We tend to apply what may be inappropriate economic models to ecosystems. Logging is predicated upon the idea that we can remove the “interest” without degrading the principle of the forest ecosystem. But what if there is no “surplus”, no interest to remove. It seems to me that forest ecosystems reinvest its biological capital back into the forest and removing any significant amount of this biological capital can’t but help to impoverish the landscape.

So where does that leave us? We have to exploit lands to survive. That’s what all species do, but whether the exploitation is justified, how much, and for what purposes can be debated. If logging the forest to provide wrapping paper for McDonald’s hamburgers that are tossed aside a few minutes after they are wrapped a good use of these trees? Do we need to build 4000 square foot homes? Is this a good use of forest biomass? Of course these are value questions, but unless we articulate the real costs, we cannot even begin to engage in a conversation about values.

Given that most of the nation’s wood comes from private lands, and very little from public lands, and that these public lands are about the only places where we can protect biological values, it behooves us to make sure that any exploitation is justified, and minimizes impacts. The only responsible uses of our public lands are those activities which do not leave them impaired. Is asking that anyone using public lands—especially using public lands for a potential profit—to leave them unimpaired so unreasonable?

The problem for me as an ecologist is that I have yet to see a logging operation that doesn’t impoverish the land. I’ve visited the most lauded logging operations in the country—those certified as sustainable forestry—and even these degrade forest ecosystems. They are examples of more sensitive logging to be sure. But they are not benign. They still degrade the forest ecosystem, just not as fast or intensively as traditional timber cutting. But in the end better logging practices doesn’t matter if you ultimately impair the forest ecosystem. Just as spending more than you earn will leave you broke in the end whether you do so slowly or quickly.

Let me make an analogy. Let’s pretend a company wants to borrow and use some public property—say a school bus to transport people to a company conference. They are willing to pay a small fee for the use of the school bus. But when they return the key, one discovers that there were two flat tires, the gas tank was empty, the seats were ripped, the bus had a huge dent in the side where it had been hit, and the window shield was cracked. Would it be unreasonable to suggest that it was not in the public interest to let that company—especially a company that was using that public property for a profit-making venture—continue to use that public property?

And when it comes to logging we are spending our natural endowment for short-term profits, jobs, and wood products that are priced far below their real ecological costs. Logging is like skin exposure to the sun. Any dermatologist will tell you that the less exposure your skin has to the sun the better. If you must go out in the sun you should take precautions, like using sun screen and wearing a hat, but that doesn’t mean that sun exposure is “good” or benign.” It’s just a better way to cope with the sun when you can’t avoid it. And you might try to argue that getting a tan might make you more sexually attractive so perhaps that is a “benefit,” but any good doctor will tell you that is a steep price to pay given the long-term damage to your skin.

If you spend a lot of time in the sun without any sun protection, you may not get skin cancer, but your skin and eyes will still suffer. Similarly, some logging practices may not result in complete collapse of the forest ecosystem. But don’t let anyone fool you; there will still be impacts to the land.

Logging equipment compacts soils. Logging removes biomass critical to future soil productivity of the forest. Logging disturbs sensitive wildlife. Logging typically requires roads and skid trails which create chronic sources of sedimentation that degrades water quality and aquatic organism habitat. Logging roads and skid trails are also a major vector for the spread of weeds. Logging disrupts nutrient cycling and flows. Logging can alter species composition and age structure (i.e. loss of old growth). Logging can alter fire regimes. Logging can change water cycling and water balance in a drainage. The litany of negative impacts is much longer, but suffice it to say that anyone who suggests that logging is a benefit or benign is not doing a full accounting of costs.

Those who suggest that logging “benefits” the forest ecosystem are using very narrow definitions of “benefit.” Much as some might claim that smoking helps people to lose weight and is a “benefit” of smoking.

Most people are so inundated with propaganda from the timber industry, forestry schools, politicians, and just about everyone else, that it’s hard to sift through all the chaff to get at the kernel of truth.

That’s why it’s so important for environmentalists to always fully articulate all the costs at every opportunity. Is there any way to log a forest without damage? I honestly don’t know—because we don’t have enough information to determine the answer. What we do know is that if you are logging a large enough area and taking out enough trees to be commercially viable, you are very likely exceeding the real capacity of the forest ecosystem to absorb these losses and impacts without degrading the forest.

We certainly can’t expect the timber industry to account for these costs. And we can’t expect the Forest Service, which is no more than a handmaiden to the timber industry, to express these costs.

In my view, the role of environmental organizations is to continuously challenge the assumption that we “need” to log the forest. We must articulate all the costs to the degree that we are aware that they may exist. In addition, we should challenge the assumption that we “need” wood by advocating responsible behavior that will reduce demand for wood products such as recycling, use of alternative building materials, construction of smaller homes, and ultimately a reduction in population. We should always keep the precautionary principle in mind and approach every logging proposal with the knowledge that we may be damaging the forest ecosystem.

It’s possible that society will decide that some level of biological impoverishment and degradation of the forest ecosystem is an acceptable tradeoff for the wood we garner from the forest. But society cannot make such a determination if no one is explaining the full costs.

GEORGE WUERTHNER is editor of Wildfire.